Monday, November 20, 2023

Stooping too low?

We have bridged the digital divide, but the knowledge divide on digital media use is widening.  

By Dharma Adhikari

It is becoming increasingly hard to tell which of the two realms in Nepal—social media and the real socio-political world—is more unruly than the other.

The latter seems drowned in nauseating cases of corruption and impunity, often with political leaders as the indomitable characters. Social media, on their part, amplify our outrage as we spew venom against corrupt leaders and the heedless establishment. Where social media have crossed the line is in their incendiary and hateful spouts, in their wanton verbal abuse, harassment and defamation of unwary others.

It appears that the establishment wishes to signal, if not demonstrate, who is in charge. Months before hammering and issuing a laundry list of directives forbidding online transgressions and then hastily banning TikTok, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal had begun describing social media as becoming “anarchic” and stooping too low, resorting to ad hominem attacks on political parties and their leaders with a track record of a “long struggle and sacrifice.”

Official data shows most recorded cybercrimes in the country have been linked to Facebook. We need a comprehensive approach to regulating platforms, not banning them. The government’s selective ban on the Chinese app has also raised eyebrows, suggesting we may get entangled in geopolitical games.

Social media reflect the fears, hopes, anarchy and order of our real world. The roots of disruptive, agitative and abusive speech can be traced back to the public communication practices of many political leaders who rebelled against successive establishments in the past. It is only since the last local elections that the online and offline worlds appear to have become concurrent and recursive. No more can one afford to dismiss social media as irrelevant.

Negative freedom

Our communication ethos is rooted in our history of obsession with negative freedom (freedom from control). This rebellious zeal has unfortunately turned duplicitous in recent decades, with a shift to freedom to control. Instead of independent politics or journalism, we have seen the rise of unnatural political alliances and an erosion of adversarial journalism.

However uncivil in their tone, fragmented and polycentric in their approach, our adolescent social media are emerging as a potent opposition in polity and society. The government can ban a platform or flaunt a broadly worded directive, but it has limits in its control of online speech. Nepalis are known for their unfading passion for online engagement.

No doubt, negative freedom or pluralism offers the conditions for social media to reflect the diversity of grievances or ideas in the public domain. The concern is without an internalised sense of responsibility; it also gives rise to propaganda and disinformation, which have even led to instances of social unrest and violence.

Often, complicit in social media toxicity are politicians with a large online following. In their rush to comment on just about anything, they end up offending “others” or inviting insults for their own misdeeds. The mainline media falter in telling it like it is; no love is lost between them and social apps. The latter are rapidly encroaching on the former, their audiences and ad rupees.

Social media user agenda

Most Nepali news outlets have historically pursued a revolutionary agenda, focusing on political change. Such agendas, along with particularistic interests defined by preferences in nationalism, political system, religion, identity and gender, are increasingly reflected in social media today. These radical polycentric online campaigns or movements are not merely clictivist but are increasingly linked with concerted offline mobilisation, which makes them hybrid and real.

The commercial agenda caters to producers or influencers on Facebook, TikTok, YouTube and the like and to a growing number of businesses that advertise on these platforms. It is still mostly political speech, for its highly charged, emotional and extreme language or formats, that is monetised on these platforms.

The psychological need is perhaps the most significant in our context. Platforms offer producers and users an easy escape from a dismaying reality offline in a country perennially in a state of crisis and despair. They help validate one’s beliefs, even deviances. When psychological needs converge with politics, the sense of connectedness crystallises into something bigger: A desire for real change or revolt.

Digital fluency

Mere access to devices or our fetish for technology does not guarantee social media's quality or proper use. Statistics show the country’s internet penetration rate is close to 52 percent, and nearly half the population uses social media. There are more mobile phones than people in the country.

We have bridged the digital divide, but the knowledge divide on digital media use is widening. Most social media content producers are driven by emotional responses, not facts or contexts. The content is often skewed and fragmentary, deliberately vague and incomplete for provocation. The average user is at the mercy of the algorithm, simply browsing platforms and passively consuming information they did not look for.

The platforms incentivise echo chambers and hardly encourage critical, deeper or multilayered use. Quality in social media, both in approach and substance, requires producers and users to have digital fluency, not only in access but also in evaluating and creating social media posts. The focus should be on enabling users to internalise responsibility and accountability. This is where the principle of positive freedom (freedom to act) comes in. Such a sense of responsibility is possible only when our critical mass of users matures in their morals and technical skills.

Regulate the platforms, not the users. The government can go so far as to create an independent agency for oversight of the platforms. The agency should help platforms define their content standards and set up a transparent enforcement mechanism, reflecting our laws and social norms. Digital fluency and ethics should be made an integral part of our academic curricula. The platforms themselves should be required to step in to support the initiative, technically and financially. 

Published in the Kathmandu Post, 20 November 2023.