Is social media threatening?
It used to be the province of the people’s representatives to disseminate the point of view of governments, political regimes – and of the people of the countries to whom these governments and regimes belonged. Somehow though the voice of the people seemed rather muted and at times outright absent, even though many of these countries were democracies or at least they called themselves so.
Instead, for the last two decades or so the electronic media has taken over the role of disseminating the people’s voice, and has been responsible for driving world events. That platform from which the people have been speaking for the past two decades is not a parliament, an assembly or polling booth, it is social media, across divides and countries. It is a platform that allows people to have their say in a way that those other platforms never did. It can be called one of the main forces on the world stage. Democracy has taken an interesting turn.
Certain spin-offs of a powerful cyber platform have had their down side. The ‘Arab Spring’ an uprising of the Arab people born of a dissatisfaction of the way things were, led to the civil war in Syria now taking place, which has led to so much loss of life and such a huge displacement of people. The uprising took place on the shoulders of the electronic media, by its new and extensive use by the Arab public. At the height of the Arab uprisings (or Arab Spring as it has been dubbed) Facebook had well over 27 million users in the Arab world. In mid-2011, In Egypt and Tunisia, almost all of those polled claimed that social media, Facebook and Twitter, played a large role in their activism. In countries such as Yemen and Libya where social media does not have as large a presence, its people used YouTube, email and cell phones. It seems that the voice of the people, like murder, will out.
Interestingly, in Egypt in addition to social media another powerful platform has been the mosque from where the call for change was issued and widely heard and acted upon.
Good or not good is not where this column leads, it only indicates several points worth noting. It points firstly to social media as a new and powerful platform, of the people, for the people and by the people… a platform that by virtue of being the voice of the people demands respect.
It indicates secondly that perhaps governments and political regimes do not after all speak for the people as much as they would like us to believe. That those traditional platforms, parliaments, assemblies and booths where available have proved ineffective or insufficient, or that in some way for some reason have failed to perform. If people would like these to remain the major platforms then there needs to be some major changes to the way they function.
The third point is that social media and the internet, given that it is the force it is should be given appropriate facilities and opportunities to carry on providing a voice to the people. In countries where social media is suppressed the act can be viewed as synonymous with the suppression of democracy and freedom of speech, making the suppression an undemocratic act. Like the genie, cyber platforms cannot now be stuffed back into the bottle. They are here to stay.
The fourth aspect is that mosques, although not electronic media – unless you take the electronic microphone used by mosques into account appear to have been as loud and powerful as any social media, judging by Egypt’s experience. This is not said facetiously to refer to the indiscriminate use of the microphones by mosques, although the temptation is great. Instead what is referred to is the inherent power of the mosque to provide a platform for Muslims wherever they visit mosques, and for the masses in Muslim countries. Any regulation of social media should include regulation of mosques.
President Obama, as he leaves the Presidency, is said to be worried about the spread of fake news on social media. It is a legitimate concern. According to The Guardian, it seems that ‘fake news – whether claiming that the Pope had endorsed Trump, or that Clinton sold weapons to Isis – actually outperformed real news on the platform, with more shares, reactions and comments.’ But that still does not provide reason for suppressing social media, only reason to regulate it rationally. Which calls into play the question of how much is rational making regulation a tricky business.
The dilemma presented by social media is very similar to that presented by the transition of power from Obama’s more level headed hands – responsible as they are for much of Syria’s trouble today, to Trump’s, the hands of a man who does not have the vote of the majority of American people, only the vote of a majority in the Electoral College. It does not legitimise placing restrictions on democracy as it is practiced in the US but raises the potential of change and/or amendment. As sure enough, following the election results in the US this year there has been debate concerning the electoral system of the USA and whether election by an electoral college is as good an idea as it was meant to be. If it legitimises placing restrictions on democracy, it is time to question democracy itself, to the extent to which it should and does provide a platform and power to the people.
The restrictions imposed on freedom of information and expression by Pakistan’s new cybercrime laws should be viewed in this light, although perhaps the cyber world has already been viewed as being too powerful for the regime in power, and restrictions placed on it for that very reason. That makes the new laws not for the people but against them. One must ask oneself the question in this country whether this is the direction we would like our governance to take.