'It's not about controlling social media, it's about agreeing that there are certain rules of the game'

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Monday, August 05, 2013
Published On: 05:28:21 AM

Sagarika Ghose: Ladies and gentlemen, a warm welcome to the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards debate. The topic this evening is "Who's afraid of social media?" My first question to Kapil Sibal. You've had some run-ins with social media. Last year there was a time when you actually confronted service providers like Facebook, like Google, about certain content that was being uploaded. Do you feel that as member of the government, as a politician, you still haven't made your peace with social media?

Kapil Sibal: Personally, I don't think social media should bother anybody. It's a phenomenon that is here and it is an entirely new phenomenon. I don't think we've fully understood the enormity of the power of the media. On the one hand, it's a platform which is enormously empowering because it's a source of information. On the other hand, the very same medium is bigoted. It's a medium which can destroy, it's a medium that can spread anarchy. So it's constructive and destructive at the same time, evocative and depressing at the same time. I don't think that we should be against or for it... We have understood the importance of this medium on totalitarian regimes. But can it change democracy? That's the question we need to ask ourselves.

Seema Chishti: I'd like to draw in Mr Arun Jaitley to this. Do you think social media can or should be regulated? Shouldn't it be celebrated that it can be anarchic, that it can cock a snook at the establishment, that it can give somebody who is an absolutely nobody a voice? Should it be controlled?

Arun Jaitley: I think it's extremely difficult to regulate it because you can't discipline technology in that sense. Social media, as Kapil probably rightly put it, is a reality. Now it can be a great instrument of information, a great instrument of expression. And you'll also have an irresponsible character in this. I think it is eventually for the users of social media, and the minds that it reaches, to understand what to exclude and what to include within their system. It's not a question of being scared of it, being hostile to it, or being a great favourite in using it.

Sagarika Ghose: Let me bring in Manish Tewari precisely on that point. It's a reality that we have to live with. So how then can politicians rationally engage the social media? There are a lot of politicians who are using Twitter to put forward their point of view, and a lot of politicians who also believe that Twitter and Facebook are destroying democratic debate.

Anant Goenka: Can I just have one point here? That Mr Tewari's Twitter account is locked, so you have to be approved before you can see what he is tweeting.

Manish Tewari: The Internet is perhaps the most audacious experiment in anarchy, and it has succeeded. The Internet today is perhaps the largest ungovernable space in the world. Now within this space, not only politicians but everybody is learning to try and live with this new phenomenon... this huge space which will remain ungoverned and social media which will continue to mutate and influence discourse.

Sagarika Ghose: Will influence discourse. I need to say, not just the political discourse but the media discourse.

Seema Chishti: I just wanted to draw in Mr Aroon Purie on that. The critical thing about social media appears to be a direct interface that a politician, a prime minister, Shah Rukh Khan, can have with just about anyone. Does that challenge traditional media, or are we just getting spooked unnecessarily?

Aroon Purie: I think you're getting spooked. I think social media is a great opportunity. It's the amplifier of your mainstream media if you want to use it properly. Two, it is providing you a two-way communication which you never had with you readers. Number three, you can actually see what people are interested in, not what they should know, but what they want to know... Anyway, there's no point being threatened by it because you can't run away from it.

Sagarika Ghose: Do you see conventional media taking a backseat to social media?

Aroon Purie: Not at all. I think that Mr Jaitley, Kapil and Manish said it is the user who's going to decide which the most credible source of information for him is. And I think that if media is one of those credible sources, those are the brands which people will look for.

Seema Chishti: Mr Goenka, I'd like to draw you in. You look at the new media, so how do you look at the relationship between print and Twitter? Is it, disproportionately perhaps, casting a shadow on traditional media?

Anant Goenka: I think so. The influence of Twitter, let me tell you, is a little bit overstated. Look at the real numbers. Twitter hasn't made public its penetration numbers in India... Take Amitabh Bachchan's following, the largest in India, five million followers, double it, 10 million. That still is not even 10 per cent of the print reach in India. So I don't know how much Twitter can influence beyond a point. Sure, it might reach people who are influential, but I don't think it is a threat. I love what Mr Purie had to say. I think social media has opportunity to allow journalists and media houses to not only tell better stories but improve their storytelling.

Aroon Purie: May I say one thing about Twitter? I came across an interesting statistic ' about only 15 per cent of the people on Twitter are actually the ones who occupy 85 per cent of the tweeting. So it's a small minority which is driving the conversation.

Sagarika Ghose: Let me bring in Madhu Kishwar, veteran print journalist and also an enthusiastic user of Twitter and social media. Do you think that social media has afforded an opportunity for a wider range of opinion, a wider range of analysis, to be provided to the public rather than the mainstream media, which perhaps has its own biases?

Madhu Kishwar: Sagarika, I'm a very reluctant and late entrant into the world of social media; I had to be pushed into it. But I think it has been one of the most enriching life-enhancing experiences. Let me give you an example, with due apologies to CNN-IBN, an interview with Amartya Sen. I was really choking with anger and frustration as what I perceived as someone who's been studying Gujarat, studying India, is familiar with history of riots in this country, done a lot more work than Amartya Sen will ever do on the ground. All I had to do was to tweet about my frustration and within minutes I was part of a countrywide network of citizens who are equally enraged. The mainstream media will not give us the space to nail the untruths. It's only on social media that I can challenge even a Nobel laureate and say, "Buddy, you got it wrong".

Manish Tewari: I think the most important thing with regard to all the social media is that it is content-agnostic. Therefore, political parties, individuals have the ability to put their views out in public space... Now there is an inherent fallacy in this because you have a lot of unverified information going out. People will start making a judgment as to what is worth taking into account and what is worth discarding. Till that point in time that these rules of engagement emerge ' which they will do one day, I think ' you will have to let it find its own equilibrium.

Seema Chishti: Do you envisage control? I mean, if you try to do it, it will get bitter.

Manish Tewari: It's not about control. It's about the world coming together and agreeing that there are certain rules of the game... where there's a convergence between the physical and the virtual world.

Kapil Sibal: The other day the minister of culture in the UK said enough is enough, we must put a stop to it because something happened there. When there was a bomb blast in London, the prime minister himself came down on the social media. I think there needs to be a global engagement on how to deal with issues of this nature... I don't think there should be regulation but there should be an element of engagement.

Sagarika Ghose: But there is conflict, national security and social media. You know when the Northeast exodus happened, that was put down to some social media websites which were disseminating some kind of information which led to this kind of panic. The government said this is a question of national security; 76 or I think about a 100 websites were blocked. Do you feel that when there's an upheaval situation, social media will have to be shut down?

Kapil Sibal: First of all, you cannot possibly envisage what are the issues of national security that are going to confront us... I cannot decide whether tomorrow what's going to happen is an issue of national security. It's when that confronts us that we have to deal with it... We could not envisage that event... When you talk about national security, you can actually end up destroying the social media on the ground of national security saying, look, this is a matter of national concern to us, we will not allow this to happen. You need to have global rules, we need to have national rules. I think the media itself needs to have rules on how it has to deal with itself.

Sagarika Ghose: What if there is a website openly spreading casteist or communal or regional hatred? What does a government do then?

Arun Jaitley: Normally, technology to a large extent does defy all these prohibitions and bans. But even in free speech, there are constitutionally prescribed restrictions. If you come within the ambit of breaching the law so that you come within those prescribed restrictions, then perhaps the state may have to act for a limited purpose in those cases...

Madhu Kishwar: I think such kinds of risks exist more in societies where people don't trust their government. I find social media having a very fast self-correcting mechanism. You post wrong information, there'll be hundreds of people correcting you right then and there. Where the governments are trusted, they come on immediately to give reliable information. It's only where the governments lie routinely that these troublemakers have a field day.

Sagarika Ghose: The way to fight an information campaign against you is with more information.

Kapil Sibal: Why do you talk about government and citizen? What about citizen and citizen? There is a whole new relationship out there between two citizens. One who is a victim, the other who is actually spreading the information. Where is the justice for the victim?.... Unless the anonymity factor is dealt with, we cannot really have an evolved media.

Sagarika Ghose: Should social media be above the law because the mainstream media operates within the law? In social media, there was an example of a certain CD circulating about a certain politician. We in the mainstream media were not allowed to show that CD but it was all over the social media.

Anant Goenka: If we focus on what works, what does actually work? What works as you've seen is consistent, accurate and passionate content. If Ramnath Goenka had a Twitter handle, I can promise you he would have been the most followed journalist around...

Arun Jaitley: If Ramnath Goenka had a Twitter handle, there would be no Emergency.

Manish Tewari: At this point in time, Twitter or new media takes advantage of being in multiple jurisdictions. Therefore, once the rules of engagement develop, this problem of anonymity, of privacy, or privacy being confused as anonymity, people being identified and action taken, will all go away. It's just a matter of time.

Kapil Sibal: The US engagement on copyright is that they will not allow those media sites to exist which violate the copyright law. You are going to have such rules of engagement in times to come.

Anant Goenka: So it is content. It is not the platform but the content.

Manish Tewari: It is about the platform also. For example, if you take the example of the Chinese, they have created their own Twitter. So it is not about content alone. It is about instruments of information dissemination also.

Madhu Kishwar: It basically boils down to this. Governments who know how to book known criminals, governments who know how to enforce law and order in ordinary situations, control violence, will also know how to regulate the social media... Governments who can't control known terrorists encourage them, shelter them. In such a situation, to worry about cyber-terrorists makes no sense. First things first.

Sagarika Ghose: So basically what we have is I think Manish and Kapil arguing that social media is sometimes taken over by interests who are not interested in freedom but sometimes destabilising the situation and need to be controlled.

Kapil Sibal: I am not talking of controls. We said there should be rules of engagement.

Sagarika Ghose: Right, netiquette, not censorship. There should be Net sense but not censorship.

Kapil Sibal: And anonymity is the biggest danger to the Net itself.

Anant Goenka: I think the focus needs to move away from platform to content. Two days ago, British PM Cameron banned a certain type of pornography online. That's the kind of thing that we need to spend more time on, rather than censoring Twitter or Facebook.

Sagarika Ghose: I think the system does self-regulate. Let's turn it around for questions.

Shekhar Gupta [Editor-in-Chief, The Indian Express]: I think we haven't asked a simple question ' who's afraid of social media and who isn't? Can we have a show of hands? [No hands raised] This is wonderful. I think everybody is afraid of saying "I am afraid of social media"... Quraishi saab?

S Y Quraishi [former chief election commissioner]: I noticed that there is consensus that anonymity is the biggest danger. But I would like to say the contrary is equally true. When you know who she is or where she is, she gets beaten up, she gets arrested. How do you deal with that?

Kapil Sibal: Let's talk of numbers. Ever since people have been using social media in this country there are about 12 to 13 cases of wrongful use. There is not a 14th case that I know of...13 cases or 14 cases doesn't support the argument that there should be anonymity.

SY Quraishi: When I was in the Election Commission, we wanted to launch a social media campaign. Initially, I had 60-80 per cent hate mail. But I persisted. After a couple of months they were almost eating out of my hand. They were asking about the legitimacy of the systems and I kept on answering... On the whole, social media is a great medium that we should use and we should know how to use it.

Shekhar Gupta: I think I'll take it to Meghnad. Before that, since I was asked about not being on Twitter and being afraid of social media, I can only quote George Clooney. He is not on Twitter and when he was asked why, he said, "I will not risk an entire career on 140 characters." In my hands that will be trouble.

Meghnad Desai [author]: The Internet is like a rumour. It depends upon how far it spreads and I think what Tahrir Square, etc, prove it is very powerful locally but dissipates the longer it goes... It is when it gets into TV channels and newspapers that you are in real trouble. If I tweet badly to somebody else, it may die and nobody notices it... What is important is this traffic achieving a certain density to be effective.

Seema Chishti: I think for a panel that was here to discuss 140 characters, we have done very well to be here for nearly an hour. Thank you very much for your time and cooperation on behalf of Sagarika and myself, CNN-IBN and the Express Group.

Transcribed by Chaitanya Gudipaty

Courtesy : Indian Express

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