(This write-up is published in April 2013 issue of Samhita – a quarterly publication of Press Council Nepal.)
Prime Minister Dr Baburam Bhattarai, during his speech to mark the Press Council of Nepal’s anniversary in September 2012, talked critically about social media and its content. He said:
“Social media have become very useful and effective for quick dissemination of news, quick feedback & quick response, but we are seeing indications that the content & language uploaded on social media are becoming challenge to society, social harmony, national unity, national integrity & individual’s privacy.”
The Prime Minister’s comments were not unfounded given that most of the politicians are criticized heavily on social media. He also proposed that the scope of the Press Council should be expanded to the Internet and that the quasi-governmental body should actively facilitate print, electronic and social media to ensure decency in content & language.
Earlier in February 2012, PM Bhattarai’s comments on social media during the program to launch ‘Beginning of Digital Signature’ were harsher and naturally it met with a lot of criticism.
Shiva Gaunle, the president of Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ), referred to the speech as government’s reluctance to facilitate the growth of online media. He wrote:
“The use of online media is increasing in Nepal. Blogs news portals and social networking sites have become platform of exercise the freedom of expression. But there are signs that the government is not ready to facilitate these means of expression as citizen’s exercise to the rights of expression”.
The two opposite views, coming from the head of government and head of the leading media rights organization, indicate towards needs to find a common ground regarding the freedom of expression and social media so that neither politicians have problems nor the citizens lose their rights. This means, we need to identify the problems with the social media, analyze the problem with practicality and find a tangible solution acceptable to all.
What is social media?
In last one-and-half decades, the world and Nepal have seen a tremendous growth of the Internet. Embedded within the technology is the development of social media, the use of Internet-based technologies and information infrastructure to communicate messages by any individual to the public.
Social media refers to the combination of interactive tools on the Internet for sharing information in various forms. Social media is fast changing the paradigms of communication by providing an opportunity to individuals to easily become producer, commentator and distributor of messages and opinions without additional costs.
In Nepal, the most used social media tools are Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogs. Facebook is a social networking sites that lets people remain connected by sharing information; Twitter is a microblogging service that lets an user broadcast short messages and opinions globally, YouTube lets uploading and sharing of videos and blogs are personal websites and all these services are free of cost.
Problem with social media
Through social media, individuals are expressing their dissatisfaction over everything –from questioning governments and politicians to lamenting and ridiculing them.
The problem here is that, as PM Bhattarai said, the contents and language of the contents are not always socially acceptable. Since everyone can open an account and post whatsoever they want which becomes globally available immediately, it trespasses the traditional boundaries of mass communication.
The individuals are not trained or aware about the impact of the contents they write as professional journalists are. So, social media technically becomes a public place like Tundikhel where millions have gathered and are expressing their views to each other. The differences between a mass gathering in Tundhikhel and social media are: the words spoken in Tundhikhel are only heard by a few and lost immediately whereas the words on social media are permanent on the Internet and can be read by many more than one expects.
The impact of words in social media is also unpredictable. It could have no impact at all, or some impact, or huge impact at any time – present or future. Thus, no one should oppose that the content of the social media should be responsible: morally and socially acceptable.
We also need to clear on a few aspects when we talk about problems of social media. The first is that only very little contents of social media are problematic and second is that the problem of the content is not of the caliber to threaten social harmony, national unity, national integrity & individual’s privacy for now. As PM Bhattarai said it only indicates that such problem may arise if nothing is done.
The biggest question therefore is how can social media be made responsibly. But before going into the solution, let’s think on another important question being floated around.
Can social media be regulated?
This question may be re-phrased as can social media be monitored or controlled. The straightforward answer is: No.
For a democratic country like Nepal, blocking of the Internet access is impossible and if the Internet access cannot be blocked, the regulation of social media content is out of question. This is because millions of Nepalis are already writing something on social media and the number is expected to grow making it impossible for state to monitor all the content.
China has invested heavily to form ‘the Great Firewall of China’ to censor and monitor the Internet, however, they have not been completely successful. The amount of money and human resources they have spent on creating the cyber police can never be matched by countries like Nepal.
Also that as a democratic country, Nepal has guaranteed citizens all human rights including the rights to freedom of expression and opinion. Curtailing of that right won’t be possible as Nepal is signatory of major human rights conventions and any such move will draw harsh criticism and action from international sectors.
The solution for making contents of the social media responsible is not easy at all; however that’s also not impossible. There are measures that could be adopted by state and non-state parties to ensure that social media contents are largely responsible.
The most important aspect before divulging into the solutions is that state and non-state parties should accept that the Internet is an important medium of social interaction and the whole idea of solution of some problems is for facilitating its positive growth.
- Social media guidelines: The government should immediately start the process of drafting social media guidelines for the government employees. Although, it’s undesirable that government issues social media guidelines for all, it as an employer can issue one for its employee telling them what to do and what not to do on the social media. The guidelines however should be prepared with wider consultations.
The government should also encourage other institutions to prepare their own social media guidelines.
- Strict laws on defamation, privacy and online fraud: The freedom of expression on the Internet should not be criminalized but the other crimes taking place on the Internet should carry harsher punishment. Crime such as online fraud should carry stricter sentences than fraud for its global reach and wider impact.
The laws on defamation and individual privacy should be revised in the wake of development of social media. Since anything on the Internet is global and quicker, the civil liabilities on defamation and breach to privacy on social media could be more.
- Promotion of Internet Literacy: This is long-term, most effective and costlier solution but is a must. Internet literacy is understanding of the Internet and its integrities. Officially, 19 per cent of population is using the Internet but very low percent of them know what exactly is the Internet and how something they write are distributed and perceived.
The state needs to work out plan to include components of the Internet literacy in school and college curriculum. They should also simultaneously run programs to educate general public about it by the means of mass media, trainings and social discussions with the help of non-state parties such as FNJ. Promotion of the Internet literacy will also minimize the cyber crimes.
The Internet, and social media, has penetrated the lives of Nepalis to an extent that it’s both opportunity and threat for social harmony. While the concerns regarding contents of the social media are not unfounded, the approach to manage it should not be control or regulate mechanism but rather facilitating system. This is because the control or regulate mechanism will not work on the Internet.
The state should issue and encourage non-state parties to issue social media guidelines for their employees, revise laws regarding defamation and privacy to make the civil liabilities of the violators more and effective, revise criminal laws to include harsher punishment to cyber crimes and promote internet literacy by the means of curricular and social activities to minimize the concerns and harms of the social media.
(The author chairs the Digital Media Committee at Federation of Nepali Journalists.)