The Phantom Public: The Role of Social Media in Democracy

by Admin — last modified May 01, 2019 05:09 AM
Amber Sinha delivered an open lecture at Ambedkar University, New Delhi on 3 April 2019.

India has over 500 million internet users — over a third of its total population — making it the country with the second largest number of Internet users after China. For the world’s largest democracy, the Internet should be a boon. After all, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, had envisioned the Internet to as an “open platform that allows anyone to share information, access opportunities and collaborate across geographical boundaries.” The democratization of information it facilitated should have led to a more informed citizenry, but instead what we have is the complete opposite. The average digital citizen in India maintains a near perpetual information illiteracy about where they receive news and information from, whether or not it is true and how it is intended to manipulate them. This is, in large part, because social media has become the primary source of information.

The problems of the public, how it may get access to meaningful information, how it organises itself, and how public opinion is shaped are now deeply impacted by the rise of social media and messaging platforms as political tools of targeting, gathering and organising. How this new media thwarts and enables the goals of the public in India at present is the primary subject matter of this talk. We will cover a range of issues such as fake news and hate speech on social media, the use Facebook by Cambridge Analytica in elections, and how online platforms are governed, particularly with a view towards elections.

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