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The medium is the message

More Bhutanese are communicating through social media than ever before. Aided by technology, social media platforms have broken geographical and literacy barriers enabling anyone with a smartphone to connect with people anywhere, anytime.

It has facilitated the creation of groups by bringing together individuals, who share recreational, social, political, or religious views or interests. And at the core of the recent news of the alleged head hunters roaming the villages in the east or of the Tsirang resident discussing the electoral process, is social media, the medium.

Although the issues differ, it was the fluid power of the social media to reach the masses that got authorities to intervene. But even as the police ruled out the rumours of head hunters in the east as false alarm, another voice message with similar claims is being circulated in Samtse. Trashiyangtse police will forward the case involving the tshogpa to the dzongkhag court for spreading false alarm on the alleged presence of head hunters. In a society where age-old beliefs are persuasive and often the norm, this incident reminds us of how a country that is steeped in myths and beliefs is faced with the challenges of straddling the digital age.

In the case of the Tsirang resident, the election commission has charged him for making a false statement. We see similar statements being made on Facebook by anonymous netizens. Instead of charging a farmer for expressing an opinion that he claimed was based on hearsay, the election commission should work towards allying the rumours first. It must strengthen its voter education programmes so that people are informed enough to dismiss gossips and speculations.

Earlier this week, the education secretary issued a notification to schools stating that it has observed educational personnel making inappropriate comments about education issues. It cited, public criticism of school policies, use of profane language and photos and videos of children without consent. The ministry has said that such use of social media is a serious breach of education personnel’s responsibility in caring for the students and to promote a positive image of education. It has warned that such use of social media has led to disciplinary actions, which have had negative consequences on their careers.

The ministry’s concern for the privacy of students is understandable. But instructing education personnel to promote a positive image of the sector and to refrain criticisms of school policies could be problematic. Constructive criticism is an essence of governance in a democracy. To bar educationists from participating in discourses and decision-making will not portray a positive image of the sector, just as issuing such notifications wouldn’t.

The culture of fear and silence that we see authorities resorting to will not help policy makers make good decisions, nor stop people from posting on social media. What our authorities and policy makers should do is to initiate programmes that enhance media literacy. We must educate people on responsible use of social media because in a digital age, the medium is the message.

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