Facebook – A threat?

Should increasing popularity of Facebook be viewed as a threat to media’s role and democracy in India? Considering the manner in which Facebook has been used here to criticize communal riots, etc, this doesn’t seem possible. Nevertheless, it cannot be ignored that in the west, critics and media luminaries have started expressing that they may soon be finished because of Facebook. This fear is primarily based on the view that a majority of Facebook users in west regard it as a source of news.

Currently, Facebook’s mission is only “1 percent done,” according to its co-founder Mark Zuckerberg. If in coming years, Facebook succeeds in increasing the same by even just one more percent, the impact would naturally be far more greater than what it is at present. In the west, Facebook and Google have assumed a crucial role as sources of “news,” which is gradually assuming greater importance than actual, that is primary sources of news. Users of Facebook and Google, regard these sources of news, views and expressions, as platforms, gatekeepers and also social media.

Critics are apprehensive that increasing importance of Facebook and Google is leading to decline of real media. This also implies that in west, particularly in the United States, these Internet services are assuming greater importance than sources of real news. And this apparently is responsible for the fear and also the threat that real news sources are gradually losing their importance against that being accorded to as well as being assumed by Facebook and Google.

Undeniably, recent history is witness to the importance being accorded to these services in India also, which includes political circles as well as Internet users. Now, this demands speculation on whether these services, particularly Facebook and Google, are having a similar impact in India as they are feared to be having in the west, particularly in the United States?

There is no denying that with increasing popularity of Internet connection on computer, as well as mobile phones, use of Facebook and Google has increased considerably in India. While the considerable increase in the use of these services in the west has contributed to an apprehension about the importance as well as use of real media, including newspapers, being considerably eroded. Would it be fair to say that this pattern is visible in India also? Is actual democracy being threatened in India also because of the extensive use of Facebook, Google and similar Internet services? Interestingly, it is difficult to accept that this logic substantially visible in the west is apparent in India too. This does not imply that increase in use and importance of Facebook, Google and other Internet services in India can be denied. It cannot be. Yet, the numerical increase of users of these services is hardly suggestive of the impact that of these services in India is similar to that apparent in United States.  

Yes, the numerical increase of these services in India stands out markedly. However, the kind of change feared and also visible in the United States is hardly apparent in India. This is despite India having the second highest number of Facebook users in the world. The number of Facebook users in India was 118 million in 2014 and it rose to 132 million in 2015. In the United States, this number rose from 153 million in 2014 to 158.4 million in 2015.

Despite the number of Facebook users in India being considerably large, it has limited impact on influencing Indian public opinion; unlike the major influence this has in the United States. The explanation is simple, related to the percentage of the country’s population being Facebook users. In the United States, the Facebook users constitute around fifty percentage of the country’s population. In India, though globally the percentage of Facebook users appears fairly large, within the country it does not constitute even a quarter of the nation’s population. This apparently explains as to why Facebook in India is not as yet viewed as a political threat to the media freedom, people’s democracy, the government, etc.

Rather, the trend of politicians and those interested in politics actively using Internet, including Facebook, is fairly visible in India. However, the fact that these do not represent a strong percentage of the population and they cannot be viewed as democratic representatives simply because of their use of these Internet services. Besides, Facebook and similar Internet services are being actively used in India to criticize along various dimensions, positive as well as negative, political news, etc. Unlike in USA, where dominance of Facebook is assumed to have a negative impact on “news,” the impact in India is different. Real media is still very much alive and so are other active centres of live discussions, including tea-shops. Also, Facebook is being used by participants to actively voice their stands on controversial issues, including communal riots. Democracy is thus at present kept alive here through the Facebook and also beyond it.       

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 October 2016 on page no. 11

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