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Delhi gang rape: What Facebook, Twitter expose about govt

by Prasad Krishna last modified Dec 31, 2012 01:02 AM
When constable Subhash Tomar collapsed during the anti-rape agitation in New Delhi, the government was keen to say he suffered injuries inflicted by the protesters. But the administration's version of events was challenged soon on social media, and the mainstream media latched onto the mystery and started pressurising the government to come clean.

The article was published in the Times of India on December 29, 2012. Pranesh Prakash is quoted.

The Tomar episode, when social media set the agenda and put the government on the back foot, is one more example of rise of people's power online. The political class in India has been shaken by the speed and efficiency with which the recent protests were coordinated. Some of them, like Abhijit Mukherjee, have ended up putting their foot in their mouth while others like Congress' youth icon and heir apparent Rahul Gandhi have not even cared to react.

The reason for Tomar's death is still unclear, but the post-mortem report has attributed it to external injuries.

"Frankly, right now, we haven't figured out how to deal with this phenomenon," said Congress Party Spokesman Sandeep Dikshit.

The anti-corruption movement of Anna Hazare, the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US, and the Arab Spring were all largely organised through social networking sites. Even in neighbouring Pakistan, the raid that killed al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was first reported on microblogging site Twitter, further highlighting social media's growing importance as a source of information. Such is the influence and impact of social media that many are increasingly referring to it as the "fifth pillar of democracy".

Influence bound to grow

India has over 120 million internet users - Twitter has about 16 million and Facebook over 60 million - but this is still just one-tenth of the population.

Also, as 3G penetration increases, data becomes accessible on more feature phones. While about 221 million mobiles were sold in India in 2012, sales are expected to touch 251 million units in 2013, according to technology market researcher Gartner. With so much of growth still left to come, the influence of social media is only bound to grow.

Minister of State for Human Resource Development Shashi Tharoor, one of the early converts to social media and inveterate tweeter, said the social media space is a "parallel universe to the mainstream media" and that stories on these platforms have a "resonance of their own".

"It is a medium that allows big issues to be made out of issues that mainstream media ignores but politicians cannot," he said.

Brand guru Harish Bijoor is of the view that the political class must pay attention to the information revolution as India is a very young country in terms of demographics. "The political class appears a gerontocracy while 54% of the population is below 25 and 70% below 35. There is a disconnect that must be addressed."

Kedar Gavane, director at Internet analytics company ComScore India, said an average Indian Facebook user has about 300 friends. "That's the kind of reach an individual and his messages have on social networks," he said. "Twitter has helped us identify the common man's feelings. For instance, when a candlelight protest is organised, you get to know what the protesters are thinking."

But the real question, he said, is whether people are actually willing to go beyond these platforms. "Whether it can become the Fifth Estate or not is hard to say because at the end of the day, this is just a channel for communication."

With the government struggling for a credible response to the growing influence of social media, it has often resorted to blocking user accounts and web pages. The government, which blocked 663 webpages in 2012, asked Indian Internet service providers to block 16 Twitter accounts, including those of right-wing leaders and journalists.

In the first half of 2012, the government made 2,319 requests for information on 3,467 user accounts of search engine giant Google. Google complied with 64% of these.

While the influence of social media is not lost on those such as Dikshit, he said the problem is "how to break in with an alternative view". "It is like a community of people who think the same way and validate each others' opinions. The number of people who validate your opinion does not make it the right opinion, but that fine distinction is getting lost somewhere."

There are others who feel the role of social media in protests is often exaggerated. "The agency for change resides first in people and only secondarily in platforms," according to Pranesh Prakash, policy director at the Centre for Internet and Society.

(With inputs from Joji Thomas Philip in New Delhi)

ASPI-CIS Partnership


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