When the Arab Spring broke out in the Arab streets in 2010, everyone swore by the benefits of the social media in fostering and strengthening democracy and human rights.
Be it Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or other platforms social media was seen as the perfect tool to get beyond the oppressive media environment, either owned and controlled by Arab governments or tightly censored by them.
On the other hand, a few years later in 2014, when ISIS arrived on the global stage grabbing vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, it used the same social media outlets to only only get more recruits and funds but also radicalized youth in Asia, North America and Europe and encouraged the creation of ISIS chapters all over the world.
One technique was using slickly produced propaganda videos that were disseminated world wide using social media platforms.
Looking at another case study, it is generally accepted that social media has been revolutionary in empowering the ordinary citizen effectively with their own mini-newspapers and TV channels.
Ordinary people have used and continue to use their social media platforms to air grievances that are either hidden or cannot get space in the mass media.
Again, on the other end, dictatorial regimes and powerful political figures have figured out social media to be one more media platform that can be co-opted and used to further their ends. A good example of this is in the case of Cambodia where the dictatorial Hun Sun regime has amassed mass following on Facebook and is using it to strengthen his dictatorial rule.
Donald Trump is another example of how political leaders can use social media to not only communicate directly with people and challenge the main stream media, but also build a narrative of their own with their own ‘facts’ too.
Social media is also increasingly becoming host to ‘fake news,’ which while pretending to be real news, delivers conspiracy theories and entirely untrue facts as news to online readers. The best example of this was during the 2017 US Presidential elections.
At the societal level while the social media is a space for the youth to interact and express themselves, we are also coming across increasing cases of online bullying and harassment which, in some cases, have even led to suicides.
In the year 2013, an out of context video of the lynching of two thieves in Pakistan on YouTube was misrepresented and used by some in India to allege that Muslims had lynched two innocent Hindus. This sparked off communal riots in India’s biggest state of Uttar Pradesh with many deaths, injuries and displacement. It is another matter that this enormously benefitted the BJP party through the polarization of votes during the elections that followed soon after.
As the above international examples show it is becomingly clear that social media is much more complex than we ever anticipated. While it has great capacity for good it also has great capacity for evil and also the banal.
To put it simply, social media is no longer the knight in shining armor but it has become both the mirror reflecting our society, politics, economy, culture etc. and also an amplifier that amplifies and heightens these existing characteristics and at times even creates new mutations of its own.
Bhutanese media and social media
The introduction to social media for Bhutanese of the modern generation would be moderated posts and discussions on the Kuensel online forum dominated initially by civil servants.
Then along came Bhutantimes.com that some would argue was not moderated at all, and quite a few Bhutanese viewed it to see the latest gossip and allegations.
Everything now pales in comparison to the explosion of the social media scene in Bhutan with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube etc.
This has corresponded at the same time with the decline of the once booming private media in Bhutan, primarily due to sustainability issues.
It cannot be an exaggeration to say that a fair and increasing number of Bhutanese now get their news and views from the social media.
It is far easier to log onto Facebook, chat with your friends, and at the same time read up on news and gossip.
In another reflection of how social media both mirrors and amplifies our societal traits, the favorite Bhutanese national past time of gossip has moved online and is in fact on steroids.
Like elsewhere, social media in Bhutan is an opportunity for the private media to not only reach more people but also act as a leveler with the bigger government owned media outlets. Now a small private newspaper with a robust website can compete with the big guns like Kuensel and BBS if they can use social media effectively to get readers to their website through Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.
In fact the reach of popular Facebook pages of newspapers can far outstrip the reach of hard copies. This is a great blessing for the smaller private newspapers and also holds the opportunity to go completely digital in the future.
The future of the Bhutanese media is for those organizations that can adapt itself to this new social media era and technologies and thus reach more people.
Social media likes, comments and shares on our news stories have also helped the Bhutanese media to better understand which stories are more ‘popular’ and what our readers want.
The social media is also a harsh teacher, publicly pointing out mistakes in facts and grammar in news stories.
It has also become a big source of stories for the Bhutanese media and at times we are left running behind online updates and developments.
It also allows us journalists to stay in touch with the issues and grievances faced by people across the country.
This medium, unlike the traditional media, has no ‘sensitivity issues’ be it on national security or other areas and thus allows for a more unhindered debate. This is while the traditional media can get bogged down with national security concerns, diplomatic impact among others.
However, as cited in the international examples above, social media in Bhutan has an equally dark and controversial side that the Bhutanese media will do well to take note of.
As we know which stories can go ‘viral’ there is every danger of important but not so ‘popular stories’ losing space on the news pages. This is known as ‘click bait journalism’ where news sites go for the most sensational stories or stories done in a sensation way to get more eyeballs.
Much as we hate to admit it, the social media scene in Bhutan is growing bigger than the traditional media with various consequences.
For all the flaws of the traditional media, we check and verify our facts before publishing and, even if there are mistakes, there is somebody with a byline or a news organization behind that story which either has to make corrections or retract the story. Then there are regulators like BICMA and the upcoming Media Council and also the courts.
There is no such checks and balances in the social media as anonymous accounts and pages can wreck havoc with fake news and defamation.
The social media is also to blame for amplifying divisions and online tribalism as people flock to certain things they want to hear and see and often mistake opinion for facts.
Our politicians, political parties, agencies and public figures have also been quick to catch on to the value of social media, with many of our leaders and even public figures having followers that far outstrip the circulation of most if not all the news outlets.
Fake news and intentional online defamation is increasingly becoming an issue in Bhutan with people going online, mostly anonymously, to come up with allegations and spread stories against their rivals or enemies.
Racism and regionalism is also becoming more prominent on the social media scene with individuals and even political parties not hesitating to use it to their benefit, even though it is not good for the nation. This online platform is also being used to spread others kinds of hate and animosity.
As more and more Bhutanese get their news from social media, many of them are also consuming a lot of fake news and this will have a negative impact on our society and democracy.
The social media scene in Bhutan is also increasingly host to ‘outrage porn’ where people express quick outrage at issues often missing the complexity of issues, which if addressed, can actually solve the problem.
An additional charge which can be made of social media in Bhutan is its impact in dumbing down our masses.
Even the tranquil country side is being disturbed by the negative effects of social media. The Bhutanese newspaper did a story on how the introduction of WeChat in parts of rural Dagana has led to more fights and higher separation rates between couples due to acts or allegations of adultery through the online forum. Rumors and fake news also fly quicker on WeChat leading to unnecessary panic and misunderstanding at times.
There is also the issue of distribution of local pornography, almost all of of them without consent.
There is, however, a silver lining in the middle of all this and it comes from a recent story in the New York Times based on a study of the impact of fake news on Facebook in the US elections.
The study found that only a very small percentage of the online news consumers believed these Facebook stories and they relied more on formal news outlets to make up their minds on the facts.
So the message for countries like Bhutan, where the social media has bigger reach than the traditional media, is that when it comes to credibility people still check with us.
This is why the role of the Bhutanese media has become all the more important in the age of social media.
By Tenzing Lamsang
The writer is the Editor of the paper.