Earlier this century, when social media entered our lives more prominently, hardly were we aware of its enormous ability to impact them. Multiple platforms available for expressing views have democratised the very process of opinion-making. Nothing, literally nothing, prevents you from airing your views on anything under the Sun. The monopoly of mainstream media has now completely ended. Initially, social media used to reflect what appeared in mainstream media, but now it is mostly the other way round. Also significant is the fact that right or wrong, people now have opinions and also the courage to express them. This is important for any democratic society.
However, the negative aspects of social media too are coming to the fore. Tristan Harris’s documentary The Social Dilemma is making waves. Understandably, since trolling became a favourite pastime, the original element of extempore expression of thoughts and ideas has taken a backseat. Needless one-upmanship and the lure of earning brownie points are replacing logical and coherent argumentation. Besides, too much social media has also contributed to deterioration in the quality of discourse in general. Also, with limitless freedom of expression, there also comes some responsibility. One has to be mindful of the damage any unverified information and irresponsibly used words could make.
In addition to this, social media has also become extremely addictive. Its implications on individual as well as family and social lives are too serious to be ignored. Too much screen time is also proving to be a health hazard. Nonetheless, social media is here to stay for a variety of reasons. Apart from true democratisation of opinion-making, it has also evolved as a kind of quick response system. In a world where speed has acquired centrality, it is not surprising that the element of time in the context of social media has become extremely important. Unlike mainstream media, it has also facilitated both personal and public engagement, that too simultaneously.
It is in this backdrop that as a society, we need to adopt a more mature approach towards social media. Self-regulation is always the best regulation and saner elements on social media certainly can create an atmosphere to promote certain things. Jonathan Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell, in an article in The Atlantic almost a year ago, wrote: “The philosophers Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke have proposed the useful phrase moral grandstanding to describe what happens when people use moral talk to enhance their prestige in a public forum.
(According to the philosophers) Grandstanders tend to ‘trump up moral charges, pile on in cases of public shaming, announce that anyone who disagrees with them is obviously wrong, or exaggerate emotional displays’. Nuance and truth are casualties in this competition to gain the approval of the audience.”Here, it may also be pointed out that public shaming of opponents on social media is considered safe as it gives a false self-satisfaction of doing one’s duty by taking a side, even when one is ignorant about his/her own ignorance!
There are three ways to transform this situation. Firstly, adopting some ground rules collectively in the form of a code of conduct and also promoting greater constructive activity on social media, in one way or the other. About the code of conduct, again I refer to The Atlantic article that proposes “reducing the frequency and intensity of public performance” as a solution. It would be better if this is done voluntarily. Reduction in social media time in a day, limiting subjects of sharing opinion to selected themes and self-rationing of posts or responses on the platforms would be some of the measures one can think of.
The second measure is about defining the nature and subsequently the role of social media platforms. In fact, as was discussed by Parliament’s Standing Committee on IT just two years ago, social media websites can’t escape from the responsibility as they are not any more just platforms where they have only a passive role. In fact, social media platforms, like any journal, are deciding what should get published and what shouldn’t. They can’t wash their hands off any irresponsible or provocative post. Once it is accepted that they are journals, they could be made answerable under the relevant legislations. They can also help reduce toxicity and irresponsible behaviour by making account verification more stringent and incentivised at the same time.
The third and perhaps the most effective way is by promoting a constructive social media. Like mainstream media, social media too is becoming more populist and exhibitionist, adding to its hazardous effects. On the other hand, there are countless examples of crowdsourcing of ideas and talents, and many have used it for constructive causes too. The latest example is that of Baba Ka Dhaba in Delhi, where an octogenarian couple received huge patronage after the story of their struggle went viral on social media. A group of Facebook enthusiasts in Nashik in fact crowdsourced funds to make over a dozen villages in hilly areas free from dependence on water tankers by laying water pipelines.
Social media must graduate now to make engagement through it more meaningful. The only way to do that is to work to ensure that social media adds some more real value to our lives. In other words, this is Social Media Plus. Unless this is done, social media may face the same fate as that of mainstream media. The latter has often failed in being objective, in engaging with people in a credible manner as also in educating them. One can rightly blame media houses for this. But if a far more democratic social media too fails, we all are to blame and hence a movement for Social Media Plus is a must!
President, ICCR, and BJP Rajya Sabha MP