Saturday, 5 September 2009

Face Book and Manufacturing Consent

Social Networking sites are attracting an increasing number of users from India. The benefits are many. For example, my class reunion was made possible because people were "found" on Facebook. As a tool the "warm and fuzzy" opportunities that sites such as Orkut and Facebook provide are beyond debate. Twitter takes it a step further by allowing for proliferation of information "at the speed of thought".

On the flip side, Facebook is losing visitors on account of privacy concerns and twitter forces "concision" of an idea because of design limitations. The applications/sites can not be blamed for these two issues. A user, by his willingness to participate, accepts that there are risks and limitations to the virtual spaces that social networking sites create.

My key concern is not with the motives of the websites/applications. None of these sites claim an altruistic motive and not a single one of them wear's a halo around their logos. They all claim to be in existence to generate a profit.

The gray area is around the quality of information that they generate in "public spaces". A vast majority of people are still not on the information superhighway. Public debates and discussions about them (people not on the web) in social networking spaces is incomplete without their participation.

Let us take a specific example. The elections in Iran were received with a great of deal of criticism by the American media. The evidence that the media had - was not so much based on ground reporting as much as it was based on comments and posts that were appearing in social networking sites. One has to admit, and even the most die-hard fan of Web 2.0 has to agree, that the rural Iranian is not the most likely person to use the web to express dissent. And if the American media is to be believed it is this demographic group that voted the incumbent back to power (albeit based on a populist policy of re-distributing a bumper potato crop). Is it "democratic" to have Facebook/Twitter/YouTube users manufacture an opinion that is built on a) incomplete facts b) has only one side of the story and c) is detrimental to the interests of the people who do not have the "access" to join the debate. The closest offline example that comes to mind is the way the television media covered 26/11 without any regard for the victims or the security forces engaged in a gun battle with the terrorists.

In a more recent example - activists are passing "scraps" that encourage people to engage with a "cause" by reciprocating a "scrap". A closer examination of these causes leads me to believe that these are not necessarily the right campaigns to be supporting from a third world perspective. The very contemporary American debates on universal healthcare and reproductive rights of women are two such causes/campaigns that are spreading like wildfire across Indian users.

The American healthcare debate is about getting large corporates to take more ownership and less profit from the American healthcare system. The nature and complexion of the healthcare debate is very different in India. We cannot blame or invite insurance companies into the debate as insurance is not within the reach of 800 million Indians. To talk about the role of private healthcare would be pointless as they are non-existent or out of reach for a majority of Indians. The two debates are very different. We can cannot cloud our debate on health with the American perspective. Our perspective needs to be more socially oriented and has nothing to do with monetary profits. The American perspective is about finding a means to equitably redistribute profits from the healthcare system to those who are in genuine need of health care. There is a big difference in the two debates and it boils down to Vitamin M. India centers it around health, America centers it around money.

Indian laws that protect a woman's rights exist. The problem is not with what is legal and what is not. The problem is with how these laws are interpreted and implemented. Female fetocide is illegal, but it still happens. Dowry is illegal, but it still happens. Rape is illegal, but it still happens. In India the debate should not be about what the law should be but it should be about empowering people and the appropriate stakeholders with tools that will help them enforce these laws. To stand up and shout for rights would be distracting attention from the root issue of how to get existing laws implemented. The Indian Web 2.0 user is quick to jump on this "Westernized Perspective" without realizing the futility of such an approach in the Indian context. Why should our debate on gender, sexuality, affirmative action be based on Western precedents when a) their problem statements are different and b) our ground realities are different.

There is a tremendous amount of noise that is being generated about "issues of concern" in Social Networking spaces. This noise is making it increasingly difficult to understand and find diverse perspectives. One is being forced to take sides without understanding the complete issue. The side that gains momentum is typically the side that is able to make the most creative use of the Web 2.0 medium. Hypothetically, it would be possible for a good strategist to use these spaces to manufacture opinion about a specific issue (e.g. Iran). To do this would be politically incorrect as it would be manufacturing consent. Will web 2.0 be able to facilitate any sort of debate on development in India that is inclusive?

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