Most of us, at some point of time, have experienced the perils of unbridled online content. It’s a problem with almost every widely-used medium of communication—the internet, television and social media. Even if we dislike the chatter we witness, we cannot curb people’s freedom of speech. Inflammatory messages and misinformation plague popular platforms, including Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, globally. This has had serious consequences, including defamation, persecution, and even mob lynching. But never have we considered banning these platforms. Why? Because it is people who are responsible for creating and sharing content; the platform is merely the carrier, and there is no point shooting the messenger.
As the influence of social media grows, we are seeing how its ability to shape people’s thoughts can also lead to widespread debate and differences in opinion. On closer inspection, though, we realize that the real area of concern is user-generated content. It would seem, therefore, that the most effective way to stop offensive content is to ban all forms of user-generated content. But that would be a violation of the freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of media, which isn’t the ideal approach in evolved societies. It is not viable either, and would create more problems than solve.
Social media platforms celebrate and thrive on creativity and expression. They bring people and communities together, based on common interests. Although technology enables users to enjoy new experiences, it is up to them to act with responsibility. What we need is more awareness among users of the consequences of their actions. Just like we are conscious of our offline behaviour, we must be conscious of our online behaviour. Moreover, we need to be vigilant on offensive, inflammatory and misguiding content. And, most importantly, we must be willing to act against offenders. There are three simple ways of doing this: report the offenders and their content to the platform; bring them to the notice of the concerned law enforcement authorities; and do not share the content.
Let’s remember that though social media can be used to propagate hate and negativity, it is also the most powerful weapon to fight these evils. The other great value of social media and internet-based platforms for a developing country like ours lies in its ability to enable communication, catalyse socio-economic progress, and provide relief during disasters and crises.
In 2019, India had over 504 million active internet users. In fact, there were more internet users in rural areas (277 million) than in urban (227 million). Most of these users access the internet on their smartphones, primarily for social media, entertainment and news. Almost two-thirds of India’s population is rural, with a literacy rate of 72.3% among males and 56.8% among females. However, even among the literate, not everyone can read or write in English—the language that makes up for more than half of all online content. How then are these people to connect with information, facilities and people online? Through audiovisual communication, of course, using mobile-based apps.
Oral communication overcomes barriers posed by illiteracy and unfamiliarity with a language. It is little wonder then that the adoption of platforms such as WhatsApp and TikTok is so high in India. Such apps have enabled people to communicate comfortably. They have let them gain awareness of and participate in developments of the day. They have given them a means of expression.
The nationwide reach of mobile apps and their relative ease of use make them a highly effective medium for facilitating education, information and relief efforts on a wide scale and on a real-time basis. There are many examples of mobile platforms working with content creators to create educational videos in the areas of science, mathematics and new languages. Mobile apps are also being used to promote health and mental awareness, and to facilitate collaboration and mentorship, both among the rural and urban populace.
During natural disasters such as the Kerala floods of 2018, when conventional modes of communication were severed, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp proved very useful in disseminating information, establishing communication, and facilitating relief efforts. Even during the covid-19 pandemic, people used social media groups (with WhatsApp leading the pack) to aggregate and place orders for essential items within building complexes and neighbourhoods. Social media was also used to share information on safety and hygiene practices, government directives, and on new cases in nearby localities. The latter is the kind of news that we seldom get through conventional mass media. Brands, and even social media platforms themselves, have launched many campaigns since the outbreak to promote hygiene and a sense of purpose and cheer among citizens.
Mobile internet-access and apps are now a part of our lives. Like all human inventions, they were created with good intentions, and have their pros and cons. It is inevitable and unfortunate that there will always be those who will take something that’s fundamentally good and misuse it to realize their own twisted aims. But that shouldn’t stop us from appreciating and using the boons of technology, nor from believing that there is, and always will be, good in this world.