Last week the government blocked 16 YouTube channels on allegation of spreading fake news. With this the number of social media news channels banned since December 2021 works to more than hundred. It is good that the government is concerned about such news and tracking the trends and also taking action. It should have sensitised larger public by explaining who is planting, so that the movement against such news gains and public themselves protects from such trends from all around even locally. At a different level perhaps we can expect now a change in the very outlook and positioning of such platforms. Can we expect Elon Mask to do something about?
Elon Mask tirade against Twitter a few weeks ago
A few weeks ago, Tesla’s Elon Mask launched his tirade against Twitter with criticism of “social media” platform and its priorities and policies. He considered that such a platform is one “where free speech will be given priority and where propaganda will be minimal”. Elon Mask was specific about Twitter company and even accused it as “undermining democracy by failing to adhere to free speech principles”. He even expected it to be a “de facto town square”. To a Tweet query of his whether people believe Twitter adheres to free speech, 70 percent said “no”. It was with such reflections Mask went ahead and took over Twitter. I was happy. For, as a global icon, he has come out what is bothering many of misnomer of “social media” with fake news and the like.
I now think that I’m not alone in thinking that “social” is misleading to describe platforms like Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook, etc. These happenings remind appropriateness of describing such media as social media. Now that Elon Mask purchased Twitter last week, he should reposition Twitter as a frank and transparent body but describe it differently, not as “social media.”
Social media label is irrelevant
I have no hesitation now saying that Social media label as it is being used to describe the new media is irrelevant. It is misleading too. All channels or platforms of communication have options to use for or engage in social content as they do on any other context or topic. That should not entitle them to describe as social media unless distinguish from other contexts or truly engaged in free speech and devoted for social relationships across and between identified individuals on mutually agreeable terms.
What are being described as social media like Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, etc., although addressable and have potential for social linkages or networks, have become more political and business enterprises and preoccupied too, often at the cost of social relationships and atmosphere. This is what Elon Mask hinted at earlier.
It is apt to describe such outlets as “alternate media” or “Global media”. Together, even more aptly, they are the “new media”, as enterprises they are constantly adopting to newer technologies or devices. Also, “new” because very little or nothing about is known or in public domain about their managements, investor interests and even source of their contents.
Media like Twitter have place in democratic world
The channels or platforms which become primarily propagandistic or hidden persuaders, cannot be described in a misleading and even in an unfair way as “social media”. Getting away from being questioned so far should not mean that social media label should continue. Mask, I think, is exploring that as an opportunity.
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These outlets or media like Twitter, however, do not mean that they have no place in today’s democratic world. On the contrary, they in fact have significantly contributed by way of level playing across, providing new opportunity to express, to know instantly and at no extra cost.
Social media, on the other, are expected to be more transparent, not manipulative or misleading or camouflaged. Social media could be those engaged in promoting relationships between people and communities, not in divisive or dismantling relations or as a polarising pursuit. That is, it may be fair and more appropriate to call outlets and platforms of free speech of, by and for community and civil society as social media.
New media is less pretentious
Recent revelations about preoccupations of the outlets being described as “social media” calls for a reconsideration and restating or repositioning in such a way that they remain as potential alternative media of the time.
“New media,” on the other hand, is neutral and less pretentious. And not known about origins, sources, intentions, pursuit, etc. This is fair treatment of all people or gullible public that they are not taken for a ride….but that should not be Government’s function. Media themselves and users themselves evolve their own concerns and carve out such a way that user discretion becomes possible and could be moderated transparently.
By describing themselves as social media they are deriving certain credibility, positioning advantage for private or corporate advantage certainly not social or societal. If any it is incidental or unintended. On the contrary, the ones being described as social media now are often found engaged in non-social or even anti-social and involve in reoccupation to the extent of being defamatory of social relationships and standing and stigmatising free speech and democratic norms. Traditionally, festivals and such conventions have been the social media of societies. Voluntary spirit or intentions dominate, not command and control concerns of any particular.
Discriminate media in public view
It is now twenty years since the nomenclature social media has been in use. It is time to move forward and discriminate media in public purview by their origins, outcomes and intentions. If mass media have become marketing media, social media should come out of their true colour. It may be time to consider “new media” as distinct from social media. Social media is more appropriate to limit to societal or civic society confined, voluntary in scope and indiscreet.
(Dr N Bhaskara Rao is engaged in field research for some decades. His 1996 publication, “Social Effects of Mass Media in India” had signaled the dilemma of today as a result of converge of technologies).