A storm has been blowing within the international political paradigm over the question of responsible use of social media and the after-effects of its improper use. Analysts and politicians have both realised that unless some proper governance is initiated within its existing regulatory regime, the dynamics could move from bad to worse.
There is consensus that political use of social media now refers to the use of online social media platforms in political processes and activities. In this context social media platforms generally encompass websites such as Facebook, YouTube, WeChat, Instagram, QZone, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat and Viber. It also needs to be understood in this context that social media when they cover political processes and activities, they tend to focus on all activities that pertain to the governance of a country or area. This matrix includes political organisations, their response to global and internal politics and corruption arising out of misuse of political power.
The internet has created channels of communication that play a key role in disseminating news. It also has the ability to change not just the message, but the dynamics of political corruption, values, and conflict within the political arena. Consequently, the use of social media within the election processes and in matters of global conflict around the world has resulted in important activities and significant decisions becoming less private within the public perception.
To this has been added the facet of empowerment of its users. It is sometimes indicated that the social media and the internet enable their users to rise above disenfranchisement. This in turn is fuelling the idea of "new media populism" whereby it enables the general public to have an active role in political discourse. It is also being pointed out by users of new media, including social media platforms, that Facebook and Twitter can enhance people's access to political information.
This point of view underlines that social media platforms and the internet now facilitate the dissemination of political information that counters mainstream media tactics where the focus is more on centralised, top-down sources of information. This format can then enhance the capacity to challenge the existing political hierarchy's monopoly on powerful communications media -- print, broadcasting and electronic. Such a measure helps to revitalise "citizen-based democracy." It has been taken one step forward by Derrick de Kerckhove who has observed that social media and the new technology has resulted in a " real power shift from the producer to the consumer, and there is a redistribution of controls and power."
It needs to be understood, however, that this format of "participatory democracy" has an online media audience most of whose members are largely passive consumers. Content creation within social media is largely dominated by a small number of users who post comments and write new content. As such, the culminating effect of social media varies from one country to another, with domestic political structures playing a greater role than social media in determining how citizens express opinions about stories of current affairs involving that country. It would be significant to note here that adults in the United States who have access to the internet appear to be increasingly getting political news and information from social media platforms. A Pew Research study found in 2016 that 62 per cent of adults were getting their desired news through the social media. This percentage according to some analysts has now reached nearly 70 per cent. However, it is generally agreed that online news users are most likely to just talk about online news with friends' offline or use social media to share stories without creating content.
The rapid propagation of information on social media assisted also by word-of-mouth coverage can impact the perception of political figures quickly with information that may or may not be true. When political information is propagated in this manner on purpose, the spread of information on social media for political means can benefit or damage and hurt campaigns.
This normally happens because in general terms a communication platform such as social media is persuasive, and often works to change or influence opinions when it comes to political views because of the abundance of ideas, thoughts, and opinions circulating through the social media platform. As a result social media directly affects trust in media use.
Social media usage has gained particular attention because younger generations are becoming more involved in politics due to the increase of political news posted on various types of social media. This use of social media among the functionally literate youth exposes them to politics more frequently, and in a way also casts a shadow on their online social lives. Sometimes this functionality creates bias and also anger. The role of technological communication and ease in the use of social media in the world can also lead to political, economic, and social conflict due to the unmonitored system, cheap interface, and accessibility.
At this point one needs to remember how increased connectivity within the world via the power of the internet helped in the last ten years political movements, including militant groups, who used social media as a major organising, radicalising and recruiting tool. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant -- also known as ISIL, ISIS, and Daesh -- used social media to promote its cause and recruit more fighters. ISIS produced online materials in a number of languages and used recruiters to contact potential recruitees over the internet. Other militant groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have also used social media to raise funds, recruit and radicalise persons.
In this regard, one also needs to refer to the continuing differences of opinion and accusations that have continued in the USA since 2016 over alleged cyber attacks that undermined the democratic process during the last Presidential election. The election is viewed as an example by the Democratic Party where social media was used by the state actors in Russia to influence public opinion. Tactics such as propaganda, trolling, and bots were apparently used to leak fake news stories that included an FBI agent having been killed after leaking Clinton's emails and Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump. Studies have later apparently found that pro-Trump fake news was as much as four times of pro-Clinton news, and a third of pro-Trump tweets were generated by bots.
It has still not been conclusively proved that Russia utilised disinformation and fake news to distort the truth during the 2016 presidential election, but it has definitely painted the United States in a negative light.
It is this equation that has led to a debate as to whether or not social media is a form that encourages public good or a function that leads to creation of platforms -- like Facebook and Twitter -- that ends up having to censor content, disable accounts, and filter information based on algorithms and community standards. This multi-polar aspect has led to the argument that social media is a relatively impure public good where the control over content remains in the hands of a few large media networks -- Google and Facebook, for example. These corporate bodies retain the power to shape the environment under personal and commercial goals that promotes profitability, as opposed to promoting citizen voice and public deliberation.
As a result of this evolving concern, various countries, including Bangladesh, have taken the initiative to create a regulatory framework that will be able to overcome some of the emerging challenges. This is aimed at upholding issues of privacy, censorship, neutrality of the network and information storage. In this context, some cyber security experts have also been advocating "algorithmic neutrality". Opponents of regulation of social media platforms, on the other hand, have been arguing that any regulation of social media platforms could, in all likelihood, hinder innovation and competition.
Nevertheless, one needs to understand that the so-called marginal social cost of fake news can be exponential. When "fake news" is circulated for the first time, it might be shared by a few persons. It can then affect a small number of people. However, as the circulation of the "fake news" item increases, through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc, the negative externality multiplies. We have seen how this has been used to fuel communal tension and political unrest in different countries in South Asia including Bangladesh. Such a scenario is unacceptable and a regulatory mechanism should be in place to curb the abuses of social media while upholding its utility for mass communication.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.