By Harsh Dabas
Halfway round the world;
The year is 2010, the world markets have started to rise again after breaking free the economic chains which the 2008 Great Recession had imposed on the world, various Corporations came to the verge of bankruptcy while thousands lost homes.
The Leonardo DiCaprio starring- Inception hit the cinemas and received incredible reviews, the major Social Media platforms are up and running, adding more and more users by each passing day and the popularity of these apps is rising.
It must have been a boring afternoon or maybe a cosy evening in Egypt, when Wael saw a Facebook post while scrolling, in which, a Police Officer and his Aides brutally attacked a fairly young Egyptian businessman for his attempt to expose the corruption in the police department. He died later, and his name was Khaled Said.
“I couldn’t sleep the following nights, and I felt I had to do something”- told Wael at a TEDx meet. Ultimately, he decided to create a Facebook page with the name- ‘we all are Khaled Said’.
Initially, Wael had no concrete plans for the same, but the creation of that page was one of the initial steps that would drive out the Egyptian President and later turn into a protest that spread to Four nearby countries, and later, got registered in history with the name- Arab Spring.
Within 18 days, then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak left his position due to massive protests against his regime’s corruption, economic tension, and other issues. His page was one of the most followed pages in the Arab world and served as an online reference to willing protestors and the world alike.
“This protest started online, this protest started on Facebook”– Wael told CNN when Mubarak was deposed, while thousands rejoiced on the streets. These protests marked an important change in the Power Dynamics of the said nations, as they spread to Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and northern African counterparts. In all these countries, the aftermath of protests was that either the leader was deposed or there were major reforms in the Power Dynamics, in other words- shifting towards permanent Democracy.
The Good Times;
And this is where ‘social media’ helped Wael and protestors to start a revolution. The research from Project on Information Technology and Political Islam found out that mass protests and uprisings were often preceded by Online Revolution Campaigns and conversations which proved that Social Media did help in the Arab Spring uprisings.
Social Media is a new avenue where political parties and groups have found a plethora of potential for shaping public opinion and generating goodwill and public trust.
This is applaudable as social media is a great way to promote direct citizen participation and share their ideologies online, without any hiccups and at the cost of peanuts. The major trend observed nowadays is that these platforms are now an indispensable tool for news-sharing and hence, keeping citizens up-to-date with the recent developments of the World stage.
Democracy works best when the demands and sufferings are able to reach the establishment’s ears, and in this case, social media acts as a megaphone as it amplifies the demands and suffering of the public so that the government acts upon it. Social Media is also a reliable tool to raise red-flags and alert people regarding the hassles faced by the public.
This is, indeed, a tried and tested way used in democracies to reach out to the masses virtually, however it is also prone to gross misinformation campaigns and fake news.
A Massive Blowout;
On the 6th of January 2021, the world grabbed its packet of Pop-Corns and watched in awe and horror, when GOP (Republican) supporters stormed the Capitol Building in DC disrupting the certification of the 2020 US Election in which the Republicans lost by a hairline, and it was alleged that the election was rigged.
The seizure of the world’s oldest democracy by supporters was termed as the 9/11 of social media as it exposed the deep underlying fragilities of Democracies, and the havoc unregulated social media platforms can break.
After the rioting, Donald Trump’s social media accounts were either deleted or suspended, on the ground that his messages endangered the ideals of democracy and incited riots by indiscriminately claiming that the elections were a fraud and people had been robbed of their votes on Social Media. By doing this, they realized their responsibility towards the society, and this time they did let go of the excuse that they were merely the service providers, however, they were also far too late in banning the accounts, since the damage to the democratic foundation of the country was already done.
One major chink in the armor is that social media platforms have an issue of debunking myths and fake news, and since the authenticity of the same is not verified by these platforms, they became the hubs of Fake News and misinformation campaigns.
The platforms also have lax rules and regulations regarding fake news, and this only puts the public in harm’s way.
Most countries also have Safe Harbour mechanisms that provide immunity to social media platforms from the content their users post, thus, promoting this LAX rule culture.
Another problem of social media is, it is also a budding ground for religious extremism, as there isn’t any complete regulation of this on these platforms, which imbibes religious rigidity and conservatism that ultimately, dampens both society and democracy.
Indian Social Media space is, arguably, one of the places where a plethora of fake news and religion-targeted posts find their way to the public, and this is a grave issue as it not only strains the social fabric of India but also serves as a tactic to rob the public of their votes and put Democracy in harm’s way by shifting the power dynamics towards majoritarianism.
Several instances of mob-lynching, sparked by misinformation, have been seen throughout the country and this only causes an atmosphere of discontentment and fear.
The issue of fake news is so vast that a platform (WhatsApp) that came up with a Commercial regarding fake news, the dangers posed by it, and ways to combat it, ironically, spreads misinformation the most through its forwards and groups, so the name- “WhatsApp University” that picked up steam, and there is no separate mechanism to detect fake news within this platform.
A possible way out?;
In India, for the free and fair conduction of elections, an Independent Election Commission has been formed, which derives its powers from Article-324, and also releases a Model Code of Conduct before each election.
The power of superintendence and cancellation of candidature has been vested in the hands of the ECI. However, it has been observed that the powers vested in the ECI are not sufficient to handle the misconduct happening now-a-days, during the elections.
The powers of ECI can be increased so that they don’t have to go through bureaucratic hassles while canceling the candidature, and stringent action must be taken on parties and groups which don’t follow the MCC and violate it.
Legal Provisions can be introduced to strengthen the foundations of ECI, and other amendments and various forms of Acts can be introduced to reform the ECI.
Voter Awareness is also a crucial tool to prevent fringe elements from finding their way to the parliament, and later digressing the nation onto a dark path. The moment voters realize that they are being fooled in the name of religion, hatred, and fake news on social media, they would act out of their wit and conscience and vote wisely.
The Election Commissioners must not be partisans and be strict regarding parties’ conduct during elections, like T.N Seshan, and the social media space must be closely regulated to prevent the spread of fake news and political propaganda, only then, the relationship between Social Media and democracy will be deemed to be productive and fruitful.