Social media has democratized public sphere. It has given people a platform to express their thoughts, comment on current affairs and debate policy issues. And now that newsmakers (politicians, celebrities) and newsbrokers (reporters, editors, columnists) both have joined Facebook and Twitter en masse, social media’s influence has grown manifold.
Arvind Kejriwal, Sushma Swaraj, Narendra Modi, Kapil Sibal and Arun Jaitley are a few of the high-profile politicians who are active Twitter users (a major exception is the “leader of the youth” Rahul Gandhi). AAP effectively used social media to build its campaign as well as increase voter turn-out in the Delhi assembly elections. On the occasion of Holi, Modi sent a personalised digital poster with greetings to each of his Twitter followers. Parties are highly banking on social media for their campaigning for the upcoming Loksabha elections. Votes are being sought, information is being disseminated, and allegations are being hurled at each other. Parties are hoping that retweets and likes will translate into votes.
Whenever a major news story breaks in the day, Twitter becomes a battlefield with expert commentaries, sly, witty, humourous takes on the story and alternative narratives. Political discussions have generally been mediated by mainstream media. Social media has challenged this one way flow of information and opinions. When the December 2012 gang rape happened, social media played a major role in shaping the debate around women’s issues. A part of the credit for taking the Jan Lokpal movement ahead also goes to social media.
Social media has certainly democratized the “expression of thought”, but few people have means to participate in this public sphere yet. In the country of 1,200 million people, only around 200 million have access to internet. A large chunk of these 200 million belongs to either urban middle and upper strata or rural higher class.
On Twitter, newsbreakers and newsbrokers have hijacked the conversations around political issues as they set the agenda as to what topics will be discussed and how. They have the first access to information. Their “followers count” runs into thousands. No wonder their voice has the highest frequency. Social media is no different from mass media as far as political discussions are concerned. Rural issues do not have a place on social media, nor do issues about marginalized communities (except homosexual groups). Labor issues, peasant issues are kept at a hand’s distance. A politician’s wayward comment gets more people talking than a policy issue. Just like TV, Twitter also likes to focus all its attention on one single issue at a time – mostly a breaking news.
A major strength of the written word is that it is durable and more forceful than a spoken word. When people write down their thoughts, it gives an illusion (to them and others too) that they are saying something meaningful. This may or may not be the case. Social media is predominantly textual in its current avatar, and it has undoubtedly given a new dimension to the “expression of thought”. But has it really changed the power equations as to who controls the information and who gets heard?