Social media turning into our Frankenstein?

social-media-600x400Ayan Acharya
NSoJ Bureau

The city of Bengaluru turned the page on 2016 with a series of
harrowing mass molestations that jolted India’s silicon valley out of New Year revelry.

What followed was a blistering indictment of such heinous crimes across social media websites such as Twitter, Face book, and YouTube.
These online platforms were once again called upon to serve as a rendezvous point for voices of dissent.

The past few weeks, thus, has been a telling essay on the duality that is inherent to social media.

Commenting on social media’s impact on various revolutions in the recent past, Jessi Hempel with the website, ‘Wired’, writes: “The Arab Spring (for instance) carried the promise that social media and the Internet were going to unleash a new wave of positive social change.
But the past five years have shown that liberty isn’t the only end toward which these tools can be turned.”

The social media took a giant leap towards democracy six years ago when massive protests, curated via the Internet, played a significant role in ending Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s reign. The protests that spread from Cairo’s Tahrir square had heralded an era in  which the social media was going to be an important liaison between society and politics.

The idea that geographies could be shrunk over a computer championed the belief that revolution, change, and dissent were now just one click away. However, the price of using social media is a sheepish, unexplained acquiescence. In trying to understand why, and how the medium could be abused, one need not look further than militant groups
such as the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda that have been ‘reported to recruit converts using Face book and Twitter and use encrypted communications technology to coordinate attacks.’

The social media forces that catalysed the Arab Spring are only as good or as bad as those who handle them.Therefore, it is fallacious to label social media as a new path; instead, it is a mere tool to enable the whims of those who fully understand the anatomy of it.

Not immune to geography

This split nature of social ‘media’ is not immune to geography or history. Back in the 1700s, when there was no whiff of a world wide web, people had ‘tools’ to mobilise revolutions and versions of misinformation and excess information to grapple with. According to Anais Saint-Jude, director of Stanford’s BiblioTech program, “In the 17th century, conversation exploded. It was an early modern version of
information overload.”

As more and more people wrote, responses via letters started
criss-crossing far-flung distances. The ‘streets of Paris were
littered with little bits of papers –les billets –filled with a few
words of scabrous and politically defamatory verse that were thrown to the public.’

This could very well have been the ancient age parallel of Twitter.

The epoch-making French Revolution of 1789, thus, did not occur in a media void but was galvanised by a slew of ‘unprecedented explosion of text, images and oral media–a democratisation of political mass communication which the Revolution, in turn, accelerated’, writes Rolf
Reinhardt, head of the French Research Collection at the University Library of Mainz in Germany.

In his seminal work – ‘The French Revolution as a European Media Event’, Reinhardt wrote: “The principle of observing language of the people was taken quite literally, as hundreds of pamphlets placed their arguments in the mouths of well-known figures from the fun-fair theatres. Their most popular title character was the stove-fitter Pere Duchesne: a straight talking commoner….who , whether he colloquially
dressed down King Louis XVI (1754-1793) or urged the sans-cluottes to take on the fight against the Church’s new aristocracy, he always knew how to emphasise his radical agitation with dramatic language and symbolism.’

There were about ‘1600 different’ newspapers established at the time of the French revolution. The total daily circulation of newspapers in Paris alone was upwards of ‘130,000 copies in 1791’, breaking the 150,000 mark within the next six years.

Reichardt adds: “At the same time, the revolutionary press cultivated a populist style of writing with an emphasis on opinion-based journalism.’’

One paper named ‘Le Pere Duchesne’ or ‘Old Man Duchesne’ in English, was a radical newspaper, edited by Jacques Hebert along with newspapers such as the ‘Ami du Peuple’, headed by Jean-Paul Marat, acted as agents of change stoking a revolutionary mindset, while
criticising ‘conspiracies that threatened the Revolution.’

Having said that, it is not just the 21st century that is vulnerable to the vast, complex web of dubious claims.

Robert Zaretsky, writing for the LA Times, sheds light on series of influential works by historian Robert Darton in which he recreates what he calls the Grub Street of Paris. He writes: “Undone by the social and political upheavals of the time, the ‘Grub street desperados’ chose the ‘libelle’ as their preferred weapon.”

Quoting Darton’s work, Zaretsky adds: “Libelles slandered everythingelevated and respectable, including the monarchy itself, with a scrutiny that is difficult to imagine today.”

A vehicle, fuelled by ‘innuendo and lies, the libelle portrayed royal advisers  and ministers not only as incompetent clowns but also as sex-addled money-grabbers. Presenting rumour as truth, these scandal sheets minded the veins of anxiety and anger felt by a growing number of socially disaffected Parisians.’
The similarity between the fall-out as a result of the media in the 17th century and now could not be starker. Centuries later, laced with ‘modern’ technology and sensibilities, are we back to right where we started?
If it was the ‘libelle’ that sold lies then, it’s Twitter and Face
book that are being arm twisted to warp the news. We are sitting on a pile of information we don’t know how to disseminate and wrestling with tools we are failing to handle.
Has the media, we built and nurtured, finally overtaken us?

 

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