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Given the double-edged sword social media has become, self-regulation by platforms is the best option

September 11, 2012

Salman Khan is famous: he has delivered a series of films grossing 100 crore-plus. He has a namesake, equally famous, though amongst a different circle of admirers. The latter has set up the eponymous Khan Academy, a website, which Forbes has called “the most influential teaching organisation on the planet.” With over 2,410 videos and 129 modules (mainly maths), it has been visited by 63 million people.

Less widely known, especially to those over 30 years, is Ray William Johnson, the originator of the most-subscribed video channel on YouTube. It has over 5.6 million subscribers and has garnered, incredibly, almost two billion video views. A bigger celebrity, US President Barack Obama, uses Twitter, and his tweets have as many as 18 million followers.

Clearly, the reach of the new media is massive – and rapidly growing. For many youngsters, social media is the major means of communication. Little wonder, then, that more and more businesses are using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to supplement other media in their marketing efforts to reach the young. Recognising the commercial potential, advertising agencies have set up separate digital media groups, recruiters too are using social media as an important tool for outreach.

Many companies are yet at the rudimentary step of websites, little realising that those who have not yet begun to use the new media are in danger of being left behind.

Though social media penetration in India is limited, amongst urban youth, its power – in conjunction with SMS and MMS – was seen recently, through the widespread and instantaneous dissemination of rumours, threats and doctored images. These messages and images ignited passions and spread panic, leading to some violent incidents and a mass exodus from Bangalore.

The upheaval caused by the messages and images led the government to impose constraints on the number of SMSs and MMSs that a person could send (first, only five a day, then raised to 20; the limit has now been withdrawn).

Instructions were issued to block or take down some pages and websites. Given the consequences of dissemination of morphed pictures, particularly in a surcharged environment, many considered some restrictions as reasonable. However, the reported order to take down spoof sites of Prime Minister’s Office gave a different turn. It seemed the government was taking cover of ‘law-and-order’ issues to stifle satire and comment against it.

The disturbing trend towards censorship – denied, of course, by the government – is exemplified by the demand to remove cartoons from textbooks, the arrest in Kolkata of a professor for creating a satirical cartoon and the removal of some Twitter handles.

Such politically-motivated moves impinge on freedom of expression and cannot be seen as ‘reasonable restrictions’. In a diverse society with politically-created and inflamed sensitivities, there will always be groups that find something or the other offensive.

On which side – banning the book or curbing rioters and rabble rousers – the heavy hand of law descends, defines the space for freedom. In some instances, this is not an easy decision. In recent years, cities have been held to ransom by motley groups of organised protesters who, generally for political ends, have often indulged in violence. Such groups have succeeded in getting bans imposed on books, art and movies, thanks to weak-kneed governments. Too few have spoken up for freedom.

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