Democracy in the Age of Cyber Lynching and the Changing Notions of Popularity and Notoriety

Analysis
Typography

Hanan Hamid was an unknown girl just over a week ago. But today she is known to almost 90% of people in Kerala. Social media played a crucial role in her life transforming her from a hard working youth into a celebrity. She is by no means unworthy of the applause she got from the people of Kerala, however we should not overlook the rising importance of social media in generating opinions and influencing the population.

 

If the last generation of keralites depended on TV for their daily share of news, the present generation hardly has enough time even for social media. The advent of popular media houses into social media platforms changed the game in favour of decentralised news. News stories and video stories spread among social media users with unimaginable speed. These news bites often deal with individual stories of success or distress. Hanan was a survivor who battled hard against all odds to make both ends meet even while she continued her education.

Her story unlike that of so many others had an added twist, where a man, a complete stranger claimed that Hanan was faking poverty to get sympathy for herself and promotion for a film in which she had been offered a role. But truth prevailed and the police was quick to arrest people who insulted the girl on social media based on rumours.

This was not the first case where social media made a difference in the life of an individual. Sreejith, a man who had fasted for 782 days demanding a probe into his brother's death in police custody, was brought to the attention of the public through social media. Soon support poured in for the young man and people from all parts of Kerala assembled at the venue of the strike to demand justice for his brother. The support was so overwhelming that it made headlines in all the newspapers and television channels forcing the government to initiate a CBI probe in the issue.

Rakesh Unni was a complete unknown to people in Kerala before Shankar Mahadevan shared his rendering of the song Unnai Kaanadhu from Vishwaroopam on Instagram seeking help from fellow netizens to track down the man. Rakesh became an instant celebrity and got the chance to meet Kamal Hasan who offered him a chance to sing in a movie. However social media has not always been positive in its effect on the society. Many a times even popular actors became victims of social media lynching, hate and abuse. Parvathy was brutally attacked by people on social media platforms after she criticised a role that film star Mamootty performed. A song that she acted in received record dislikes and the director of the movie complained that Parvathy was the sole reason for the movie failing to make an impact in the box office.

Recently, the Dileep issue aggravated when the accused actor was brought back to the association of actors. The new president Mohanlal took the heat and there was widespread demand that he shouldn't be invited as chief guest during the state film awards ceremony. His fans responded viciously forcing one of the jury members to delete his Facebook account. There has been even more serious problems related to social media where people have been physically lynched by mobs infuriated by fake and hate messages spreading on social media. The events have forced the central government to think about possible measures to prevent crimes based on hate messages spreading through social media.

More importantly social media has become the new platform for opinion generation and political campaigning. All the political parties have active IT cells which monitor and work out strategies to influence people through social media. Even protesters and students have started using options like Facebook live to attract public attention to human rights violations happening all over the world. It has become common practice for victims of corporate threats to document them in the form of phone recordings and release them through major news portals to let the world know what is happening. There were many phone recordings related to the rape accusations against the Jalandhar Bishop, some of which were intended to bribe the victim to withdraw the complaint and force the police to drop charges. These features have enabled persecuted members of the society to react against the injustice that they face and let the world know what is happening to them.

Even with all these advantages there are accusations that social media platforms and the information given by the users were used to manipulate elections in many countries including India and the United States. Social media giant Facebook was fined by many countries in relation to the data breach by Cambridge Analytics. In a world were data is money, data breach could mean potential financial lose for users. This could be one of the biggest challenges before the social media platforms who have so far made riches out of users' data. Social media has redefined democracy by giving people an actual opportunity to make themselves heard. Users on social media platforms are likely to see posts and news that are liked, shared and commented on by more users. Thus popular leaders and their ideas get greater currency ensuring that they are more likely to win elections. Very soon social media will completely usurp the position of mass media as the greatest influence on the population. Unlike mass media, social media has the power to assimilate responses from the people and thus, might become a key player in the democratic functioning of the nation in the years to come.

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