A young mother lost two sons in a freak accident recently. After days and night of suffering, she finally pulled together to accept the loss.
Nursing a head injury, worse, the trauma of coming to terms that she had lost her beautiful sons, the last thing she needed was people tormenting her. But that was what social media and those behind the phone and computers did. A gruesome picture of the accident site was circulating within hours of the accident. A family portrait followed it. Somebody had really put in effort to compile the pictures.
Nothing can be more tormenting to a grief stricken couple than knowing that pictures of their lost sons are the topic of gossip, both online and offline. It was really a cruel act, whoever started the circulation.
This is not an isolated case and will not be the last. Social media is here and it will stay. A growing number of Bhutanese are hooked to social media. Given the affordability, connectivity and usability, it has penetrated the most remote corners of the country not sparing any age group of social strata. Records with the Bhutan InfoCom Media Authority show that mobile phone users are increasing by 10,000 a year. We are very close to 100 percent cellular subscribers. There are estimated 250,000 Facebook users in Bhutan (32.5% of the population) and there are number of people using mobile and web based technology like WhatsApp, WeChat, and other social networking sites.
Social media has become a part of our lives. The illiterate group is not left behind. Applications like WeChat and WhatsApp have both become a boon and a curse. What social media has enabled is a growing pool of irresponsible publishers. Anybody who can type, speak and shares anything becomes a publisher. What is published is not verified. Most consumers take it for face value. That is why we have numerous people, especially children, tormented by the Khekpa (headhunter) rumours. That is why many thought the gruesome picture of a man knifing his wife was real and was in Bhutan. Besides, it has become a forum for hate, negativity, and like a friend said, frivolity bordering on insanity ripping apart people and institutions.
There is no doubt that social media has served its purpose of communication and interaction. It is also the biggest source of entertainment and infotainment today. More and more people are using it for business and even governance.
In recent times, people have found this medium impactful in raising awareness, fund and seeking help. We have stories of how a father sought help of social media and found his missing son, of how people crowd fund to help a patient transplant a kidney and raise donations to save a yak. It is a problem when users are unaware of the benefits and the consequences of such a fast-paced technology. It is a problem when people cannot differentiate between facts and fake news, when people use it to malign individuals, communities and institutions. It is a problem when authorities are overwhelmed with the pace of the development and unable to do anything.
The recent incident had shaken up many Bhutanese including those in the decision making level. They are aware and know it is wrong. There are no strong policies to govern what is happening in the social media arena. Authorities could only wish that, like a senior government official said, people are more “morally responsible”. Some can only plead on social media not to do what they are doing.
There is a social media policy, but it is only for the civil servants. The information and communications ministry have no legal tooth beyond the civil servants. They cannot intervene and can only wish if people refrained from doing such things. Authorities such as BICMA can hold individuals responsible only if they have licensed them. The Royal Bhutan Police is better placed and has warned people of consequences. They are also trying to discourage people from taking pictures at crime or accident scenes.
Given this desperate situation, what could help us all is media literacy including information communication technology (CIT) literacy. We have long recognised the importance of ICT literacy. If ICT has developed so much since we first embraced it, we are far behind in terms of literacy. We are now not short on ICT infrastructure and equipment. We are short of education. We have enabled 730,623 Bhutanese to own mobile phones, but we forgot to educate them on how to make best use of it or how not to misuse it. That is why we are now looking with blank faces when dealing with issues related to social media.
We are not late. ICT has penetrated deep into our remote villages and schools. We have schools and even the gups’ offices are equipped with computers, connected to internet with all social media windows. What we could do is start literacy programmes. The gup is an authoritative figure in villages. People still listen and believe their leader. We could start with educating our local leaders. We have our university graduates as gewog administrative officers who could play an instrumental role in educating the people if they are trained. Trainings and awareness programmes should be started in schools where thousands of young curious minds are ready to explore the internet world.
Given that media has become a part of our culture, media literacy should be the priority. Literacy here doesn’t mean not letting a kid watch a television programme, but making him understand what he is watching or consuming. If we can’t stop people from accessing media, particularly social media, we can make them aware of what to consume.
Enabling them to analyse and evaluate what they consume will have benefits that will go beyond preventing them from sharing images or videos. It could build an understanding of the role of media, social media included, in a society as well the essential skills of assessing, inquiring, critiquing constructively and being literate in all media forms, indispensable for citizens of a young democracy.
Contributed by Ugyen Penjor
The author is the publishing editor with Kuensel