Social Media: Friend Or Foe?

14/12/2015 8:55 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Spiderman once famously said, "With great power comes great responsibility", and this holds true, aptly enough, for the web too. The power of the Internet and social media to break news as it unfolds is mind boggling. It's not just traditional news agencies that are actively leveraging social media to disseminate information - even common citizens are using such platforms to report and share news. However, for many, the responsibility that Spiderman spoke of has taken a backseat to the enticements of momentary fame.

Let me turn the clock back to 1998, when the Monica Lewinsky case revealed the dark side of the internet. This was when the White House intern was swept from an improbable romance into the eye of a political, legal and media maelstrom like we had never seen before. The scandal was brought to the people by a digital revolution, which means that when the story broke in January 1999, it broke online. It was the first time that traditional news was trumped by the internet, a click that reverberated around the world. Overnight, Lewinsky went from being a completely private figure to a publically humiliated one, losing her reputation on a global scale instantly. Her personal information was released without her consent and her life was forever changed. Years later, while talking about the repercussions of social media on her life she said that an individual going through cyber bullying is "seen by many but known by few." Just like in Monica's case, a zeal to rush to judgment enabled by technology has led to mobs of virtual stone throwers, and cyber-bullying is a problem that is only getting worse.

A zeal to rush to judgment enabled by technology has led to mobs of virtual stone throwers...

Now turning the clock back to earlier in 2015, and to our very own country. A student from Delhi University shared the image of a person who had allegedly molested her. Within hours news channels picked up the news without any background research, hailing the girl as a "brave heart". The verdict was delivered even without hearing the side of the man accused. It was later revealed that the man was innocent. Do you see how an act of impulse can create not-so-comforting consequences? This is a clear illustration of the news media's over-dependency on social media.

We cannot deny that in recent years social media has played a key role in raising awareness about various causes and has also been a source of positive impact on society. This was evident with the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge which was very innovative, engaging and highly informative. It was an effective way to generate awareness about a condition as complex as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disease. The end impact was not just awareness but a generation of funds towards research on this disease and its cure.

Social media does contribute to social change. The Arab Spring is another such stand-out example where people from Egypt, Tunisia and various Middle Eastern countries gathered global support solely through social media. This was when the power of cyber-activism was recognised. In India, the rap song "Kodaikanal Won't" went viral and challenged corporate giant Unilever to get rid of the mercury waste dumped in the Kodaikanal forest area. The reach of video was huge; it was even shared by Nicki Minaj on whose song this rap was based.

If there's something that stands out, it is how social media exquisitely enables the generation of participatory information, giving rise to citizen journalism. This is what makes a democracy stronger and true in its real sense. We must conduct ourselves to honour this and hold this role with pride and responsibility. People today are reporting whatever they see -- accidents, scams, cases of corruption, and many more. Facebook and Twitter have become channels where opinions expressed by citizens are being picked up by news media giving way to different perspectives or the "other side" of the story.

In a society where social media interaction is becoming an integral part of our lives, the onus of using these platforms with a sense of responsibility falls upon us as individuals.

I am sure we are all for standing up for what's right. And that's great. The feeling of being empowered is thrilling no doubt. But what we write and what we read needs to have a fine balance.

In a society where social media interaction is becoming an integral part of our lives, the onus of using these platforms with a sense of responsibility falls upon us as individuals; even more so because we are part of the largest democracy in the world. In order to protect the sanity of this nation, to prevent inflammatory communication and to use the internet more constructively we need to find the right balance between freedom of speech and offensive content. So, do you want social media to be your friend or a foe? That's the choice that entirely rests with you my friend.

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