The power of Internet and social media in bringing about political change is now no more unrecognized. The role social media activism, led by the likes of Wael Ghonim, played in the uprising in Egypt that led to fall of the Mubarak regime, has convinced many of its potential.
But it could be a double edged sword. In many countries across the world the penetration of Internet is extremely low. Penetration of social media is even lower. Take India for example. The number of regulr Internet users is less than 8%. The number of Monthly Active Users (MAUs) of Facebook in India as of December 2011 was 46 million. If one takes into account only the individual users, the number of Indian people on Facebook would be somewhere between 2-3%. In a country like India, that is not bad at all, measuring purely from the point of view of ICT penetration.
In fact, a consumer product company trying to market a lifestyle product, there is no other media that is as efficient as Facebook for reaching out to say, affluent youth aged 18-25.
But the danger lies in assuming that the opinion of this tiny section of Facebook users is the opinion of the citizens of India. While many ordinary people do that fairly innocently, there are pressure groups who know this and do all they can to manipulate the activities on social media—often camouflaging their message as popular opinion.
Sometimes, even if there is no concerted effort, there can be huge disconnects between the kind of people who arre today on social media and other sections in the society.
I myself learned it the hard way. During the Anna Hazare agitation, the road in front of my house was converted to a virtual Dharna ground for 3-4 days, when Anna was in Tihar Jail. My house is very close to the jail. Seeing so many autowallas, vegetable vendors, and rickshawwallas among the protesting crowd, I asked a few of them what they were agitating about.
And I was shocked by the commonality in their views—and how different was that from “our” common view. For the Bedis, Kejriwals, Bhushans and most of us—whether someone is a supporter or detractor of the Anna movement—there was no doubt that the whole movement was against corruption.
But to the people on the street, I was stunned to find out, corruption was, at best, one of the issues. And it was not even the top issue. Mehngai was the issue. Anna, to them, was a mascot of the common man, not a mascot of anti-corruption, as his team had projected and many of us had accepted.
Whoever I told this to in my “friends’ circle” thought I was making too much out of it—by speaking just to a handful of people. I do not blame them, as I myself was shocked when I first heard it from a couple of the rickshawallahs. But when one after another started getting into the pain of mehngai setting aside corruption, I was convinced about what was really hurting them.
But have you even seen one FB post on this, leaving aside, possibly, comments about the petrol price hike?
So, in hindsight, it does not look so surprsing to me that they saw as the villain, not just the ruling UPA government, nor the political class alone but what they termed as “jyada padhey likhey log”, “bade bade log” and so on—the elite class in general. The same elite class which was spearheading the Anna movement on Facebook.
Today, much is being made of “people’s opinion” in social media. But who are these people? They represent a tiny section of the population. There is a real danger of getting overinfluenced by their opinion, when it comes to deciding on crucial policy matters.
This is digital divide of the worst class. This political divide is far more dangerous than the economic divide that we keep talking about.