In the past few weeks, social media in India has emerged as a vital platform of communication between the government and citizens. In addition to sending out pandemic-related updates through various news platforms, governments today can share information directly with people. During the lockdown, social media platforms have facilitated two-way communication between people and constitutional functionaries at various levels, sometimes resulting in immediate grievance redressal.
Reaching out directly to the senior political leadership and other influencers seeking assistance has become an established practice. Social media also contributed to the success of the lockdown by ensuring that a large number of people stayed indoors through various challenges or tasks. There has been a considerable increase in the screen time, so much so that some over-the-top (OTT) media services were compelled to reduce video streaming quality (bitrate) to address congestion on the networks.
Simultaneously, social media hammered home the importance of staying at home and has emerged as a force multiplier in the combat against Covid-19. In addition to governmental communications, many health care professionals proactively used social media platforms to educate the masses through videos and other material on preventive measures. On the other hand, there is considerable misinformation on social media resulting in unwarranted anxiety. This has a lot to do with the fact that opinions are not made by subject experts debating each other based on facts.
The Novel Coronavirus, which, by its very name, indicates newness, requires substantive fundamental research before science can have definite answers. A lot of speculative reports are in the public domain about various aspects of this issue. However, public interest is so high that there is no time for scientific debate. People are bombarded with highly dangerous remedial measures, which include suggestions such as the consumption of lethal chemicals to cure the disease. Social media messaging has contributed to violent actions that are difficult to anticipate.
For instance, in UK, 5G mobile connectivity towers were attacked after a known conspiracy theorist floated a blatant lie that Coronavirus is a result of 5G deployment. Sadly, in India, misinformation on WhatsApp and fake news sometimes led to ostracization of doctors and other essential services personnel. They are being accosted at homes and asked to move out from various housing societies, which prompted intervention by law enforcement agencies.
Over the past few weeks, social media acted as a catalyst to enhance the trust between law enforcement agencies and the general public. Yes, there were instances when the police resorted to coercive tactics to tackle violations of lockdown provisions, and videos of such events were promptly posted on social media. However, it should be noted that in a country of 1.3 billion with remarkable diversity, lockdown provisions cannot be implemented by coercive tactics.
On the other hand, it is the persuasive tactics of the political, administrative and social leadership at all levels that has ensured effective implementation of the lockdown. Law enforcement agencies also applied persuasive tactics combined with enhanced enforcement as it was not a typical law and order situation. They often posted interesting content online, convincing people to stay home and highlighted the challenges that they confront in the line of their duty.
Such social media content humanised the coercive arm of the state apparatus – the police force. In law enforcement, particularly for police leaders, messaging has always been an important aspect as no police force can tangibly reach every citizen. The recent engagement of social media suggests that police organisations are picking up new-age messaging – simplifying complex messages yet keeping them grounded in facts and, at the same time, glamorising it enough to capture eyeballs.
Simultaneously, police also have a duty to keep their actions grounded in constitutional principles and not play to the galleries (or should we say, the timelines or walls) of social media. For instance, some police departments have deployed drone technologies to keep track of people’s movements – more specifically, to identify unwarranted crowding of public spaces. This has facilitated identifying violation of lockdown rules for recreational purposes such as sitting in close proximity and playing cards in public spaces.
Given the scale of challenges generated by the pandemic, the deployment of such technologies has received considerable approbation from the public. In some instances, the footage from the drone was released on social media platforms to convince people that despite human resource shortages, the police department is maintaining strict vigil. Once the lockdown is eased, there is a need to develop detailed protocols to deploy drones for ordinary policing activities to ensure that it does not violate the privacy of people.
More importantly, there is a need to be extra cautious in sharing the content of such drone videos on social media and other platforms. Police officers are being encouraged to engage with the public on social media to improve the image of the law enforcement agencies. Such proactive engagement needs to surmount a few challenges. First, much of policing involves the routine and unglamorous work of building systems that respond in a crisis, which is difficult to communicate in a pithy manner on social media.
To meet social media requirements, professional agencies can be hired, but that involves additional expenses and constitutes distraction for an already overstretched workforce. Second, policing involves substantial teamwork. However, to be visible on social media, there may be a temptation to post messages that convey personal achievements. There are apprehensions that the requirements of social media may end up affecting the work of young officers.
Third, social media is where the fault-lines in society tend to get amplified. Narratives by influential groups can often put a law enforcement agency on the defensive and prompt it to play to the gallery on social media. Such actions may go against the fundamental precept of policing, which is to work dispassionately/ impartially to protect the rights of citizens and uphold the rule of law.
The social media genie is out of the bottle, and there is no going back now. An important step that needs to be taken is to ensure that law enforcement personnel at all levels are equipped to deal with the multidimensional challenges and opportunities of engaging with social media. This pandemic has shown that policing in a social media-fuelled world is going to be more challenging, requiring rapid response and innovative communication strategies.