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Social media has changed our lives forever!  

Patricia Mukhim

In this era being a journalist is no big deal. This space has been flattened by social media. Every person with a Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp account is a journalist today. Never mind if the content is fake, raw, unmediated, and liable to incite communal and religious tension or to defame a person or institution. By the time the content is taken off the internet after a complaint is filed by the defamed or intimidated victim to the local police and the Facebook/Twitter/WhatsApp administration, the damage to his/her reputation is complete. Recently after the famed journalist from Karnataka, Gauri Lankesh was shot dead a Facebook post originating from Shillong in the name Vikram Aditya Jung Bahadur Rana who claims to be working in a Government establishment here, went on a rampage. He not only lauded the killers but made a list of other journalists who he felt should be killed in a similar manner. His page has now disappeared from Facebook but screenshots of those posts can still be viewed on pages of other Facebookers. This guy obviously has his loyalties to the ruling establishment in Delhi and is one among the army of trolls employed by the BJP to tame those who are critical of the Party and the Modi Government.

These are dangerous times for India because we are a country where flare-ups along religious lines are common fare. They have happened in the past and they are likely to recur in the near future if crackpots and maniacs begin to dominate the social media. In Meghalaya there is at this moment a subdued tension between the Seng Khasi adherents and Christians after the Mylliem incident when the dead body of a Seng Khasi elder was not allowed to be cremated for reasons best known to the village dorbar and the residents there. This incident led to protests in the media and an article by Mankular Gashnga, “No place to live and no place to die,” virtually unveiled the sense of insecurity that followers of the Seng Khasi faith perceive. Of course the rejoinders from a few Christian leaders flew thick and fast and it was made to appear  as though the matter was blown out of proportion. As usual, instead of a dialogue which is the essence of Khasi conflict resolution, the matter is sought to be laid to rest but I doubt if the scars have healed.

And then some crazy Christian extremists invaded social media and spewed venom on the Seng Khasi religion. The posts were obnoxious and unreadable. They were sacrilegious and foul-mouthed in the extreme and one begins to wonder how such poison can spew out of the minds of young, obviously half-educated men (from the names given, albeit fake, all of them were men). One must appreciate the Seng Khasi elders for not reacting to such gross violation of their right to their beliefs. But who knows if there isn’t someone out there who harbours a grudge and let’s out his grievance on some unsuspecting victim! This world we are living in today hangs by a very fine thread and if we are not careful social media will tear us apart.        

This era has been called the post-truth era where fake news is circulated, consumed and ingested and opinions are not only instantly formed but reactions too are posted without much thought. We just saw the US election which threw up a Donald Trump. Much of that campaign was based on lies peddled as truth until it was later found out to be pack of lies. This is what sociologists call the post-truth politics. In this post truth era debates are framed not by facts, reason or logic but by a crude appeal to emotions and people tend to discount facts. In other cases they cherry pick data and believe what they want to believe. Recently we saw the White supremacist neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, USA which turned violent. The march obviously had the tacit support of President Trump. The problem with post-truth is also that those who stand to gain by peddling fake news have an army of social media warriors while those who wish to counter fake news have very few takers. So when Donald Trump points at CNN and calls it fake news, I feel they should tell him they are not fake; it’s he who is fake in every sense of the term.     

This battle of fact versus fiction in the post truth era is spilling into the social media platforms. It conveys information and opinions in what is called a “bubble” phenomenon. Since most social media users don’t have the intellectual bandwidth to check facts before they react, what they read or see reinforces their convictions, even if based on false information. So what happens in this atmosphere of dissonance where noise is valued over reason? Meghalaya is heading for the elections soon. Already one sees several platforms of different political parties peddling their respective ideologies. This is fine so long as they don’t indulge in bitching over social media. But the problem is that things quickly degenerate into cat-fights and you have profanities flowing like wine.  

Recently a Guwahati based correspondent of a national daily asked me how active the politicians in Meghalaya are on social media and whether they have Twitter handles. My response is that thankfully politicians in Meghalaya don’t peddle fan pages and ask people to ‘like’ them. Even those that do have Facebook pages are not managing them themselves but are outsourcing them to some tech-savvy firm or individual who does it for a price. I use the word, “thankfully” because I have noticed that those politicians in Meghalaya who do have a Facebook page don’t use them to push their politics. Their page is a family platform of sorts. In my interaction with some of them I have found that they shy away from taking on people on social media. Perhaps they are busy with real work or they are not adept at punching words on their smart phones.   

The only politician who is quite active on social media and is publicising all the foundation stone laying ceremonies or sporting events across Garo Hills is Zenith Sangma, the Minister for Sports and Youth Affairs. He has a following of over a thousand people at any given time. But one wonders if those thousand Facebook likes actually constitute his voters. Quite likely they don’t! You need more than social media warriors to win elections. But the sore point is that the social media wars will be fought between supporters of politicians and political parties rather than the main actors themselves. And as we approach the election season these fights are going to get very ugly. 

So where do people turn to for news as it is meant to be delivered? And how do people form opinions about their candidates and the political parties they belong to?  Hopefully mainstream media (newspapers, television news channels) will do an impartial analysis of as many contenders and their parties as is possible. Television discussions moderated by anchors that can draw out each of the candidates will be a good beginning. The problem is that many candidates will avoid such platforms either because they are not articulate enough or because they are afraid of being pilloried by an incisive anchor. But whether we like it or not, it is the good old mainstream media on which lies the onus of defending the truth and giving out factually correct information and balanced opinions. There is no substitute to a free and fair media in a democracy. The threat to democracy today is from social media and its fake news content. If you ask me, social media cannot deepen democracy. On the contrary it has the propensity to polarise and radicalise positions and lead to fragmentation of societies that have hitherto lived fairly peacefully. 

 

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