These last few days the role of social media platforms, in particular Twitter, has been the subject of intense scrutiny owing to certain controversial hashtags/trends finding traction in the backdrop of the farmers’ agitation. I don’t intend to comment on the legality or propriety of any particular trend; however, I am certainly interested in understanding the role of such platforms which ostensibly empower the voice of the common person and widen the circle of participation in public discourse. In a few pieces under this column, I have written in some detail on the need for greater consultation with the public in matters of law and policy, and I see no reason to depart from that position even in the context of the farm laws which find themselves at the heart of a storm in Delhi.
The situs of the agitation, as opposed to the issue, perhaps explains the kind of attention that is being showered on it. The absence of similar agitations in other parts of the country for the most part doesn’t seem to matter much because other parts of the country are not Delhi, and if such agitations were limited to other parts of the country, it is anybody’s guess if they would have received similar attention. Coming back to the discussion at hand, social media platforms have certainly made it possible for several causes to find greater eyeballs than they otherwise would have. Prior to the advent of social media, mainstream print and electronic media’s monopoly over news and opinion was unparalleled, and the fact that access to such platforms wasn’t within the reach of the average citizen is undeniable. Therefore, social media has certainly democratized access to public megaphones which, notwithstanding the noise they generate, are necessary particularly in Bharat given its sheer diversity.
Having said that, the time has come to examine certain assumptions we take for granted in the context of social media. Previously, presumption of neutrality was imputed to both print and electronic media which has been severely undermined not just prospectively but also retrospectively. In other words, I am not sure if the media was ever neutral. The lack of options on the political front gave the impression of political stability, which spilt over even on the media front. However, with emergence of viable alternative political options, the perception of neutrality too has worn off. Dare I say that social media platforms are witnessing a similar phase since people are no more willing to put stock in their claim of neutrality. The claim of being mere “intermediaries” doesn’t find as many enthusiastic takers as it did, say a decade ago.
May be the time has come to lay down a few behavioural standards for social media platforms so that public discourse is not subverted in the name of free speech through promotion of select strains of thought and speech, which undermines the fundamental expectation of diversity in a democracy. Or at least, such platforms must wear their leanings on their sleeve so as to enable the consumer to make an informed choice in what is supposed to be a free market of ideas.
J. Sai Deepak is an Advocate practising as an arguing counsel before the Supreme Court of India and the High Court of Delhi.