‘Can you say that you have Freedom of Expression unless you have the Freedom to Offend?’ Thus began the collage of mini interviews that the Colloquium team put together prior to the session on 26th August 2014. The interviewees were asked for their opinions on the policies of social networking sites, the gaining popularity of political parties in such sites and the extent of control that they had on one’s behavior. A rough consensus was built (at the end of the video) to show the prominence of social networking sites as a form of expression as well as the need for discussion on the regulatory mechanisms that they practised.
Held at the Media and Resource Centre (MRC) in the Central Library, this Colloquium session was centred on the theme ‘Social Media and Freedom of Speech and Expression’. The session was opened by Ashish Yadav (3rd Year, Developmental Studies, DoHSS) who spoke briefly on the prominence of social media in daily life and the need to approach the same with care. Unlike the previous one, this session did not have a defined panel to lead the discussion but rather placed the onus on the audience to seize the microphone from the start. Three leading questions were posed to the audience to aid discussion. The first was: Does Social Media allow you to exercise free speech?
Right when discussion on the first question began, there was an implicit understanding amidst the gathering that social media did allow one to exercise free speech. Discussion rather focused on the question of limits to such speech. The opening comments lent themselves to the idea that since speech had the power to offend, self-censorship of individuals was necessary to avoid abuse of freedom. The discussion proceeded from here to policing by politically motivated groups. Examples like the arrest of individuals who posted opinions against Thackeray or the Modi Government were drawn to elucidate the dangers of publishing strong opinions in the open. ‘The visibility that social media extends to such opinions is what led to such an arrest,’ felt one speaker. This sparked off an important question: Have Facebook or Twitter in themselves ever restricted speech? From the back and forth that followed, the gathering concurred that while social media amplified the power of speech to permeate, the same ideas of morality and tolerance that operated to control speech in society continued to operate in the social networking realm as well.
The focus then shifted to the second question: Is Social Media becoming an alternative source of information? Here too, even before the discussion flowed, there seemed to be agreement in the affirmative. Opinions were instead shared on whether this dependence on an alternative source was a good thing or not. One half of the floor seemed to be of the opinion that it was easy to spread false information online because of the breakdown of journalistic ethics due to lack of insistence on credibility of sources as well as ease of anonymity and rogue journalism. The other half felt that social media had democratized the institution of media itself by giving every single voice an equal chance at being heard. ‘What is the qualification of an e-journalist?’ asked the member of the first camp. Heads nodded to acknowledge that online news was presented in clumps with no sorting or verification. This elicited vociferous reaction from the other end of the spectrum. ‘Do you realize that, in India, very very very few people own the three main media houses we depend on? They decide what we read and what we know and how we perceive it!’
The instinct to challenge the veracity of print media is far less, they said. This means that they can get away with constructing the news as they see fit, thus amplifying biases. This question was finally put to rest when it was noted that discussion was the only way to eliminate more biases and untruths. Discussion would allow more voices to analyze what is presented and as long as it did not morph into blind faith, faith in media (be it print, visual or social) was perfectly all right.
The final question was ‘How does one draw the line between Free Speech and Hate Speech?’ The gathering voiced the opinion that there was no need to discuss this further as much had been said about the topic at the end of the first discussion point. Nevertheless, the question lent itself to some probing of how important ‘analysis’ was to any information. Lack of analysis of information was the reason why people could get manipulated by speech, felt some members. This was not a phenomenon caused by social networking sites, but rather one caused by the people that used them. Others begged to disagree, stating that one did not need strong analytical ability to form strong opinions. As long as things affected them, one would always analyze and try to understand them.
The Colloquium concluded on the note that social media had gained both prominence and power – this meant that the scope for both use and misuse was incredibly high. As long as policing is strict, yet not so strict as to restrict, social media has the ability to overcome several harms of other media form through its democracy and remarkable ability to spread voices.