In life, Balasaheb Thackeray’s every statement was news and, even, when he is no more, he is more in news for a personal statement posted by a young girl on her facebook wall that led to threatening, vandalism and such acts by his Shiv Sainiks which no civilised society or a government respecting rule of law would allow to happen. However, apart from the controversial statement and the events following its posting on facebook wall, what has been established by the whole episode is, one just can’t ignore the importance of social media and the role it plays in India. It can’t be called just fun, nor can be seen as instrumental in bringing change in social and political spheres of the country.
Impacts of social media in global political and developmental sphere, its role in the Arab spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement are very well known.
Offering an instant opportunity and freedom of expressing the views has made social media walls so powerful as an instrument for mobilising and influencing public opinion that many see it as the virtual change maker.
As to Prof Sarah Joseph of Monash University, Australia, “By making “on the ground” eyewitness accounts widely available, social media has expanded access to information in an important new way. Reporting is no longer confined to traditional sources like journalists; instead, social media grants access to unfiltered information related by any person affected by an event who chooses to share the story. For example, a key voice on Twitter during the Arab Spring has been @angryarabiya, 39, the daughter of Abdullhadi Al Khawaja, a human rights activist in Bahrain who was jailed for life in June 2011 for dissident crimes. Her tweets have been followed closely by those monitoring developments in the Arab uprisings.”
“The dialogue taking place via Facebook, Twitter and other SMNs was used by the mainstream media as a source during the height of the protests. Al-Jazeera in particular relied on reputed bloggers and Twitter users during the uprisings for real-time coverage of events, by using Sharek, a citizen’s media platform that received and filtered through submissions by citizen journalists,” Madeline Storck, a student of International Relations at University of St Andrews, Scotland, mentioned in her dissertation.
As per Saleem Kassim, a contributor to New York based website PolicyMic.com, “Through social networking sites, Arab Spring activists have not only gained the power to overthrow powerful dictatorship, but also helped Arab civilians become aware of the underground communities that exist and are made up of their brothers, and others willing to listen to their stories.”
We are not unaware of the role of social media networks in ensuring huge participation in the Occupy Wall Street movement in USA. Thanks to social media for disseminating facts from the ground at the quickest possible for the world to access. Apart from many of its adverse impacts, role of Social Media Networks in effecting political changes in many countries has made it more relevant for the youth, activists, lobbyists, opinion makers and knowledge seekers.
But in India, one of the huge social media user countries, social media has only become part of discussions by sparking off a few controversies and unwanted actions by the government and its various agencies.
It’s not that India doesn’t make use of social networks meaningfully and for good reasons. Most social media users of India use the networks meaningfully and for individual as well as social growth. Social media boom has been a boon for many professionals who see it as a career booster. Social media networks are playing a vital role in promoting and propagating important causes.
But, unfortunately, it has always come in news and discussions for some bad reasons.
While celebrity twits are more often picked as stuffs of sensation, facebook postings have sparked off controversies for wrong reasons. Be it West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s reaction over the cartoon by a University teacher or Objection of the Indian government to some of the postings on various social network or the recent controversy over the posting by Saheen Dhada questioning Mumbai shutdown after the death of Balasaheb Thackeray, in none of the controversial cases social media was seen as a medium of expression and a forum of free speech. Rather, irrelevant reaction by some people, irresponsible use, or one can say misuse, of social media networks with some ill intentions or personal agenda, and the urge of governments to suppress the voice of people by punishing people for giving a vent to their feeling, imposing restrictions and attempting to bring the networks under control are limiting the scope of social media as a tool for change.
With its population over a billion, social media can really act as a powerful agent by facilitating communication and free conversation between people and the government in India. The results could be highly productive only when the users make use of social media more responsibly and there is tolerance for permissible criticism at all levels, across the spheres.