If I say that social media is proliferating through our personal and social life in a rapid pace, it will be an obvious statement. In fact, we may fail to think of a day without using social media – sharing a joke across WhatsApp, sharing some moments of the day on Facebook, posting a video or animated series of photos on YouTube or shouting at somebody on Twitter. These are all obvious and have become the part and parcel of our daily life. At the same time, unfortunate incidents and riots take place in India in rather quick intervals due to rumours spread through social media. We term some of these as racial in nature whereas others as religious hatred or regional separatism; in common, we blame social media as the cause behind these incidents.
Social media is like any other media. But the scale of impact and its reach are much larger. Today, people share those pictures on their online accounts which they would perhaps be hesitant to share with their neighbours a decade ago. Times have changed. Some of the most popular social media like Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube and Twitter are working like shout-box; and their easy share features make any content go unhindered from one person to another and gradually to a large segment of our population. In fact, hashtag feature allows anybody to target any topic or any person. Groups make coordinated effort to make such hashtags go viral.
Who are these groups, and why do they want to make such effort?
People adopting particular social or political ideologies and people driven by financial benefits form such groups. Usually, a common guy will fear of backlash from administrative authorities even if a natural urge is there to shout against people or topics they do not like. Even anonymity on social media may not be a great help as law-enforcement agencies are now capable to trace down these individuals. But then things become different when these individuals and groups are supported by political parties or segments of administrative authorities. Why entities enjoying power or those seeking power encourage such barbaric effort, nobody knows. In fact, this is not in the interest of our country or society or even the group themselves in the long run.
On the other hand, our mainstream media is mostly driven by narrow corporate interests, and should take most of the blame. The hashtags trending on Twitter or Facebook during the day become materials for prime time television in the evening, and stories written around the same topics are published next day on print media. Ignorant television anchors and lazy print journalists find quick materials to talk and write about topics without going into the actual happening. Many a time, a disclaimer running below the news screen or in an article about the need to verify authenticity of such news goes unnoticed. When the correctness of an event becomes known in the next couple days, people forget or the news becomes irrelevant. Moreover, such corrections do not get published as widely as the false news or rumours. The news become post-truth – the most dangerous state of affair for media at large.
How should we tackle such menace?
First, the media associations must step into to make sure that news media and print media do not base their stories on hashtags or mention Twitter or Facebook streams explicitly. Secondly, social media websites must be forced to implement the right levels of privacy and restricting the capability of users to go with public opinion without adequate identity verification. With due respect to the freedom of expression, the step should be taken to segregate the anonymous users from the verified users. Third note is about intervention from our government. The police force must be equipped with requisite software tools to crunch data from social media real-time and to identify the alleged culprits instead of wasting time with the existing archaic procedures.