Social media is not liberating

On 29 January 2020, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that he was ‘worried’ about the power of social media companies and called for creating a global mechanism to regulate them. Addressing a press conference following his informal briefing to the UN members on Priorities for 2021, he opined to the media, ‘I do not think that we can live in a world where too much power is given to a reduced number of companies’.  He further contemplated whether there could be a mechanism through which there would be a regulatory framework that allowed for the law to moderate the powers enjoyed by these companies.

While the UN Secretary-General made above observations responding to questions on whether Twitter made the right move in closing down the account of former US President Donald Trump, the Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said that banning Mr Trump from posting messages after the violence at the US Capitol on January 6 was the ‘right decision’. Facebook, as well, had banned Donald Trump.

Nonetheless, UN Chief reiterated that he was particularly worried about the power that these social media companies already hold over individuals and society. He said, ‘It was worrisome, the volume of information that is being gathered about each one of us, and the lack of control we have about our own’. The fact that those data could be used not only for commercial purposes to sell to advertising companies but also to change human behaviour, and the risks of those data being used from a political point of view for controlling citizens in various countries were of great concern, he added.

Recently, the Indian government too threatened Twitter with legal action after the tech company unblocked most of the 250 accounts it had earlier blocked on receipt of a complaint related to the Farmers Protest from the Indian authorities. After those accounts were restored, a statement from the Indian government called out Twitter for violating its authority and said that the company, ‘cannot assume the role of a court and justify non-compliance’.

One of the perceived upshots of the COVID-19 pandemic was that the world could finally face-up to the challenges in a digitalised global village with the power nods concentrated in the hands of a few.  Every nation, India included, were in a mad rush to build their own digitalised future. Finally, the common man heaved sigh that they would possibly be controlling their own digital and virtual destiny without being dependent on the ‘Chinese’ and their intrusion. All of us started rejoicing, and policy makers started subtly hinting that finally we the common women and men would be free and independent, even though very many moaned the absence of Tik Tok or Zoom.

This brought me to the point where I thought that all of us, me included, who had been using social media and digital technology were gullible enough to think that digital technology and social media were making us more empowered than any medium at any point of time; even though, we felt that social media allowed us to become self-publishers, digital evangelists, citizen journalists, and whatnot. We were wrong. And we were so naive.

Though social media allowed messages to flow from bottom-up, or from the side in, unhindered, as we might feel. However, like every medium, if they were not consciously held by the mass seeking empowerment – as in the United States and in EU the pressure-groups were fighting for – they would be captured by someone else. As we all know that in every era whoever controlled the media controlled the society. And believe me, digital and social media were also controlled, and more creatively. Even though we failed to recognise it.

Look deep, you will realise that in each new phase of human civilisation media revolution had offered a new opportunity to wrest that control. There was always a struggle between the ‘elite’ and the ‘plebeian’. The general public had always remained one entire media revolution cycle behind in controlling the media.

Reign in ancient Egyptian civilisation was solely organized under the premise that the ‘Pharaoh’ was the God. The ‘plebeian’ – the mass, the public, on the other hand, as they could not hear the gods at all, should obey the Pharaoh by hearing and obeying his command as the God.

With the invention of text, we, the public, felt that we had become literate and independent. Alas, the text was used merely to keep track of wealth and slaves of the elite. Later, it was put in the service of religion, and only the priests could read the texts and understand the languages in which they were composed. The public could only hear the scriptures being read aloud or chanted by the priests to them. So, thereby, reinforcing the capability of the prior era — to hear the words of God. The priests held the elite capability of literacy – the medium – the platform, in today’s lingo, as the Pharaoh did earlier.

The printing press emerged during the Renaissance. The public thought that they acquired the tool, and the ability to read and write. However, the king and the priest still tried controlling the power to produce texts by controlling the printing. Likewise, in the modern era, the newspapers, radio, and television were controlled by either the media houses or the state. Common people could only read, listen, or watch.

With the advent of the computer and thereafter with mobile technology, the common man saw the light at the end of the tunnel. They were delighted that now they could utilise the potential to program, to network, unhindered. The public was ecstatic by finally gaining the capability to write and publish their own blogs, videos — their own stories. This capability of writing and publishing simultaneously was the one enjoyed by the elites so far – the king, the state, the priest, and the media houses, during the prior media cycles.

Unnoticed and overlooked by the public, this time too, the elite actually moved up another level. They started controlling the ‘platforms’ and the ‘software’ through which the so-called mass transformation of writing and publishing simultaneously was taking place. The same theory – control the platform and the software, which the current elite – about 20 plus big businesses with active behind-the-scenes support from the state – was doing all over the globe, including in our country.

The common women and men started learning the modern AI and digital coding languages, the programming skill in the digital era and were getting thrilled. Thinking that ultimately they were ruling the media landscape. Developers were thinking that they could produce any app they wanted. However, everyone forgot that all such endeavours could only be operational and would only be distributed to and used by the public if one had access to the modern media-garden of Eden – by having access to the ‘network-pipe’ and the ‘cloud’ servers – the utmost closely-held devices in absolute control of just four or five corporations operating their businesses under the sea and their 20-odd ‘platform and software’ cronies above it. These corporations would decide what you could or could not say. They were the final judge and the jury. And, the state, in most cases were supporting them. And, in turn, these tech giants allowed the state to use their platforms to push-out propaganda and doctored news to the mass-users. And, when the tech companies did not behave as was expected by the state, the authorities cried foul and wanted the law to curb the power of these tech companies.

Just as we believed in the earlier era by being able to read and write that we were liberated, the same syndrome has happened to the common people today. Our free speech, civil society activities, freedom of thought and creativity, everything was controlled, moderated and censored either by the tech giants or by the state in social media.

So much for being liberated.

The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Devasis Chattopadhyay
With over 3 decades of experience in Corporate Reputation Advisory and Brand Communications strategy, Devasis Chattopadhyay writes for various Indian newspapers, magazines, and online portals. He specialises in writing on facets of - Public Relations & Communications - and his birthplace Kolkata. In 2017, Devasis published his critically acclaimed maiden novel–‘Without Prejudice’ (Niyogi Books); a - roman-à-clef - fictionalised true story. Devasis is a foodie, loves reading Mahabharata repeatedly, and feels exhilarated exploring the lanes and bye-lanes of Indian cities in search of history.

1 Comment on "Social media is not liberating"

  1. Thank for sharing this, it was very useful.

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