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FICCI Frames 2014: Internet needs to be both moderator and narrator in a democracy

The panel debated whether the internet was an interloper or catalyst in a democratic system and what role social media can play in India’s election campaign

Sohini Sen | Mumbai | March 14, 2014

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Day 2 of FICCI Frames 2014 started with more interesting sessions all of which stuck to the broader theme of digital and technology in some way or the other. The panel discussion on ‘Internet and Democracy: Interloper or Catalyst?’ was about how internet has the responsibility, especially in this day and age, to source, distribute and distinguish between news and rumour. This becomes especially important in the year the world’s largest democracy goes to polls.

The session was chaired by BBC’s senior anchorperson, Jon Sopel. The panel felt that there is a lack of privacy literacy, especially among young people. They seem unable to interpret the privacy policies of the various platforms. Even if they can interpret the policy, they are cognitively not yet adept at understanding its implications. Hence it is important to develop privacy literacy in the social media age.

According to Roger Fisk, PR expert for President Obama’s campaign, social media amplifies human nature. He explained that if a person or organisation wants to go out and interact with others of a specific community, he can do that. If the organisation wants to portray an image which says they are working to save the environment, they can do that far more easily with social media. As such even political aspirants can personalise their campaigns and play it up during elections.

Roger added that “social media can impact how people live their civil lives. It may not change us, but will change the things we are exposed to.”

The 600 per cent growth of the internet since 2007 was mentioned by Chetan Krishnaswamy, Head, Public Policy and Government Relations, Google India, as he tried to explain what the internet story is all about in India. According to data, India is poised to be the country with the second highest general internet penetration. What he also pointed out was that as can be seen recently, people speaking regional and local languages will start coming online. So, the world has to be ready for regional language websites growing at a faster pace than the English language sites. He also touched upon topics such as e-commerce and the value internet as a whole brings to India’s GDP growth. According to him, “Internet can only make the democracy better.”

Ronak Samantray, Founder, NowFloats.com, discussed how his company had helped businesses tap into the power of the internet through simple SMS. While regular businesses update their sites once or twice a year, SMS messages are updated about four times a month because they are simple.

According to NDTV’s Director of Strategy, Suparna Singh, social media can become an apparatus for change, but India is still one election away from that. The reason for this is that most people have still not understood and realised the reach of social media. The huge opportunities that Twitter provides are being squandered by angry rantings of couch critics, as was seen in recent days. “The internet must become the moderator and the narrator to play a more responsible part in the political ecosystem,” she said. Singh added, “A majority of prime ministerial candidates are still not using social media to connect with the public. There is alienation. Politicians therefore are talking ‘at’ them whereas they should be talking ‘to’ them at this stage.”

The way ahead, according to Singh, is to have less lustre, less bombast and listen more; only then can we have an interesting conversation on social media. “Young newcomers in politics work in a more transparent way. They don’t have the marketing budgets that many established political parties do. Therefore, social media becomes all the more important for them,” she pointed out.

Mike Best from the Berkman Centre for Internet & Society, Harvard University, raised the question whether social media recognises the relation between citizens and stage. He felt that the social media or Twitter revolution everyone keeps talking about in the USA is partial and a lot of questions should be asked, investigated and invented to understand the role of social media.

NDTV’s Singh, however, concluded that just like with power comes responsibility, similarly social media has speed to disseminate information. However, if it is not kept in check, it can also spread misinformation just as quickly.

Sohini.Sen@bestmediainfo.com

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