Social Media

The debate on freedom and responsibility

Fahmidul Haq

Photo: AFP

Defining social media
Social media is a web-based platform where people share information, thoughts and activities. Social media has overtaken pornography as the number one activity on the web. According to Wikipedia, social media includes web-based and mobile technologies used to turn communication into interactive dialogue ( term Web 2.0 is associated with web applications that facilitate participatory information sharing, interoperability, user-centred design, and collaboration on the World Wide Web ( Examples of Web 2.0 include social networking sites, blogs, wikis, video sharing sites, hosted services and web applications.

The news site, Indymedia was formed after the anti-WTO movement started in Seattle in 1999. Later the news site opened 120 branch sites from Boston to Bombay (Beckerman, 2003). The reporter-activists of Indymedia do not believe in objectivity. They believe that no journalism is without bias and the mainstream claims neutrality to mask these biases.

If the Seattle incident gave birth to Indymedia, 9/11 popularised the blog. The Iraq War increased the number of bloggers. This proves that bloggers want to express their opinions of major global incidents, and in many cases they provide instant information regarding the incidents. Thus, they play the role of citizen journalists and respond on behalf of humanity and to the greater causes of majority people. According to the blog search engine Technorati, there were 133 million blogs from 2002 to 2008. Every hour, 0.9 million blogs are posted in cyberspace ( Though not all, but a significant number of blogs are run by strong activists. Several bloggers around the globe have been arrested for writing against repressive governments.

Recently, social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been added in the row. Though these sites were introduced to offer casual friendship, they were used as key components in the contemporary Arab Spring. The social networking site, Facebook was introduced in 2004. Just six years after its inception, the number of Facebook users crossed 500 million (now 800 million). It has become the third biggest 'country' in the world (Fletcher, 2010).

The case of Arab Spring
The inventors of Facebook or Twitter, perhaps, never thought that their 'non-political' networking sites would be used to bring political change in several countries. The forum of casual friendship turned into a platform of protesters. It is peoples' creativity by which they picked up these sites as the platform of sharing opinion, designing programme, and updating and broadcasting the movement for ousting the repressive regimes in North Africa and the Middle East. This movement of establishing democratic rights is now known as Arab Spring.

The Arab Spring may be contaminated by the involvement of foreign imperialist forces meanwhile, but the eagerness of the Middle Eastern people for democracy is very much significant in contemporary global political history. The movement started when a young vegetable merchant Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a municipal building in protest of unemployment and corruption of the Tunisian government. Bouazizi's self-immolation was one of several stories told and retold on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in ways that inspired dissidents to organise protests, criticise their governments, and spread ideas about democracy (Howard, 2011). After analysing more than 3 million tweets and gigabytes of YouTube content and thousands of blog posts, an University of Washington study finds that social media played a central role in shaping political debates in the Arab Spring. Focused mainly on Tunisia and Egypt and led by Philip Howard (Howard, 2011), the study shows that the social media was used heavily by a key demographic group in the revolution -- young, urban, relatively well-educated individuals, many of whom were women. Bloggers also used the Internet to publish information critical of the governments in Egypt and Tunisia. The activists used social media to connect with others outside their countries. They picked up followers in other countries, where similar democratic protests would later erupt. The report says:

We find that there were over 2,200 tweets from Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, and Yemen about Ben Ali's resignation on the day he stepped aside. Over the course of a week before Mubarak's resignation, the total rate of tweets from Egypt -- and around the world -- about political change in that country ballooned from 2,300 a day to 230,000 a day. Interestingly, the relative contribution of people not living in the region diminished significantly over this period. On the day Mubarak left office, February 11, there were more than 225,000 Tweets outside the country that spread the news of his departure. In the two weeks after Mubarak's resignation, there were an average of 3,400 tweets a day about the political crisis in Egypt by people living in neighboring countries. (Howard, 2011).

The report also says evidence suggests that online conversations played an integral part in the revolutions that toppled governments in Egypt and Tunisia. We find that conversations about liberty, democracy, and revolution on blogs and on Twitter often immediately preceded mass protests. In Tunisia, for example, 20% of blogs were evaluating Ben Ali's leadership on the day he resigned from office (January 14), up from just 5% the month before. Subsequently, the primary topic for Tunisian blogs was “revolution” until a public rally of at least 100,000 people took place and eventually forced the old regime's remaining leaders to relinquish power (Howard, 2011).

However, social media was not used in the same manner and intensity in every country. A Guardian report says, if Twitter had negligible influence on events in Tunisia, the same could not be said for Egypt. A far more mature and extensive social media environment played a crucial role in organising the uprising against Mubarak, whose government responded by ordering mobile service providers to send text messages rallying his supporters (Beaumont, 2011). In Egypt, details of demonstrations were circulated by both Facebook and Twitter and the activists' 12-page guide to confronting the regime was distributed by email.

In Tunisia, there was an attempt to block Facebook and other social media sites; bloggers and others who used social media to spread critical news about the government were arrested. In Egypt also, the government attempted to shut down Internet and cell phone network. But the movement went on. The Guardian report says, the Mubarak regime -- like Ben Ali's before it -- pulled the plug on the country's Internet services and 3G network. What social media was replaced by then -- oddly enough -- was the analogue equivalent of Twitter: handheld signs held aloft at demonstrations saying where and when people should gather the next day (Beaumont, 2011).

Bangladesh experience
Bangladesh is a country with low Internet penetration although a big online community is gradually developing. Bangladesh does not have any autocratic regime like the countries in the Middle East. However, the democratic government sometimes acts in a non-democratic manner; also, the country suffers from several socio-economic problems. In many cases, the online community here responds proactively to the socio-economic and political issues. The online community that comprises 'Facebookians' and bloggers regularly serve news and analyses contemporary issues. In that way, they perform citizen journalism. The bloggers and Facebookians regularly criticise the government for their failures. Though they stay in a virtual world, they try to channel the issue in discursive form from virtual world to real world and vice versa. Their attempt to uphold modern and progressive thoughts and their move for democratising the society for equal rights can be mentioned here. Very recently, the issue of cyber crime has come forward and the discussion of introducing cyber law has made online users skeptical about an attempt to control the community.

Photo: star archive

However, one example of citizen journalism in the Bangla blog community was reporting on the BDR tragedy just after it began. Blogger 'Onrino' from reported only in one sentence from the area nearby the incident at 10:08 am, on February 25, 2009 -- “Since the morning, exchange of fire is heard inside BDR.” The title of the post was “Soldier mutiny in the BDR, massive fire inside.” This was perhaps, the first report in any kind of media on the incident. The one-sentence post created enormous curiosity among other bloggers. They started asking the reporter to elaborate on the information or update the news. As time passed, other bloggers came with news, views and analyses on the issue and the incident became one of the most discussed issues in the blog community.

Like BDR mutiny, the online community of Bangladesh has responded to every significant event in the country. These include border killings by BSF, the war crimes tribunal, Roopganj housing project by Bangladesh Army, destruction of Baul sculpture in front of the airport, the killing of a journalist couple, the Persona case and so on. These responses, in most of the cases, stand for humanity, democracy and the rights of people and against the repression of the powerful.

Implementing cyber law?
Whether it is Arab Spring in the Middle East and Africa, the Occupy Movement in the West or the social media activity in Bangladesh -- people in power see it as a potential threat to their throne. In recent times, throughout the world, an attempt has been taken to curb this virtual public sphere. The United States tried to implement acts like SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) and ACTA (Anti-counterfeiting Trade Agreement) which is considered by the online users as measures to censor the web. Three little words wound up citizens, Internet users and a handful of senators into action, waging a war against the United States Congress and a number of discontented barons of the entertainment industry. Wikipedia blacked out in protest for a day. India is saying they want to control the social media the way it is done in China.

In Bangladesh, the concern of obscenity has been raised against bloggers and thus the issue of introducing cyber law has been put forward by a minister. Recently, a public university teacher living abroad faced legal charges for his Facebook status. A blogger was arrested for organising a protest rally in support of the movement against the rise of tuition fees in a public university.

However, there is a talking point of it -- cyber crime. The online users are not responsible enough. Abuse by libel, harassment by photo morphing or video clip uploading are frequently seen in cyberspace. Businesspeople are concerned about piracy online -- the popular practice of uploading or downloading free materials. It is very true that many social media users do not act with responsibility. In many cases they use fake identities to humiliate others. Yet stopping them by implementing new laws is not a good idea;in fact, it is impossible. The virtual world does not exist in a particular geographical area. Shutting down the Internet itself could be the only way to do that. But it would be an absurd step to take when using internet has become a component of modern living. Introducing new laws could boomerang to the government. Moreover, any step taken against activity on the web has been done by existing laws. To reduce online abuse, the government and parties concerned can campaign and beg the users to respect others' rights.

The significant side of the social media in cyberspace is the interaction among its users. For the first time in the history of mankind, the flow of information is two-way and the traditional relationship between sender and receiver has been altered. At the ideological level, interactivity has been one of the key 'value added' characteristics of new media. Where 'old' media offered passive consumption, new media offer interactivity (Lister et al, 2009: 21). The new media based on the cyberspace is free -- no gatekeeper is going to edit one's opinion. The interactivity offers a discussion to be carried in a discursive manner, thus a kind of public sphere has been created, though virtually. This alternative media is relatively cheaper, can transcend borders and break conventional relations between the sender and the receiver. The blog and the social media have opened platforms to discuss on issues and organise programmes. The only problem is the elite nature of the users of the internet. The internet users are urban, relatively well-educated and from the middle class. The more it crosses the boundaries of class, the more it could be used for the betterment of humanity.

The writer is Associate Professor, Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, University of Dhaka.

This article first appeared in the May 2012 issue of Forum.

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