Don’t blame social media, it’s just a messenger

This has been on my mind for quite some time now. Everyone watching the spontaneous crowd coming together on Raisina Hill owed it partly to social media. The quite protests were fine until some of them converted into rowdy mobs exhibiting violence.

And there’s the rub.

Vikram Doctor in Economic Times has summed it well as – “often mobs can be contained without the use of force — sometimes humour or doing something ridiculous can distract the attention of people. But if force has to be used, it must be done in such a way “that make them think as individuals. Individuals should be given ample scope to escape and run as far away as possible so that they do not regroup again with a new group of ‘friend’”. But most of all, he emphasises again and again in his book, through situations as tense and diverse as the Bombay Police Riots of 1982, Datta Samant’s mill agitations, or the Punjab militancy, there is no substitute for genuinely trying — and being seen to try — to understand the concerns of protesters and what could be done to deal with them.”

Twitter and other social media are value-neutral tools, and they can be put to incredibly destructive uses. Let’s never forget, though, that the vast majority of the time social media is used constructively, connecting friends and family, facilitating expression and creativity, and even spawning amazing spontaneous efforts like the volunteer support on platforms like Ushahidi.

The same herd mentality is often used to nudge users to financially support others’ ideas on platforms like Kickstarter or to perform improv, leading the crowd into funny situations in public places.

It’s perfectly legitimate to be concerned over its potentially destructive uses, but let’s be careful what we do about it.

One reason is that the authorities are not very good at distinguishing between harmless fun flash-mobbing, legitimate political protest, and incitements to crime. They will tend to err on the side of caution—and the side of avoiding any potential controversy at all.

The authority tends to ignore the overwhelming amount of good that social media facilitates at the first sign of a potential threat. That’s a dangerous tendency, and that’s why governments—democratic or autocratic—should not have the power to pull the plug on social media.

What’s the alternative? Police should police and apprehend and prosecute the small minority of delinquents who use the new tools for ill. There’s uncertainty in that, and a real possibility that new media will be used for crime. It’s also a lot more work for officials. But that is the small price we must pay for a free society.

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