‘Censorship of the internet is harmful to dialogue’

Sunetra Sen Narayan and Shalini Narayanan analyse the growth of new media in Digital India in their latest book titled ‘India Connected’

Shalini Narayanan (left); and Sunetra Sen Narayan

Shalini Narayanan (left); and Sunetra Sen Narayan

Editors Sunetra Sen Narayan and Shalini Narayanan analyse the growth of new media in Digital India from a broad communications and interdisciplinary perspective in their latest book titled, India Connected, published by Sage Publications.

The book critically examines the growth of new media in India and offers a perspective on the opportunities and challenges it poses to governance, development, businesses as well as in social marketing efforts.

Narayan has more than 25 years of experience in communications, including in advertising, print journalism, documentary film production and teaching. She is currently associate professor at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication. Narayanan, D.Phil, is an independent media consultant and trainer with two and a half decades of experience in the government and non-government sectors.

In an email interview with Mint, they talk about the purpose of writing the book, the relationship between social media and political movements and whether new media can find a sustainable business model going forward. Edited excerpts:

What was the purpose of writing this book and mapping the impact of new media?

The purpose of writing this book was to present research-based perspectives on new media going beyond anecdotal reportage. The trigger was when we tried to locate a book that had a thorough grounding in theory and was rigorous in its approach to new media in India, and failed. We found that there was no single work that had discussed and analysed the impact of new media in India. The need for such a work was evident given the way new media has transformed social landscapes. Our endeavour was to document different aspects of the change and we feel this book could lead to many other studies on the impact of new media. This is a beginning.

What is the biggest change that new media has brought about in India?

Each time we connect with people sitting continents away on WhatsApp or Facebook, each time a farmer gets an update on weather on his humble feature phone, each time we book a ticket to travel without visiting any booking office, each time a young girl sitting in a remote area of the country gets a message that she can come and collect her Voter ID card locally, we are witness to change brought about by new media. The stories are endless—connecting with celebrities, high-ranking government officials, getting a grievance resolved in a matter of hours—all reflect the changes in our lives by this media. There are many changes as has been documented by the authors in our book. Fundamentally new media has changed the rules of interaction.

Will this new emerging media landscape find a sustainable business model?

As far as India is concerned, business houses having cross-media ownerships are thriving in the new media landscape, using new media as yet another tool to further their content. E-commerce is flourishing. Start-ups like ScoopWhoop, The Better India and many more have shown, in a limited way, the viability of businesses catering only to those on the new media platforms. However, this is an important question and will need more research.

In the economics of the new media world what are the biggest challenges that one needs to deal with?

Researchers have theorized that the impact of media goes much further than just in terms of its uses and gratifications and relates to other social institutions, to the economy and to the formation of ideologies even. In the absence of restrictions on cross-media ownership, the one big challenge would be preserving diversity of voices in our media. Another aspect that needs attention is the collection of huge amount of user information by new media organisations which raises the question of privacy expectations and quality of content. Given also the centrality of telecom to the spread of new media, spectrum pricing and distribution are another area of concern. What would also be of keen interest would be to see how the government’s intervention to bridge the digital divide fares in the near future as equity and access to new media are central to the economics of the new media world.

Social media and political movements seem to intersect across multiple chapters in this book. What makes the two so intrinsically linked?

Studies have shown that political movements have their beginnings in informal networks in which media plays a vital role. Among the crucial elements that help create a social movement are mobilising structures, political opportunities and framing processes of which media forms a big part. Among media, social media with their characteristics of multi-modality, mobility and instantaneity make their appeal not only very personal to the public, the two-way communication enabled by social media raises the profile of participants to activists.

While we must beware of clicktivism or slactivism, the ‘disruptive’ power of social media cannot be underestimated, as pointed out by media scholar Robin Jeffrey. To quote Rheinegold, convergent technologies like the mobile phone and the internet have led people to have “political collective action with people they weren’t able to organise before, in places they weren’t able to organise before and at a speed they weren’t able to muster before”. This phenomenon may manifest itself in different ways when it interacts with social and political factors; it may mobilize people for revolutionary movements (e.g. Arab spring, Nirbhaya movement in India, Jan lokpal) but it may also mobilize people due to confusion and fear and may cause large scale panic and anarchy (e.g. exodus of north-east Indians from Bengaluru, global recruitment and promotion by ISIS).

However, social media cannot take the entire blame for a political movement, it only helps in amplifying the voice of individuals and traditional media messages for a cause to a larger public rather than creating them in the first place. The other aspect to keep in consideration is that social media is equally accessible to those looking to foment social or political unrest; preventing their misuse is an issue that needs urgent thought.

What’s the impact of censorship on the internet?

The sheer volume of internet users in the country makes fair and effective regulation of new media a difficult task. That said, censorship or regulating content on the internet is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, censorship on the internet tends to muddle the understanding of the scope of free speech as there is no consistent standard for when material is to be censored. Of course, it is harmful to dialogue because it removes content that may have provided an important perspective to an issue. On the other hand, because the internet is so open and accessible, censorship is often justified on the ground that one cannot be sure of the effect of allowing certain content to be viewed.

However, in India, the tendency to reactively regulate new media has been seen to be arbitrary in its approach. Our framework of regulation is in dire need of a revamp. The knocking out of Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2002 by the Supreme Court last year was a wake-up call for the government.

In its judgement, the highest court of the land said the provision was found to be “vague, arbitrary, contrary to the citizen’s right to know, and easily subject to abuse.” Walking the fine line between an overarching regulatory scheme that may curtail civil and political rights and leaving the internet to self-regulate which again may prove ineffective, is the challenge for the government. We suggest that an extensive consultative process with big and small industry players and concerned citizens could be the way forward. Given the complexities surrounding the development of new technologies, the going will not be easy.

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