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It’s mainstream vs social

by Prasad Krishna last modified Apr 30, 2012 04:23 AM
Mainstream and social media share an increasingly uneasy relationship. Mahima Kaul, a Guest Columnist with the Sunday Guardian wrote this article. Sunil Abraham is quoted in this.

The Abhishek Manu Singhvi CD scandal brought into focus the increasingly confrontational relationship between social media and mainstream media. When a court order kept the mainstream from broadcasting the CD, social media took centrestage in spreading it online and keeping a buzz about the scandal for days. Many termed it as a "victory" for social media. Others slammed social media users as "eternal voyeurs" and wondered why they seemed to be above the court order. In return, blogs went as far as to title a post, "Why the Indian MSM (mainstream media) Wants Social Media Dead".

A quick recap: after the CD leak, Singhvi moved court to stop certain media organisations from telecasting it. The Delhi High Court gave an ex parte order that "the defendants (media house), their agents ... are restrained from publishing, broadcasting and disseminating or distributing in any form or any manner..." However, people caught hold of the video and kept linking it on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube etc. It went viral. Singhvi resigned from all political posts and settled the matter out of court. In his statement of resignation, Singhvi's bitterness at the role of social media was apparent: "in either event it raises no public interest issue... contumacious internet violation of a flagrant kind." I will save you a Google search: contumacious means to be wilfully disobedient to authority.

There are questions to be asked. Who was the 13 April court order aimed at? Is Singhvi's proposition that an internet violation took place true?

The order was explicitly binding on only specific organisations (Aaj Tak, India Today Group and Headlines Today). The rest of the mainstream media showed remarkable restraint. In the case of the video being linked on social media, it was users' prerogative, as they were not covered under that order even though Singhvi's statement suggests otherwise. However, there is another angle to consider. Social media users would have broken the law only if the video content itself was objectionable. "If the video is judged to be 'obscene', then under s.67 of the Information Technology Act, 'causing [obscenity] to be transmitted', is also a crime," says Sunil Abraham of the Center for Internet and Society. So, the question is, was this video obscene? While my journalistic integrity did not extend to watching the video, I've been told it has neither nudity nor explicit sexual activity, and cannot be considered obscene. Therefore, it appears that social media has functioned well within its rights.

What remains, then, is the view that social media "should" be restrained. How? A court order could stop users from linking the video online, but it would only be applicable in India. Also, there are already provisions in the IT Amendment Act 2008, which allows for "offensive" material to be removed by the intermediary, or site blockage by the government. Twitter has already announced national policies of censorship, although this incident would probably not qualify for such a drastic action. Sunil Abraham adds that the court could also give a "John Doe order" against prospective offenders that enables the IP owner to serve notice and take action at the same time against anyone who is found to be guilty. However, this step is to be taken with caution. In criticising the existing order on the Singhvi case, Arun Jaitley wrote in an editorial that "a pre-publication injunction (should) ... be exercised with great caution specially in a case of libel and slander," because in this case it was yet to be proven that the CD was indeed fabricated.

It seems there is offline outrage about online outrage. However, for mainstream media to call for restraint on social media based on their own actions seems to be hypocritical in this particular instance, because they did so only because of a court order. One need to look at stories ranging from the Mumbai attacks to the Arushi Talwar murder case to understand the invasive nature of mainstream media in India. What is more worrying is that the mainstream media is equating itself with social media in some ways, wondering why it needs to have editorial checks if citizens can gossip away on Twitter. In return, social media is counting its victories against the mainstream in a manner that suggests that the two consider each other competitors. Although most conversation on social media would not exist without mainstream news sources, ultimately their function in society is not the same. The media is considered the fourth pillar of democracy, while social media is considered an "unofficial" channel. If either is found indulging in illegal or harmful activities, they can and must be checked. But, in the end, it serves freedom of speech to keep the two functioning in context, not in confrontation.

Read the original published in the Sunday Guardian on April 30, 2012.

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ASPI-CIS Partnership


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