Social media: The good, the bad, and the ugly

[ Nyatum Doke ]

Victor Hugo said, “No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come.” Today, this power is social media, and this age is the age of social media. There are around 4.55 billion active social media users globally. Social media has democratised the way in which information is shared and disseminated. It has led to participation of the people in the governance of the state. At no point in the hitherto existing history did ‘public opinion’ echo so loudly and vehemently. Social media has the power to harbinger revolution, as experienced in many parts of the world – any idea can become a global idea; any issue can become the issue of the masses – it’s just a matter of one click on the keyboard or the on the mobile screen.

Thinkers like Habermas put forth the importance of a ‘public sphere’ for true growth of any society; social media provides the much-needed public sphere for discussion, debate and the discourse. Social media is helping people to move from being ‘vita-contemplativa’ to ‘vita-activa’, ie, thinking man to man of action, which according to Hannah Arendt makes a human complete. Social media changed human life in many ways and has penetrated into every aspect of life. Its positive impact can be seen in various social, political and economic dimensions.

However, the ‘bad’ side of this platform is that there is no permanent friend or enemy on social media, as I like to say. At one moment it may make someone a hero, and at the other moment, zero. Also, another problem is that of ‘infodemic’. So much information is available, flowing at high speed, that it becomes difficult to understand which is true or false – a recipe for spreading misinformation and disinformation.

Then there is the issue of ‘filter bubble’, as coined by Eli Pariser and the ‘echo chambers’ that is created in social media. A filter bubble “is a state of intellectual isolation where, owing to personalise searches, a user becomes separated from information that disagrees with their viewpoint.” The ‘echo chamber’ effect is dangerous as it echoes back only the same perspective repeatedly and blocks the exposure to other perspectives. So, people get to see what they wish to see and they believe whatever they are seeing is the most important issue on hand.

Basically, it looks as if people have given the consent but in reality, according to Noam Chomsky, those are “manufactured consent” and the manipulated public opinion based sometimes on micro-targeting. The point is, we think that we are getting more choices, but most of the time our choices are limited and are decided by surveillance capitalism. As someone has correctly said: “If you control the menu, you control the choice, you control the choice, you control the behaviours.”

The ‘ugly’ side of social media is when the touted harbinger of change becomes a tool of cyberbullying and trolling by faceless identities. When the masses start acting as ‘superfluous entities’ instead of as rational beings, and starts bestowing more trust on social media sites, then on the organs of governance, it may lead to what is termed as ‘banality of evil’ (normalising negative usage), which would not augur well for the democratic setup of the country.

Social media definitely have revolutionary potential, and with the increasing digital penetration, its reach will further expand. However, it should be kept in mind that it also has the ability to cause irreparable damages to the individual as well as the society, if not used carefully. Especially in a state like Arunachal, which is in a transition stage from traditional to modern, we are a classic case of a prismatic society (Riggs) – modern institutions may have been introduced, but our way of life and understanding is old and traditional to a great extent for a majority of people. Let’s use social media as a tool to provide ‘voice to the voiceless’ and as an instrument to democratise our discourse, thereby ensuring freedom, transparency and openness. (The writer is DIPRO, Longding)