Social Media and Censorship- When Private becomes Public

I interrupt the series on Millennial Marketing to share the debate and raise a few questions on the unfolding drama of Social Media censorship. For those interested, you can check out the post on Marketing to Millennials here.

Time magazine put a mirror cover and made YOU, the person of the year and in charge of the Information Age on Dec 25, 2006.

Ever since, governments, traditional media, ISP’s have been grappling with the challenges of regulating content. Till recently, governments controlled all access to media- post and telegraph establishments were privatised after the Cold War in most parts of the world. Internet access, fixed and wireless, is still controlled either directly or through holdings in corporates that serve up bandwidth.

That, however, doesn’t stop or change anything. The Arab Spring phenomenon happened across Tunisia, Qatar, Egypt and Libya ( now in Syria) in spite of the respective governments shutting down cell towers, stopping SMS/ MMS and internet access. A friend in the Gulf just recently shared the spoofing software that she uses in Saudi Arabia to update her Facebook page ( Saudi Arabia and a number of other countries in the Gulf, restrict access to social media).

The US faced by #Occupy Wall Street floated the SOPA and PIPA legislations. Luckily, wikipedia and others saw through the ruse of online piracy and protested, I quote, thus, “SOPA and PIPA would put the burden on website owners to police user-contributed material and call for the unnecessary blocking of entire sites. Small sites won’t have sufficient resources to defend themselves. Big media companies may seek to cut off funding sources for their foreign competitors, even if copyright isn’t being infringed. Some foreign sites would be prevented from showing up in major search engines. And, SOPA and PIPA build a framework for future restrictions and suppression.”

How much of the above is linked to the #Occupy wall street movement, or the continuing embarrassment of CIA tapes leaked via Julian Assange’s wikileaks isn’t clear, but one thing is certain, the world of social sharing, networking and media is about to face some major challenges, and perhaps, massive regulations.

Cut to India and last week’s knee-jerk reaction of the Indian Government. It instructed ISP’s to block access to websites, and social media providers such as WordPress and Blogpost. social networking platforms such as Twitter and Facebook were instructed to remove accounts of a few identified for inciting the mass exodus of Northeastern Indians from cities across India, in the wake of communal violence in Assam. Not only did this bring about a massive reaction from twittering classes likening the ban to India’s Emergency in 1975, it also had the US Government swinging in to support Google, Facebook and Twitter on the issue of Freedom of Expression. Read more here!

That brings me to the crux of the debate – when does Private become Public? It is well understood by most, that in democratic societies, there needs to be a large space for debate and discussion, but there is a basic code that is followed, to remain within the framework of governance and citizenship. When forums for Public discussion are squashed or removed, dissent takes new forms and goes underground. On the other hand, Open platforms, especially, in the nano-second push-button world of micro-blogging, are fraught with the threat of being taken over by rabble rousers, bullies and trolls.

Contrast this, with the ethos and intent of social media and networking. At its core, social media technologies create a virtual space for ‘people like us’ to interact and engage with each other.  In a way this makes your ‘virtual’ drawing room conversations go viral across all your followers and friends creating at its extreme, two behavior types;

  1. The exhibitionist, who leads the show with Facebook Vacations and events mainly to post pictures and tags across cyberspace
  2. The voyeur, who watches and ‘like’s and comments sometimes, re-tweeting or sharing the above content.

I over-simplify, but among over 100 shades of grey, these two behaviours stand out.

On the other hand, there are “people like them”, who gravitate to take extreme positions and make the ‘virtual’ drawing room debate into a ‘vicious’ one, hounding out all contrary opinions, and through sheer bludgeon power, and bullying tactics nullify any and all attempt at moderation. The conversation then, quickly moves from issues to personalities, from commentary to rumor mongering and through cheap and ubiquitous mobile internet and SMS access into fear psychosis.

Expecting Facebook’s 50 million users, and twitter’s 15 million in India, to behave more in line with ‘people like us’ is a wishful fantasy. There is no psychological profiling that is done before YouTube allows users to upload videos of suicide attempts, and/ or mass violence against communities.

In these so-called empowered times of instant sharing and collaboration, the fact of the matter also remains that, driven by SMS’s, videos, and tweets, over 50, 000 people from North eastern India, left their jobs and homes across India to return to their home states, due to fears of reprisal attacks.

Is there a solution in sight? Not when the Indian government finds a conspiracy to de-stabilise the country. This could be as debilitating as the Anthrax letter threat that followed 9/11 in the US.

Will there be similar exuberance of social networking and media usage going forward?Perhaps! But then Big Brother, will be watching. The lesson here for social netizens is very clear. You cannot exhibit ‘extreme’ behavior in public even if you may be doing it in the privacy of your on-ground drawing-room.

In all democracies, as well as in India, forums for dissent are in-built. Traditional media has a strong and protected role in sharing information that can create influence and opinions. And this responsibility is assumed by media, by verifying facts and sources.

And even though, TV debates trade the space for facts for TRP’s , in high-decibel verbiage, online and social media have so far escaped from carrying this responsibility, almost in toto.

In the absence of any effective self- regulation or content cleansing by most popular social media platforms, perhaps, in their drive for users, this is where regulation will come in.

It could be draconian, and it will in many cases, hamper freedom of expression, but when private becomes public, the rules of public discourse will apply.

What are your views?


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