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Social media: The new theatre of India's culture wars

IBEF:  September 14, 2020

The rise of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter is proving to be a double-edged sword in the functioning of democracies. While it has democratised access to information, it has also concentrated power over that information with a handful of private companies, their billionaire owners, and certain ideologically committed activist groups.

There is a transformation in the way the information is generated, disseminated, and consumed, and it is now directly impacting how democracies function. Netizens around the globe are now empowered to bypass traditional curators of information, such as journalists and editors, in searching for their choice of content. They have also become creators and disseminators of content, not just consumers of it. This is further accentuated by tech platforms directing more content at people similar to what they have already seen, thus creating echo chambers of like-minded groups.

There is a global war underway, involving the role of social media and freedom of expression, which is an extension of the culture wars between the Left and Right. India is seeing the early skirmishes of the online version of this war, which has already progressed to a much higher intensity elsewhere, most notably the United States.

In America’s bitterly polarised polity, the frontline of this war is a battle between Twitter and President Donald Trump. The former’s flagging of a presidential tweet as fake news, and the latter’s executive order altering the liability of social media platforms who edit content, is worth understanding better.

One of the starkest aspects of the West’s culture wars has been its erosion of the right to freedom of expression, which had been a hallmark of its modern democracies. While the struggles for free speech had pushed for more freedom, even to say and write very unpleasant things, the intensification of the West’s culture wars in this century has seen a reversal of that trend. Curbs on hate speech became widely accepted and implemented. But, thereafter, there has been a relentless push by so-called woke activists for ever more curbs on speech, often implemented forcefully and without consensus, based solely on political correctness.

In US law, social media had been protected against the kind of liabilities, such as defamation, that traditional news media are subject to, on the grounds that social media are simply platforms for people’s opinions. But now that they are, by flagging, shadow banning, or deleting posts and accounts, the Trump order echoes many voices that had been asking for social media to be treated on par with media outlets.

A similar battle is raging about social media giants’ abuse of their massive power by sourcing news from media companies without paying for it, and then disseminating and profiting from it. Despite a bitter legal struggle, Australia is likely to become the first nation to require Google to pay for such content.

These battles are relevant to India, which is both the largest democracy as well as one of the largest user bases for social media platforms. Some of these battles have already begun here, such as the recent Indian version of the West’s leftist pressure on Facebook to put curbs on Right-wing posts. It is time to broaden the dialogue here about how India ought to respond.

Disclaimer: This information has been collected through secondary research and IBEF is not responsible for any errors in the same.