Tra­jec­tory of opin­ion

The so­cial media is the win­ner as well as the big­gest po­lariser of de­vel­op­ment news

Down to Earth - - LAST WORD - RICHARD MA­HA­P­A­TRA

Asearch with the key words “so­cial CA­SUAL GOOGLE media”, “im­pact” and “de­vel­op­ment news” shows up close to 183 mil­lion re­sults. It is not hu­manly pos­si­ble to ver­ify all the re­sults, but it gives a peep into how big the vir­tual world is and how vig­or­ously peo­ple are shar­ing con­tent. We are cer­tainly mak­ing a tran­si­tion from a “search­ing” to a “dis­sem­i­na­tion” mode in the vir­tual world. And the so­cial media has emerged as the clear driver of this tran­si­tion. This is par­tic­u­larly true for de­vel­op­ment news.

The so­cial media is unique as it is highly in­for­mal, yet, is the most or­gan­ised con­gre­ga­tion of peo­ple. Users are im­me­di­ately or­gan­ised based on their choices, trends they are fol­low­ing, and also by their ge­o­graph­i­cal lo­ca­tions. This is what is fuelling the rise of the so­cial media as a pow­er­ful plat­form – for dis­sem­i­na­tion as well as the or­gan­i­sa­tion of opin­ion around so­cial is­sues.

Whether it is about a small move­ment to save a patch of for­est in Peru or a jal sa­madhi cam­paign against a big dam pro­ject in a re­mote dis­trict in In­dia, the so­cial media is not only the first place to break news, but is also a pow­er­ful plat­form to build a cam­paign.For a jour­nal­ist like me, it has be­come al­most a ne­ces­sity to re­fer to Face­book as fre­quently as to tele­vi­sion chan­nels that sup­pos­edly break news first! It is the new com­mon pool re­source that is be­ing ag­gres­sively pur­sued.

But the so­cial media has its share of prob­lems that may im­pact the very cause it is pro­mot­ing. Firstly, it has emerged as the big­gest strate­gic de­ci­sion that has yielded re­sults in terms of achiev­ing fast dis­sem­i­na­tion and seek­ing im­me­di­ate re­ac­tions for a so­cial cause. This means that even be­fore an is­sue emerges in its en­tirety, it is open for public opin­ions. Se­condly, many cam­paigns around de­vel­op­ment is­sues are ex­clu­sively tar­geted at the so­cial media. There may be log­i­cal rea­sons for this, but the strat­egy seems to be dom­i­nantly fo­cused on cer­tain sec­tions of the so­ci­ety that use it.The threat is that by de­fault, the so­cial media has be­come a po­lar­is­ing fac­tor, even though most de­bates are not well in­formed. It has be­come a free space to throw per­sonal bi­ases and park opin­ions with­out any re­straint. There­fore, any cause dis­sem­i­nated in the so­cial media im­me­di­ately po­larises the de­bate. This is par­tic­u­larly true for cam­paigns hav­ing po­lit­i­cal over­tones. Take the case of the re­cent de­bate over the new land ac­qui­si­tion bill that at­tempts to di­lute com­mu­nity rights over land ac­qui­si­tions for public pur­poses. The so­cial media played a decisive role in gen­er­at­ing the per­cep­tion that the gov­ern­ment is “anti-farmer” or “pro-busi­ness”. But in the pas­sion­ate de­bates that colonised the vir­tual world, the de­bate sim­ply got po­larised into “pro and anti-gov­ern­ment rhetoric”. Such sit­u­a­tions have forced po­lit­i­cal par­ties to de­ploy sub­stan­tial re­sources to in­ter­vene in such de­bates.

The third threat is from the so­cial media it­self: will it dis­con­nect the peo­ple and the groups from those self-man­dated to fight the bat­tle on their be­half ? If there is a dis­con­nect, then the strate­gic lead­er­ship of a cam­paign shifts to the lat­ter. This is not an ideal sit­u­a­tion for public ad­vo­cacy where the sub­ject con­cerned doesn’t get ac­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion. De­vel­op­ment cam­paigns in In­dia in­volve peo­ple who are very poor, and least ad­van­taged in terms of ac­cess to com­mu­ni­ca­tion. A mo­bile phone might have be­come a big­ger ne­ces­sity than a toi­let in ru­ral ar­eas, but this doesn’t mean that the in­stru­ment is be­ing used to di­rectly in­volve them in cam­paigns that talk about them.

Re­searchers are cur­rently study­ing the im­pact of the so­cial media on so­cial causes. Though the trends are pos­i­tive in terms of gar­ner­ing at­ten­tion for such causes, we are not sure whether it has im­pacted pos­i­tively on the out­come of the cam­paigns. Mean­while, we should con­tinue to “re­set” the vir­tual world, but with cau­tion.

TARIQUE AZIZ / CSE

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