Tag Archives | social media

Lessons from Mamata’s toon tactics

Let’s repeal bad laws. But let’s also prevent misuse of good laws.

The recent actions of West Bengal chief minister, Ms Mamata Banerjee in arresting a professor for circulating a cartoon mocking her on the internet have again brought the focus on the rules promulgated under the Information Technology Act. These rules are an assault on our freedom and privacy. Needless to add, they must be reversed.

West Bengal police has charged Professor Mohapatra under IPC offences relating to defamation and insulting the modesty of women as well as cyber crime offences. Although the professor has been granted bail by an Alipore court, here is what should worry us.

A senior police officer in Kolkata, where the case against Mr. Mahapatra was registered, said the professor is accused of having violated India’s Information Technology Act. He described the material shared by Mr. Mahapatra as an “offensive and non-featurable picture of our honorable chief minister.”[IRT]

This is clearly a case of a bad law being abused by the state government. But even if the state government were to harass the professor (or any other citizen for that matter), it doesn’t need bad laws for it. Even well-established good laws can be used — abused or misused — for this purpose by a malevolent government. In this case too, the major charges against the professor are under the Indian Penal Code. He was arrested on charges of eve-teasing (Section 509 of the IPC), defamation (Section 500 of the IPC), and humiliating a woman (Section 114 of the IPC), besides causing offence using a computer (Section 66 A (b) of the IT Act).

While the IT rules are bad and need to be annulled, there are genuine cases in this country where information technology tools are being used against the state. Take Kashmir for example. Social networking tools and websites are being used by anti-India forces (from both inside and outside the state of Jammu and Kashmir) to incite violence in the state. Jammu and Kashmir Police has already registered two cases under section 66 of  the Information Technology Act and section 13 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act against the miscreants: the first one  in 2010 and the second in 2011. Because it involves teenagers, in most cases the state police takes defaulters into custody, calls their parents and if necessary, counsels them and releases them right away. Barely have any cases been filed by the police against the offenders under the PSA .

Indian government is not alone in being confounded by this challenge of reacting to flow of information in radically networked societies. The British government has not been able to devise a coherent — and socially acceptable strategy — to prevent the occurrence of London riots of last year. The NSA in the US is building a huge data-centre to monitor, process and crack all communication. While the liberals want to safeguard free speech (and rightly so), the radicals (as in Kashmir) are always willing to abuse these provisions to unleash violence against the state. The challenge is huge and there are no easy answers. For any democratic government, the balance between privacy and security is not easy to strike. And with enhanced threat of terrorism and higher proliferation of social networks, this challenge has increased manifold now.

Notwithstanding that dilemma, the answer to the challenge is not promulgating bad laws. And the problem of bad laws in India runs deeper. Once you have been charged, whether you are pronounced guilty or not doesn’t matter — the process itself is the punishment in India. Indian police’s pathetic rate of conviction (40.7% in 2010) lends credence to the belief that our state is actually operating on that dictum. Bad laws make it easier for the state to charge you with an offence, and thus punish you by making you go through the ordeal of the process.

Having good laws on the statute will help but a malefic state can always misuse and abuse reasonably good laws. That is the real danger. Where are the institutional checks and balances to prevent the descent of a democratic republic into a majoritarian dictatorship? Our police is compromised, our courts are overburdened, and our political institutions effete. Take the example of the current case in West Bengal. The police has acted like an arm of the ruling party. If the professor were to approach the courts with a case against the government, it will take him years before his case is finally disposed by the court. Moreover, the courts have refused to take suo moto notice of the case. With the central government dependent on Trinamool’s support, the governor and the union government have failed to advice or warn the state government for its actions. The whole system seems to have collapsed in Bengal.

The bottom-line is simple. We must oppose bad laws and ensure that they get rescinded. But we must not stop there. We have to ensure that the state doesn’t misuse good laws. For that, we need to reform the police and the judiciary, and reinvigorate our political institutions. Only then can we hope to be safe in the long run.

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Some (blatant) self-promotion

Time to gloat a bit

Yesterday, Brunch, the Sunday supplement of the Hindustan Times did a cover story on social media influencers and (surprise, surprise!), it featured your humble blogger there.

You can read the complete story at HT-Brunch here.

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Home Ministry must tweet

Government of India must actively use the social media. But Home Ministry needs to do so immediately.

The Ministry of External Affairs is on Twitter [@IndianDiplomacy], India Post [@PostOfficeIndia] is there too, Delhi Traffic Police [@dtptraffic] is there but the Ministry of Home Affairs [MHA] is not there so far. Although the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Ajay Maken [@ajaymaken] is present on Twitter, he is active there in a personal capacity, not in an official one.

In the developed world, this is already an era of “Government 2.0″. It is inconceivable to imagine a federal, state or local department or agency in the US or in Europe which is not active on social media [also referred to as the new-age media or web-based interactive media]. This goes well beyond the attempts to move government information and services online, which is also being attempted in a haphazard manner in India. Most of these government websites in India are, unfortunately, from the Web 1.0 era where they employ the ‘broadcast’ model. Even for the few Indian government agencies or departments active on social media, the most common criticism  is that they still tend to employ the “broadcast” model when using social media. Understandably, when government departments embrace social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to connect with the public, they are constrained by government rules, procedures and existing bureaucratic culture.  They are thus unable to exploit the social media tools to their full potential. While not all social media use needs to be creative, there is a lot more that the government departments can do to further their aims.

In today’s times, there are no excuses for any of the government agencies, ministries or departments to be inactive on — or in India’s case, absent from — social media. Their use of social media can easily focus on supplementing and improving the day-to-day informational and transactional needs of the public. But while there are abstractive merits in a ministry of mines or a ministry of power being active on social media, it is absolutely inexcusable for the Ministry of Home Affairs to be missing from social media. Why this special case for the Ministry of Home Affairs?  A quick look at the charter of responsibilities of the ministry tells us why — it “discharges multifarious functions, important among them being the maintenance of Internal Security”. In addition, it is also responsible for disaster management in the country.

During emergencies — and nearly all of them would either be in the domain of internal security or disaster management, or both — social media communication is incredibly valuable and useful. It sends and gathers information instantaneously. If engaged through hashtags, community building initiatives and geo-location analysis,  these efforts will better inform the public and alert them to public safety emergencies in real-time. Beyond that, social media fosters relationships and trust, while encouraging users to share important information for early-warning signs of suspicious activities. Furthermore, MHA’s engagement with social media platforms can help show the people that perhaps the most publicly visible ministry of the government is openly communicating and engaging with them.

The MHA, under the current Home Minister, Mr P Chidambaram has taken many steps to transform the role and capacity of the ministry. In the public communications domain, it comes out with a monthly report card which is usually presented by the minister himself to the media. No other ministry of the government has emulated this step so far and this initiative has also not been given its due share of credit by the traditional media. It is not unreasonable to hope that the ministry, under Mr Chidambaram’s stewardship, can further step-up its public communications initiative by actively using the social media.

So why is it not happening in India? Lethargy and bureaucratic slothfulness apart, the major arguments against use of social media by the government are two-fold: one, lack of reach of internet, and therefore of social media in a developing country like India; and two, frittering away of the valuable resources of the government on unimportant tasks.

While only 6.9% of Indians (by population) use internet, they still form a substantial number — perhaps far greater than the combined viewership of all the English news-channels on Indian TV that are frequented so often by ministers and bureaucrats.  For these internet users, government Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, blogs and podcasts can become critical supplements — if not immediate replacements — for more traditional forms of communication like newspapers, TV and Radio. As witnessed the world over, especially during emergencies, these social media users have acted as amplifiers and broadcasters for the communications of the government. While the issue of a digital divide when it comes to government-public communication cannot be brushed away in the Indian milieu, the whole exercise can not be limited to just identifying non-digital means to reach out those without internet access; it is about providing a variety of means, both online and offline, for the larger public.

The argument of saving government resources by not ‘frittering’ them away on social media is specious.  Government use of social media can, and must be integrated with the communications and public affairs departments already existing in various ministries and departments.

Social media can only help supplement and improve everything else the government is doing to communicate — it is not a governance, or even communications panacea. Just like any technology, it is a value-transformative tool which must be acknowledged, explored and exploited for greater effect. It is not something about the future. The future is happening here and now.

And yes, you can follow this blogger on Twitter too. Here: [@pragmatic_d].

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