Social Media: A Necessary Evil

With the advent of social media and the majority of population succumbing to its temptation and glamour, the life of people is increasingly becoming more dynamic and fast and at the same time too intrusive with multiplying conflicts, unhappiness and dissatisfaction in life. While the social media provide an excellent affordable and handy platform for greetings, light entertainment, sharing news, personal information and education, people, as individuals and groups, are also increasingly using it to express frustration and dislike towards organizational, social and political causes. However, this trend is not unique to India alone; instead it has emerged as a global phenomenon. I often get foxed with the craze of the social media among Indians when I notice that even the least educated and low income group people have a strong craving for the smart phones and buy it ignoring their other essential needs, mainly to join the social media like Facebook, Whatsapp and Instagram.

Many people may be aware of the controversy sometime back when the suspended chief executive (Alexander Nix) of Cambridge Analytica, a UK based political consultancy, claimed in a secretly recorded video broadcast that his UK-based company’s online campaign had played a decisive role in the US President Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory. There was hell of a lot hullabaloo in the US and elsewhere after the disclosure that Facebook users’ personal data was mined for this purpose. Subsequently, a whistleblower of the same company admitted before the British Lawmakers that the company had worked extensively in India too, pointing the oldest and now main political opposition party as their clients. The disclosure sent a shockwave in the social and political circles in India triggering a debate about the security and safety of the personal data of the users of the social media like Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp.

Although there is a long list of social networking sites and Apps worldwide but the more common ones in India are Facebook, Whatsapp, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn in the same order strengthwise. In a country with estimated over 1.34 billion population, currently India has over 500 million (0.5 billion) internet users which is more than the combined population of the US and Russia, the two most powerful countries in the world. Of this, as per the current estimates approximately 220 million Indians use the Facebook alone. According to another source, India had already touched a figure of 241 million in July 2017. These are only indicative figures to suggest the magnitude of the social media in India and influence it can exercise in social and political context.

Impending Threats

With the advent and growing information technology, it’s benefits world over have been reaped and most Indians too are not far behind in this league. But here author’s main concern is about its harmful and ill-effects which are easy to cultivate and impacts are enormous. While the chicanery and subterfuge engaged by the companies like Cambridge Analytica are the game and mainly concern of political parties and groups, the common people are more influenced and concerned with the day-to-day false reporting, disinformation and vicious propaganda circulating on these social platforms by the pervert minds or people with vested interests and agenda in mind and people falling easy prey taking it as innocuous material in their sub-conscious mind.

To illustrate the above point, I would briefly undertake two issues of national importance here as a sort of case studies, which are viral and taking rounds on the social media these days in India, mainly on Whatsapp and Facebook. One is the recent Inter-governmental Agreement (IGA) between India and France for off-the-shelf purchase of 36 Rafale Fighter aircraft to partially meet the growing gap in the fleet of the Indian Air Force due to phased grounding of the old-vintage aircrafts of the MIG series and Jaguars inducted in late 1960s to early1980s. Ever since the agreement was signed between the two countries in September 2016, there is a systematic campaign made by the principal opposition party to berate and vilify it as a “mega scam” of the present Government in India. The other issue is about the growing prices of the petroleum products during the recent months. Many people may not be aware about the fact that the decision to deregulate prices of petroleum products was taken by the earlier UPA government in 2010.

However, they notified it in respect of petrol on 26 June 2010 and that of diesel in 19 October 2014 by the present NDA government. Despite decision taken, implementation was slow and poor by the earlier government but effectively enforced by the present government both for the petrol and diesel. By implication, it meant that the government would discontinue subsidy and the oil marketing companies will determine the rate of these commodities for the retail sale without government intervention based on international prices of crude oil and allied expenditure.

Case 1: IGA on Rafale Purchase

The Indian Air Force made a serious bid for 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) in 2000 and the government formally accepted the need for procurement in 2002. Air Force took next few years to firm up technical specifications, explore the potential supplier sources and make of compatible aircrafts etc. by floating the Request for Information (RFI), and a formal tender was issued in August 2007. Following the detailed technical evaluation and field trial of six fighter jets, finally two aircrafts namely Dassault Rafale (France) and Eurofighter Typhoon (Consortium of 4 European counties) were shortlisted in April 2011 as qualified fighter jets. On opening their commercial bids, Rafale was found the lowest in January 2012 and further negotiations was carried out with the OEM (Dassault Aviation) only as per procedure to resolve related issues.

As per tender conditions, the first batch of 18 aircraft were to come in fly away condition while remaining bare-bones 108 aircraft were to be produced in the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) under license under the guarantees of the OEM (i.e. Dassault Aviation). After initial interface, the OEM expressed serious concerns about the “manpower hours needed to manufacture per unit” by the HAL fearing serious time and cost overrun and also the capacity of the latter to absorb the sophisticated technology. The then UPA government could neither resolve it nor took any decision for almost two and a –half years and the government changed in May 2014. The Air Force had been constantly raising the issue of critical shortages in aircraft fleet and impending gaps in defence preparedness; hence after formally withdrawing the deadlocked deal, the new NDA government, after in-principle agreement between the heads of two governments, entered into government-to-government negotiations with France and signed a comprehensive IGA for the supply of 36 “loaded” Rafales, with a provision of 18 more on same terms and conditions, with 50 percent offset and some other concessions. Difference between the “bare-bone” and “loaded” is that the former is just an aircraft rolled out with all necessary requisites to fly while the latter includes warfare equipment and accessories (including India-specific enhancements and logistics support for a specified period in the instant case).

Ever since the agreement was signed, the main opposition party and its leader have criticized the deal leveling personal allegations against the prime minister and government about the cost, numbers and cronyism in the Parliament and public without citing or presenting any substantive or verifiable facts. It is ironical to note that renowned people – politicians, bureaucrats and activists have been talking like experts with the least knowledge on the subject. Even the leader of the opposition party who aspires to lead the country, while making allegations on the government on the counts of cost and cronyism in the Rafale agreement, has quoted five different cost of the aircraft as rupees 520, 526, 540, 700 and 750 crores on different occasions. Despite several clarifications by the government, and credible and cogent reports in the media by the independent authors and experts, the controversy refuses to settle down.

Quite obviously, the next general elections are round the corner and the opposition parties and supporters would not like to miss any opportunity to keep the issue alive and hot till at least elections. There is not a day when the opponents and interested people and groups will not plant new story with fresh pack of lies and disinformation in the social media to build opinion against the government and ruling party ignoring the fact that it is an inter-governmental agreement with no middle-men or hidden elements on the pattern of life-cycle cost. What is more intriguing is that the most of these people do not have the basic idea or knowledge about the defence procurement procedure and life-cycle cost yet they talk like experts. The other day, the author tried to reason with few such people on social media with fairly accurate data and facts on the subject but all in vain. They did not talk or participate in fact finding and simply continued their rants unabated with a fresh barrage of artillery on the subject. The message is clear you cannot talk reason with biased minds.

Case 2: Price Hike of Petroleum Products

While the Rafale issue has been raked up by a select group of politicians with an agenda in mind, critics of the government due to ideological differences and some baiters having personal grudge against the prime minister, the cost of the petroleum products have a wide concern and implication on the entire populace. Prices of petrol and diesel have indeed shown significant upward trend in the recent weeks causing nationwide discomfort and concern. However, once again the opposition parties, critics and baiters of the government and ruling party are exploiting the situation to gain advantage in ensuing elections and by maligning the image due to personal grudges. Of course, the social media is playing a significant role here too buzzed with repeated distorted data and disinformation.

While decontrolling the petrol prices in 2010, the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated on his way back from Toronto after attending G-20 Summit that the move to free petrol and diesel rates was part of the “much needed reform” and there should not be excessive “populism”. He said that soon diesel prices too will be decontrolled; however, this decision was much later taken by the successive government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014. As per the data published by the Ministry of Petroleum & Natural Gas on 25 April 2016, the government subsidy/under-recovery on petroleum products during 2012-13, 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16 (9 months) was Rs 163782, 146339, 76308 and 22085, respectively. Currently, subsidy exists only on Kerosene and Domestic LPG; Prime Minister Modi earlier made an appeal to the affluent section to voluntarily forego subsidy on LPG and a large number of subscribers have responded favourably.

Decontrolling or deregulating the petrol and diesel prices implies that the government will no longer be subsidizing prices and it will be determined by the international crude prices. The basic cost of the petrol or diesel is worked out based on price of crude oil (1 barrel = 169 litre), transportation and overheads like manpower, power, machinery, maintenance etc. Taxes, marketing and distribution costs are further added to arrive at the unit price, which inter alia includes Excise duty, Education cess, VAT, transportation, distribution and dealer commission. In the following table, rates of petrol in four metropolitan cities of India at certain crucial dates are given from 2004 to 2018:

Period Delhi Kolkata Mumbai Chennai
15 June 2004 35.71 38.69 40.96 38.96
02 July 2009 44.72 48.25 48.76 48.58
16 April 2014 71.41 79.26 80.00 74.60
10 Sept 2018 80.73 83.61 88.12 83.91

(Source: Indian Oil Corporation Limited Website)

Based on this factual data, mean average percentage hike in four mega Indian cities during three regimes have been worked out. Data suggest that during the five years of UPA-I regime (2004-09), the price of petrol grew at cumulative 23.33%, next five years in UPA-II regime (2009-14) it has cumulative escalation of 60.41% and in the present NDA regime(2014-18) it has a cumulative escalation of 10.19% so far. The similar increase in the national capital Delhi has been 25.23%, 59.68% and 13.05% during the three regimes. One also needs to consider the facts such as that the subsidy has been completely abolished on petrol and diesel, rupee has significantly devalued against dollar, average income of consumers has substantially grown during the period, tax structure is constantly under revision with implementation of GST, overall inflation is low and fully compensated to a large section of employees and workers based on CPI/WPI, and prices of many other commodities of use have decreased.

The Congress party organized a nationwide “Bharat Bandh” on 10 September 2018 to oppose the government on the price rise of the petrol and diesel. The fact is that it was their policy decision way back in 2010 to deregulate the prices which meant that they will abolish subsidy and allow prices to be determined by the oil companies based on international market. But they remained hesitant in implementation which the present government effectively implemented doing away with subsidy and allowing the oil companies to have market based sale price on day-to-day basis. Actually, the basic price works out to rupees 30-35 per litre and high prices are mainly on account of the excise and VAT as major source of revenue for the central and state governments. Factors cited in preceding paragraph are relevant but the respective governments can give some relief to consumers by reducing their share of taxes, if they so agree.

Indian politics and politicians are classic example of double speak and standards. For illustration, Karnataka government only recently hiked tax on petrol and diesel from 19 to 21percent and now the government itself organized “Bharat Bandh” on 10 September paralyzing life in the state. Therefore, I am not surprised when their zealot supporters mindlessly join a campaign on the social media for systematic berating of the federal government and its head without any reservation in posting the obnoxious and obscene images/messages. Recently, I tried to talk reason with some people enjoying high position in the society supported by factual data and analytics but at the end I found it again a futile exercise.

Bull in the China Shop

What is in the background and cause of the propaganda and misinformation on the social media with the intent to cause social and political unrest and resentment against the government? Actually fuel to the fire is being added by some disgruntled politicians of the ruling party itself. Few such illustrious people from the trades like legal practice, cinema, journalism and bureaucracy turned politicians, mostly aged above 75 years, were not offered positions as a policy when the ministry was formed by the present government in 2014 against their (hidden) desire. Ever since unhappy and enraged, they are systematically berating and castigating almost every policy or move of the government openly in media and public forums thereby giving ample ammunition and fuel to the opposition and other critics. The recent press conference in Delhi of the same elements on the Rafale deal is a case in point that lacked facts and substance but enough fire and fury by calling the deal as “massive scam jeopardizing national security”. When such venom comes from seemingly respected entities, many people take it on face value having faith in their their past glory in the society and public life.

Opposing the programme and policies as also the individual decisions of the government in democracy is a matter of personal choice based on own ideology and interpretations and seemingly there is nothing wrong in it. But when the same person starts seeing red all the time and prefers to scold and bash an entity (i.e. personal attack) or institution all the time, it certainly smacks of malafide intention and their utter frustration. Unfortunately, currently this is the state of some disgruntled and disoriented people who are quoted and followed by many critics of the government on the social and mainstream media. Their demeanour is like a “Bull in the China Shop” which is programmed for causing disarray and destruction. For the benefit of those who are unaware of this idiom or phrase, it was coined in London (UK) of 17th century from real life situations when stray cattle used to cause havoc into local china shops. These people are aggressive and clumsy in a situation that needs delicacy and care; the national interest and security being one such situation.

Social Media: Slaves & Parasites

According to the data compiled by one “Statistics Portal”as of July 2018, India topped the list of the Facebook users with about 270 million people followed by the US (210) and Brazil (130). The other most powerful social media platform in India is Whatsapp with over 200 million users. Based on their role and contribution, they could broadly categorized as creator, critic, collector, joiner, spectator and inactive user. Broadly, these terms itself suggest the probable features of the user category. The creators are the most significant users as they are the ones who actually contribute the content by writing blogs and messages, creating images, uploading videos etc. The critics are ones who actively react or respond to the content and widely circulate it on the media.

However, here the point of discussion is not the academics of the media users; instead, points of interest are their behavior, attitude and conduct on the social media based on their social and political leanings, choices and preferences. Usual contents include humour, cartoons, pleasantries, text messages, PDF documents, images and videos on a variety of subjects varying from entertainment and leisure, pleasantries, sharing of information, sports, arts, literature, economics, science and variety of other subjects including personal and professional matters. Again the majority of this content has no issues or any serious cause of concern. Instead, it the spiteful and malicious contents with barbs spread by many to express their displeasure, hate and venom against the people and organizations which is a real cause of concern on the social media. For illustration, the other day I found in a post where a lookalike (most probably morphed) of the incumbent PM and a tiger are separated by a wire-fencing with a remark “had there not been this fencing, today people’s pocket would not have been vacant.” It’s obvious; such media posts are extremely crude and malicious.

After the Facebook, the Whatsapp has become the most popular medium for the social networking and interaction in India. From the media trend, I have observed that some people are awake at late and early hours at night (i.e. between midnight to 4AM) posting messages sometimes bearing fanciful, absurd, obnoxious and even obscene content. On face, many of such people appear well educated and even enjoy respectable position in the society. Perhaps it is their angularities, fantasies and idiosyncrasies that prompt or compel them for such misdemeanor. I call them “slaves and parasites” on the social media. Slaves because they are so driven by the media urge that they cannot resist temptation even at late night when they should be taking rest and sleep, and parasites because they do not have their original or independent views based on reason and fact; instead they borrow it from the negativities of the people referred to in the previous section as “Bull in the China Shop”.

The general elections are due early next year and the trend of fake news and disinformation has gained momentum on the social media to malign entities and institutions. It’s not that it was not there in the past but the volume and frequency was nowhere near now. A lot of such stuff is either against the government or in favour depending on their leanings. Basically, three categories of media buffs are found: one category is that of anti-establishment people which would resort to malicious propaganda employing even false data and information to defame and denigrate the contribution of the government; the other category is that of the pro-establishment ones which would make exaggerated or even false claims and achievements; the third category is those of rationalists who do not like either of the extremes and want the media to act in true and balancing role. It is not surprising if the unscrupulous and greedy politicians and shrewd companies like Cambridge Analytica mine and reap on the leanings of the first and second categories of users unethically to influence the outcome of elections.

Merits and Demerits

The history of the social media is not very old. The most dominant and widespread App Facebook started on 4th February 2004 in US and was opened worldwide including India on 26 September 2006. Two other dominant social media, Whatsapp and Twitter were introduced in India in the mid-2010 and July 2006, respectively. Being second most populous country in the world, India already has the highest number of users on social media with China not yet opening too many of these utilities, including Facebook. Most of the countries are now increasingly making use of the social media to enhance the quality of life of people. Like most of the man-made things that have their positive and negative effects, the social media too is not without both the impacts. Let’s briefly see its positive and negative effects on the life of people and society at large.

The most important benefit accrued to the users is their connectivity regardless of the region and location. Through these sites, people are making new friends and acquaintances, augment their business and professional opportunities and even reconnect with their lost contacts, family and friends. In a nutshell, the connectivity through social media has opened a plethora of benefits and opportunities. The other major benefits are the real-time information sharing and building a network based on the commonality of interests. For instance, if somebody has an interest in literature, he or she can easily find and connect with people of similar interest to share knowledge and holdings. Business networking and targeted publicity are other key advantages. In addition, use of the social media for education, community assistance, information sharing and updates, promotion of business and trading, spreading awareness of issues and noble causes and checking crime etc. are other key areas where social media have tremendous role and applications.

With so many accrued benefits, the social media have its ugly face too with many harmful features. The biggest threat is one already discussed in the foregoing paragraphs. People habitually post offensive content with a malicious agenda in mind, the repercussion of which could be negative often too brutal and excessive in the political and social context. Online fraud and identity theft are other serious threats, particularly in developing countries like India where necessary rules are prevalent but their implementation is weak. Cyber bullying, hacking, breach of privacy, theft of data and crime against children and women are other common weaknesses that go against the social media. With the advent of smart phones, a large number of people pay disproportionate attention to it wasting valuable time, energy and money. There are many who are obsessed and addicted to it risking serious health hazards.

Online activities through social networking have led to many frauds, cheating, scams and security issues. It has even ruined social reputation of many celebrities and common people by leakage of their private data, images and video clips. Even deaths are reported in many cases following crazy stuff and stunts shared on the media. Only some time back, a notorious Blue Whale game led to umpteen deaths in India and other countries. A major threat comes from the service providers themselves which manipulate and sometime misuse private data of users for the business and other interests. These are the reasons why it is often said that the social media is a necessary evil of the modern age.

Government Measures

The Government has been contemplating for long to impose checks and accountability for the fake news, disinformation and malicious contents on the social media. Reportedly, about a year back in 2017, there was a move about initiating action to finalize a policy aimed at keeping vigil and check on the social media for its misuse, conspiracy and anti-national propaganda. Earlier in April 2018, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry issued a press release on amendments in guidelines for accreditation of journalists on the issue of fake news generating a widespread debate but this was again withdrawn after intervention of the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) with a stipulation that any decision on fake news should be taken by bodies like the Press Council of India.

Under the Information Technology Act 2000, as amended from time to time, the government issues necessary rules, guidelines and advisory on as required basis but its implementation has not been effective till now due various reasons. Government feels the necessity of a technology platform to collect digital media chatter from all core social media platforms as well as digital platforms providing real-time insights, metrics and other valuable data. Reportedly some serious thought to create a social media hub to that effect is gaining momentum in the concerned Ministry. Such a move could reportedly strengthen hands of the government for inhibiting or blocking the public partially or wholly on the social media when the national security or public order are at risk.

But India being a democracy of diverse creed, religion, caste, culture, language, ethnicity, social interests, ideologies, and so on so forth, it is not an easy task to arrive at a universally acceptable solution in a country also famous for the judicial activism. Only some time back, the Supreme Court, acting on a public interest litigation (PIL) of one member of a largely regional political party, took a strong note of the government’s resolve to set up such social media hub for the proposed monitoring and said that such a move will tantamount to creating a “surveillance state” and sought the government response in the given time. It’s like arriving at a verdict without going into the details and intricacies but then it is a common fallacy of the Indian democracy.


More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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