The Election Commission instruction for political parties and candidates while using social media, in fact resonates an acknowledgement towards the assuming significance of social web in reconfiguring democratic engagements and deliberative politics. With the Commission instructions over social media use, now the question on the regulation of social media debate got a new vantage point, which already reverberated in Parliamentary deliberation.
Internet connection penetrating among over sixteen crore, more than eight crore people accessing social media sites, and studies confirming Facebook influence over 150 urban electoral constituencies in the forthcoming general election in 2014, new form of class antagonism has resurfaced at the trajectory of electoral politics and social media ecology in India.
Recognising this budding class relation in the electoral arithmetic of India, Election Commission (EC) has issued instructions to the chief electoral officers in States and Union Territories and Presidents and General Secretaries of Political Parties on 25 October 2013, regarding the use of social media sites in electoral environment.
Broadly classifying social media in to five categories, EC has taken a bold approach towards the ‘pre-certification’ (regulation?) for political advertisements in Internet. The directive to seek pre-certification of advertisements over Internet platforms makes the political class to be more cautious while migrating to connective spaces. The instruction also requires furnishing the expenditure for creating social media accounts, salaries paid to staff that maintains and operates it and cost incurred to Internet companies; all this falls under election expenses of a candidate.
However, the decision has kicked the holy cow again: freedom of speech. Regulating social media, the debate has been prevailing for sometimes now, ever since Government attempt to ban selected Internet sites following social media powered hate speech and consequent violence on Northeast people in south Indian States in 2012.
Discussion were in Parliament on August 2012 when morphed pictures used by tomfoolery makers in forms of multi-media messages (MMS) and social networking sites to buff communal tension targeting people from the northeast India in Hyderabad, Bangalore, Pune and Mumbai. In addition, social media has become fertile ground for breeding communal tensions, opines Akhilesh Yadav and confirmed its scrupulous configuration in inflaming communal clashes in Muzaffarnagar, which killed nearly 50, and displaced 40,000,in Uttar Pradesh. Role of social media in glowing communal tension was one of the focal challenges haunting India, confirmed a summary of the chief Ministers’ speeches, at the National Integration Council meeting held on 23 September 2013.
The Practical issues
Certainly, the decision of the Commission to bring social media based electoral advertisement in tandem with political campaign in traditional media platforms such as TV and print carries some practical difficulties. Connective spaces are uncensored, and nebulous. Free space that goes unchecked and unmonitored is often everywhere in Internet. Social web that we count for advocacy, protest groups, social movements, social activists, subcultures and sometimes fan activism, life style activists, Non Governmental Organisations (NGO) and hobbyists have voluntarily understood as mechanics of political engagements and democratic engagements and will have enough conduits that somehow lead to electoral manipulations otherwise. Surely, this, in part, cannot bring under the radar.
Yet, the legal provision on campaigning via traditional media has now extended to social media. The practical issue raised pertains to the profiles and web pages created by “third person” for candidates and political parties concerned. However, EC reserves the matter for scrutiny under the table of Ministry of Communication and Information Technology.
Of course, only a minuscule fraction of the political tribe is online but their social media presence could influence voters, for instance, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi chat on social network Google+ and reportedly received questions and comments with millions watching across other media platforms. L.K. Advani shares political as well as personal thoughts through blog and Twitter profiles but the focus remains on politics.
Facebook is a pet device for many politicians to connect with their electorate and communicate with them, from big players like Mamata Banerjee to the young and not much known politicians like Jose K Mani from Kerala. Facebook has been more useful in the sense that youth access it from mobile.
Few of political class have taken a step further and created Twitter accounts. Talking about twitter, there is no dearth of politicians on Twitter.Narendra Modi, Mamta Banerjee, Sushma Swraj, etc., are few examples.From famous and well known political bigwigs like Shashi Tharoor who is illustrious for his tweets to Narendra Modi and from lesser known politicians like captain Gopinath to Meera Sanyal, Twitter has constituted a ‘twittersphere’ for the participatory engagements in politics.
Yet, another class of Indian political tribe who has taken a step further to connect with citizens online was websites and blogs. Narendra Modi, Omar Abdullah , and Nitish Kumar and a few more connect with internet users through expensive websites.
Political parties are not far behind in using social media sites. Congress, Bhartiya Janata Party, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party etc., each of these and the remaining ones has their own websites, which not seen some years back. Several political parties have their official presence on social media sites in a bid to connect with the critical online youth population. If compared, the two major parties, i.e. the Indian National Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the latter clearly emerges as a winner.
Campaigns from the streets have moved to print, radios, TV and now onto the digital space and here it displays the party profiles, ideologies, their mission and vision and what the public can expect from them. At this point, they interact with the electorate.
The deeper debates
Nevertheless, the decision will highlight some deeper issues unnoticed. In fact, the real issue at stake is not freedom of speech, but speech and medium itself. The pompous side of digital democracy has spotted in by a host of incidence very recently in social media platforms. Therefore, the question comes, does our mouse click of any kind really facilitate political engagement and deliberate politics.
Communal clashes in Muzaffarnagar and violence on Northeast people reflected the vulnerability of social media spaces. The connective spaces do have no precise boundary in our cultural vocabularies and everyday life experiences regarding the doable/undoable and hate/love speech online. The instruction of the EC needs introspection in this background.
A spectacular reflection of connective spaces often provides us the other side of the story of digital democracy in India. In fact, Internet has done little to thicken political dialogue in India. Disaster or collateral damage, Internet has been in news for reasons that frowned people over the last few years.
New forms of control and domination prevail in connective spaces. Proprietary ownership is reflective of its capitalist character. A Google search with keywords ‘social media and Election Commission’ finds us 93,900,000 results (0.45 seconds), but the web link goes to big players, Economic Times, NDTV, Times of India, DNA, Business Standard, etc. Funneling web traffic to the platforms of big players by search engines like Google and Yahoo connective spaces now show cases the bourgeois character it has.
Links appear structured in Internet as well as filtered about how citizens search for political content and how leading search engines like Google and Yahoo funnel traffic to popular outlets. The connective space is iniquitous and unjust.
A new kind of “searcharchy” prevails in Internet and search engines are funneling traffics to the websites, news portals, and other web platforms of big players that are already the monopolies of our social space before the coming in of Internet, Google and Facebook. It resound what US Political scientist, Mathew Hindman, said in his book, The Myth of Digital democracy (2008).The public sphere as a discursive space in Internet is often doubtful since the space is already monopolised by corporate interest and search engines. Discussions are always mediated for the interest of proprietary owners and the Internet space is undergoing a new kind of structure and domination in India as said by Lawrence Lessig (2001) in his book, The future of ideas: the fate of the commons in a connected world.
Internet is the cultural space of winner-take-all symptom and the space has funneled by the interest of the holy cows. Political class uses their cultural and money power to redefine the codes in Internet and used a new kind of stenography to attract the digital voters. Film stars use their star value to sell out their products. Celebrities colonize the connective spaces to fortify their undisputed marketability. Celebrities, political classes, film stars, and traditional monopolies have configured a loose but unholy alliance in connective spaces.
Tens of thousands of anonymous and strange people do not get their alternate space here. No more solidarity resounds here in this space. On this background, the decision of the EC to put qualifications on the use of social websites during electoral campaign is timely, wise and appreciative. However, the curb on social media use during election time will not carry any restraint on freedom of speech. The instructions are rather qualitative. Of course, the decision will strengthen Indian democracy and it pinpoints the health of our polity.- See more at: http://www.merinews.com/article/social-media-under-fire-in-electoral-heat/15891480.shtml#sthash.5flfBbMp.dpuf
Now connection works like a credo, but not a panacea and our unvarying, thoughtless impulse to connect shapes a new way of being. Think of it as 'I share that you share that you share that I share that we share. ' Are the new technologies leading to new forms of social inclusion or exclusion and creating new forms of togetherness or divide?
Few letters on Facebook Wall has become sufficient reason for massive scale violence, intimidation, death threat by miscreants. The consequence Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Shrinivasan from Mumbai, had to face and that took them behind bars proves, yes!
We have transformed our sentiments in to the text we make in the smart devices we have and in the nebulous radical media platforms, we have inhabited. Connecting alone structures that the lone attempt at protesting, collaborating, publishing and networking from the tiny devices have resulted in the making of ‘alone together’ in Indian Internet. From atoms to bits, liberally we have reproduced and echoed the otherwise not possible usual life style practices. Of course, large and expanding sections of Indians, moving on to social web, are a political choice, personal dissent, individual resistance, personalised political action.
Following Anna Hazare led anti-graft movement and Delhi gang rape; social media began to address a ‘critical mass’. The emerging online social spaces for story telling have reflected the growing sentiments of middle classes, academic, the intellectuals, advocacies, activists and journalists that look at the west.
Cell phone embedded second People Power Revolution in Philippines, anti-government movement online following death of Neda Agha Soltan in Iran, YouTube video showing self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia, Egypt’s 2011 unrest consequent to video tape showing the death of Khaled Said; all show the power of social media in effecting political changes across a broad spectrum of countries recently. The Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, The UK Uncut have co-opted digital media, for protest movements that raised convergence-divergence debate by focusing on how network structures at the international level affect policy outcomes, activist propaganda, advocacy and politics in native society.
Illusion or certainty, a growing sense of delegitimisation of protest paradigm has resurfaced when our life gets akin to petition sites, email lists, online fund raising, social networking sites, blogs and micro blogs, video sharing sites, photo uploading and content sharing sites in the native context.
The popularity of Web 2.0 lifestyle technologies such as what-to-buy- blogs, how-to-cook-it-healthy portals, how-to-wear-eco-friendly blogs, why-I-am-against-nuclear-energy communities, etc., all of which tell us how to fashion our life to fine-tune planet for sustainable living. The style guide and shopping apps available for smart phones, good book read applications on social profile, the habit website bookmarked, news updates subscribed to personal computer, etc., demonstrate millions of people want the life style technologies to express their personal political choices.
The hidden networks of groups, secretive circuits of solidarity, meeting points, all that reformulate profoundly the image of a new political actor; YOU, i.e., the life style activist at Net.Life style politics such as veganism, bicycle and pedestrian culture, ethnic food activism, government schooling, love for mother toungue, thoughts about alternative energy, lamenting ‘Bandh’ and ‘Hartal’, arguing for hand made ‘Khadi’ clothing, and so on, we practice every day have teleported to the social web.
The complex social structure of India being inhospitable to ‘low’ cultures historically had always co-opted the high cultures in the communicative spaces. Discursive practices in social web, in fact, destabilised India's social structure that in the past represented privileged few at the cost of a majority at the fringe margins.
In fact, Internet provides sexual minorities space for share, network, and collaborate with like-minded people, which otherwise not possible in the offline world. Internet is a safe refuge of marginalised sexual minorities to search for new relationships that are out of scrutiny by the draconian laws and hostile social structure.
From chatting to blogging to posting, to Facebook, to Twitter, the solo dissenters of Indian Internet from marital displeasure, disharmony with family, dissatisfied with social structure, has began to find a new ‘self’ cross across potentially inhospitable social structure, taboo ridden social order and patriarchal world.
Greater the embedding of digital platforms in the political subjects in Internet, higher the illusion about cyber unreal. Even though, electronic device for political communication has exploited in electoral democracy, it amounts to brazen imitation of American electoral eco-system. India is facing the Americanisation of political communication largely fed up by social media platforms.
Here in India, too, discussion surfaces projecting social media as town square, India Against Corruption as Arab Spring and Jantar Mantar as Tahrir Square of India. Anna Hazare led anti-graft movement gave a new label to them. A significant component in the mounting hegemony in global homogenising culture is the dominance of the English language in computation, Internet and international electronic communication, American cultural products, etc., that provokes a flat public with digital media being a symbolic carrier.
In a time when politics becomes decidedly hierarchical and feudalistic, engaging with the citizen is almost an ancient ideal. Open Government is an indicator of democratisation of democracy and the incorporation of connective spaces for citizen engagement. The degree to which governments deal with social media is now part of how they deal with privacy, civil liberties, press freedom, and freedom of expression in general.
Elephant, Lotus and Bicycle, we know that political symbols of identity formations. The phantom advances in technology, in particular affect the social construction of identity. More often, identity enabled political sphere will take new dimensions since digitalisation of democracy and online political engagement in India.
Obviously, in the physical social world, sexual identities and deprived sexual minorities discriminated, silenced and marginalised, but Internet offers them, connective spaces to thicken intimate relations. We still live in a society where LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex) people attacked in the street, unrepresented in the media, bullied in schools, and oppressed in many other ways.
Yet, the western notions of human nature reflected in the founding philosophy of social web mirrors its insufficiency to reconfigure, in Indian context, our cultural diversity. Our engagement with social media public sphere amalgamation has just an imitation and reproduction of Americanism.
A disturbing set of literature has grown up that both criticise and appreciate social media’s political potential. Yet, with gnawing gap and barbed continuity, social media and social change tie-up has not grown up of age in the womb of India’s digital mind but reproduced the ambush of good vs. bad binary debate prevailing all over the world.