As the size of the population with Internet connectivity grows in India, so does the power of social media. It has virtually empowered everybody to speak out without any restrictions. And naturally, this new found power of the people have its backers and detractors. It is in this context, Anwar Jamal Kidwai Mass Communication and Research Centre (AJK-MCRC) organized a lecture by Vinod Mehta on the topic “The Growth of Social Media: Curse or Boon?” as part of the annual Anwar Jamal Kidwai Memorial Lecture, on Monday, Feb. 18, 2013. [Audio]
Vinod Mehta is an eminent journalist and the editor-in-chief of the weekly news magazine Outlook. He has earlier launched a number of publications such as the Sunday Observer, The Pioneer, and The Independent. Mehta has also written biographies of Meera Kumari and Sanjay Gandhi.
Mehta began his lecture by stating that he felt like an “impostor” standing there and trying to give an expert’s view on social media, when he did not even use social media. Therefore, he said, he was no expert on the subject, and his views should be taken as such.
On the question of whether social media is a curse or a boon, Mehta said that in his view social media is both a curse and a boon. “It’s like a ticking time bomb. We have to know how to handle it,” he said. He believed that the most significant attribute of social media is “the audience it has captured.” He went on to say that it is the young generation in the urban and semi-urban regions that use social media the most. And it is this young generation that has been, prior to the coming of age of social media, “somewhat disengaged from the problems of the country.” Mehta referred to this disengaged lot of young people as “aliens” who did not have a platform to express themselves, or engage in a discourse of “hard party politics.”
Speaking about the claims against the young for being uninterested in the problems of the nation, Mehta said, “it is not that they (the young generation) are not interested in the issue; they are not interested in the way the issue is framed for them.” Mehta also discarded the notion that the young are only interested in trivial issues pertaining to “Page 3” and the like.
Social Media: A Boon
Referring to the role social media played during the outrage against the recent Delhi gang-rape, Mehta said that the outrage was largely “sustained” by social media, which gave the young “an opportunity for conversation.” He further said:
“We had a series of protests to which the political class did not know what to do. The political class in India has a very good system of breaking down protests … But they couldn’t break this agitation. It was a leaderless agitation. There was no agenda. There was no huge charter of demands. There was just outrage and anger at why this sort of thing continues to happen.”
Mehta went on to talk about the role social media played in the Anna Hazare movement and the Arab Spring. “I think,” he said, “young people may not have realized their own power. This new social media, I think, has given young people, for the first time, some intimation of the power they have in their hand.”
Social Media: A Curse
“One of the major powers of social media is that it is unregulated,” he said. He mentioned that the print and the television media have their respective regulatory bodies in the form of the Press Council and the News Broadcasters’ Association, but the social media lacks any such body. In this context, he referred to social media as a “free for all.” He said that on social media, “people can say the most vicious things and get away with it.”
“There is no institutionalized fora where you can go and complain, and get redressal like you can get in print and television,” he said.
Mehta also mentioned about the protest from the young social media users against Kapil Sibal when he tried to censor social media by attempting to regulate it.
He further talked about “the right to offend.” He said that “my right to offend is part of my right of free speech. And if you take away that right, then you kill literature, journalism … We are all in the business, whether you like it or not, of offending.” However, Mehta argued, that one “cannot offend with impunity.” Just as there are reasonable restrictions to free speech, so are in right to offend as well. “There is a line beyond which you cannot move,” he said. He agreed that the right to offend cannot be absolute, but also mentioned that the line beyond which one cannot move is subjective as to who decides where the line is.
Checks and Balances
Mehta added that supporters of social media could come up with an independent regulatory body that places light controls over the social media, especially in matters of faith. He also said that the politicians need to be kept out of the decision making process of what is offensive and what is not.
In conclusion he said, “Even if you hate the social media, you can do nothing about it. It is a power which is going to grow. I am still in the process of trying to comprehend it.”
Listen to Vinod Mehta’s talk on the “Growth of Social Media: Curse or Boon?” at Jamia on Feb. 18, 2013: