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Are Online platforms strengthening Democracy in India?

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Tripti Mathur Mehra is a civil servant and serves as FA&CAO in Indian Railways.

Facebook (FB) is facing the backlash from users and authorities all over the world for compromising user data and making profit without their knowledge thus breaking the trust of its billions of users. The charge is that data is harvested and used by the political powers to influence the people to vote for them during the elections. Facebook and its employees on the other hand admits that breach happened due to incompetency but without any malicious intent. Media has overhyped the incidence stating it threatens democracy and privacy.

The result is a mixed reaction many users responded by deleting their accounts from FB, but they are outnumbered by those who cannot ignore its presence in their lives and continue with it. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that people who are worried about the snoopy governments and malicious third parties are moving to closed online platforms, but then, bad actors can abuse networks that are too open and conspire on closed systems also. The New York Times reported this week that public has proved over and over again that they are fine with the trade off to give away personal information in exchange for the free content and ability to interact seamlessly with others in today’s digital age.

People in India know very well that FB, Twitter and other online platforms allow political groups to polarize and influence people to vote for a particular ideology. More and more conflicts and disagreements happen on daily basis between different political or civic interest groups on these platforms. Padmaavat controversy and now Dalit unrest with different viewpoints are very recent and current.

The fact of the matter is a large section of the society do not use/abuse these platforms either willfully or because they cannot afford this medium due to lack of resources. Further, winning of elections by satisfying digital expressions of the citizens is not the only thing, as even the opinions and moods of netizens fluctuates on daily basis and can swing anytime. Today, many important sections of government and society rely upon social platforms.

The Members of Parliament use the social media platform to be in direct touch with their constituency. Minister of External Affairs has helped so many Indian citizens stranded abroad in different situations.  People facing troubles while traveling in trains can easily reach the Railway Minister and gets quick response and relief. One of the young and known politician of Rajasthan recently used social media smartly to win the Lok Sabha bye elections in Rajasthan. Above all through his twitter handle and online apps even the Prime Minister keeps updating the people of the country about the work done by the government.

Bureaucracy in India is also opening and interacting directly with the people handling the diversity and digitally mediated citizen opinions. Decentralization, which is the one of the major essence of Democracy is practically happening. Local Police and Nagar Nigam of various cities are quite responsive on social media. It requires re-imagination of our institutions in a way that would allow citizens to engage in active and public sphere of internet. The day is not far when each and every government official especially on sensitive jobs can be reached directly by the public without any gatekeepers demanding  transparent, accountable and corruption free governance in true sense.

We also trust our judges to provide a fair system of justice in time. One of the Supreme Court judge has come out publicly on issues of appointment of judges in the SC. Before that also four judges targeted the internal differences within the institution and all this got immediate reaction on the social media forums. It can be taken as a positive sign that people at higher posts are able to express themselves. Time will only reveal that such incidences do not break the institutions but makes them more robust and transparent.

Finally Democracy provides free press which we all expect to report the news in a principled and neutral way. Social Media has not only replaced the traditional media but it has also brought out its vulnerabilities in open like partisanship, incomplete or even wrong reporting. It has empowered people in a manner that a strong, well-researched story questioning or appreciating the establishment gets more readership than what is routinely published in established traditional media.

In a way, these online platforms are a double-edged sword both for politicians and the citizens. Clearly, distribution of news and ideas have become more democratized. With something good one has to accept some bad too. The fake news is a big menace but then information nowadays transmits organically by word of mouth, which circulates in a two way manner. May be this requires a deep critical understanding of the issue before acting upon it. On a lighter note, we need to ponder upon how the news travelled in medieval and ancient period and is the online platform taking us back to those times or is fake news really a big stumble for going ahead.

It won’t be wrong to say that social media plays the role of a democratic institution. In the last decade social media gave the opportunity to the citizens to grow socially, politically, economically and intellectually. The collective experience of democratic societies all over the world has been more positive than negative with social media. In fact, if one thinks of instances like the social revolution in Egypt, social platforms have helped democracy sustain through tumultuous times. It is true that sometimes strong pillars of the democracy that people trust, are sometimes violated by some individuals. Therefore, we are going to continue to have to ask hard questions to change how social platforms work that will do more good to the people.

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Tripti Mathur Mehra is a civil servant and serves as FA&CAO in Indian Railways.
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