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Social media and democracy

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Jai prakash Ojha
Jai prakash Ojha
The author works with IGNOU as Assistant Registrar. He frequently blogs/writes articles on social and political subjects. A post graduate in Personnel Management and Industrial Relations, he also holds a post graduate diploma in Journalism and Mass Communication. He may contacted on [email protected]. Read his articles on ojhajp.blogspot,com

Media is regarded as the fourth estate of democracy; a free and independent media is the sine qua non of a healthy vibrant democracy. But with the proliferation of social media in the forms of Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, Google plus, Instagram etc, a fifth estate of democracy is fast developing and believe me, it’s a lot more interactive, participative and democratic than the traditional media that we have known. Today, most of the top notch politicians are on social media, blogging and tweeting. During the recent Bihar Assembly Election campaign, Nitish mocked at PM Modi for running a Twitter Government. Most of the parties have a separate cyber cell today manned by technocrats to run their election campaigns on social media and obtain online feedback from the voters. Most of the government programmes/policies are on websites today to which anyone can have access. Now, let us come to the moot point of our discourse – how is social media impacting democracies? Is social media acting as a catalyst in the healthy growth of our democracy or has it introduced some undesirable elements into our democracy?

Conditions are ripe for the intersection of democracy and social media in our country. Post 1990, the increased pace of reforms has resulted in rapid urbanization and growth in middle class numbers. Today one out of every three Indians lives in town or city. By the end of 2030, it is expected that around 600 million Indians will be urban. The middle class has virtually exploded in numbers and from a mere 16 million in 1996, today it has reached 300 millions. Around 200 MPs are elected from urban areas. Talking about demography, according to 2011 census, more than 50 percent of the population is below the age of 25 years. As per the figures released by IAMAI & IMRB, by the end of December 2015, 402 million Indians had internet connections. The figures are likely to go further up due to smart phones that offer internet facilities. Introduction of ICT and internet and spread of optical fibre network has revolutionalized the field of information. Even the youths of the rural and fringe zones are not averse to taking up mobile internet telephony in a big way. For long, the middle classes were ignored by the political class because of their low numbers and limited role in electoral outcomes. The issues related to employment & education for youths was soft pedalled by leaders who were obsessed with caste & subsidy politics. All these are set for change. Social media has become a strong avenue for the middle class to present their opinions on several issues and engage with people from diverse fields. Social media has dispelled the notion of political passiveness of the middle class. Flash mobs have gained visibility as people can gather at one place just by a mere click of the mouse or the swipe of the screen. There is no requirement for traditional mobilization methods which takes time. It was the power of the social media in conjugation with the electronic media that catapulted Anna Hazare from a village patriarch to the modern day Gandhi. The Arab Spring or the Occupy Wall Street Movement gained momentum due to the networking developed between computer savvy youths sitting hundreds of miles apart from each other through the click of their mouse. The middle class protests in the Euro zone against the austerity measures of governments in Greece, Italy, and France etc also witnessed online mobilization. The 2014 Lok Sabha Elections was marked by innovative online campaigns and messages through social media. The AAP used social media to perfection to puncture the electoral hopes of their rivals in the 2015 Delhi Assembly elections. The party had the maximum number of online engagements with the targeted constituencies.

Earlier traditional media both print and electronic used to be dominated by the elites; it was very difficult for a common man or the marginalized classes to bring forth their views in public domain. The news channels were obsessed with TRP and gave more focus on news that catered to the privileged and ignored issues related to the plight of common man. The advent of social media has democratized the field of information. There are no entry barriers. The recent dalit protests over Venumula case or the Una incident were driven largely by the dalit activists who were active on social media. The social media activism compelled the mainstream media to take note of the atrocities against dalits and include them in their coverage. Social media has empowered the hitherto downtrodden communities and enabled them to gain visibility in public discourse. This alternate media has provided a platform to them to make their side of history known, to present their own versions on culture and religion and a lot more. Just imagine how Mahisasur and Holika became part of animated debates in the House and on the streets in our 21st century democracy.

In his book ‘Digital Nation’, Katz avers that internet/social media has strengthened democracy in the following ways –
a) It has lowered the entry barriers to political participation.
b) It strengthens the political dialogue.
c) It creates a community that is informed and enlightened.
d) It creates voter participation.
e) It permits closer communication with the officials.
f) It spreads ideas & democracy worldwide.
g) It can’t be controlled by the government.

Internet and social media have increased the accountability of the public functionaries and made them more sensitive in their dealings with the public. You never know when a video clip of a police man demanding money or a leader indulging in unethical behaviour may be made and uploaded. Such acts have often gone viral and caused embarrassment for the ruling party. This has instilled a sense of fear in public servants/leaders that are now getting exposed a lot more. E – Governance has made the administration more transparent, responsive and quick. To get any information from the govt offices or enquire about public policies, people don’t have to visit offices to ask for any favour but they can access information by a mere click of the mouse. The number of intermediate levels has reduced, the need for paper work has been minimised and there has been a reduction in red tape. All these have reduced corruption to some extent as the most of the government welfare schemes have gone online. Earlier, one had to wait for 5 years to get feedback from the people about any public policy impact but now, the moment government comes up with a policy & puts it in public domain, feedback starts pouring in through social media. It provides an opportunity to the government to go for course correction when the aforesaid policy is not well received. Governance had been a major casualty in our democratic scheme of things but the proliferation of internet & social media has the potential to fill this loop hole. People have become more informed, demanding and aware; the platforms are already there to express their grievances and views, to connect with likeminded people and unite for a cause.

Social media is not an unmixed blessing. Various terrorist organizations recruit gullible youths, propagate their views and coordinate their attacks through social media & internet. There is the lurking danger of social media becoming the forum for spread of propaganda with the demagogues increasing their followers. At a time when the world is in the throes of fundamentalism and extremism, vituperative hate speeches & language used on social media is a cause of concern. Social divides can’t be ruled out. Cyber crime has assumed menacing proportions. These are the problems that are faced by India and other democratic countries; freedom of expression is misused for nefarious designs.

The social media has exposed the social faultlines within the nation which so far had been swept under the carpet. Marginalized classes are speaking out, the middle classes are speaking out, the youths are speaking out and all of a sudden, Amartaya Sen’s Argumentative Indian has become a reality. E – Governance has no doubt made our system more responsive, transparent and quick. There is better targeting and delivery in programmes. We may move towards an era of conducting referendums to solve vexed issues related to public welfare or political issues; people may participative directly in democratic process through initiation legislations i.e. people express their intent and representatives take up requisite policy. People will participate more in policy formulation by giving online feedback easily. Online voting would not be too cumbersome to manage. Direct democracy will overlap with representative democracy. There will be citizen empowerment. The citizen will have a say in decision making and will have more social, economic and political choices. Social media has the power to shake our democracy from deep slumber and make it more alive to the changing tunes of time.

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Jai prakash Ojha
Jai prakash Ojha
The author works with IGNOU as Assistant Registrar. He frequently blogs/writes articles on social and political subjects. A post graduate in Personnel Management and Industrial Relations, he also holds a post graduate diploma in Journalism and Mass Communication. He may contacted on [email protected]. Read his articles on ojhajp.blogspot,com
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