Social media can be a beautiful angel or an unruly beast depending on how society uses it. That’s how some members of the press described social media in a recent panel discussion.
And this is at the heart of any discussion on the use of social media. At a time when the traditional media are but little islands in the sea of social media, social media has the power to sustain an enlightened social order or create a new, destructive one. Bhutan is staring this reality in the face.
There are estimated 250,000 Facebook users in Bhutan (32.5% of the population). Add to this the number of people using Twitter, WhatsApp, WeChat, and other social networking sites. With cheaper access to smartphones and mobile internet, a growing number of Bhutanese spend an increasing amount of time and energy on social media. How we spend our time and energy online calls for serious contemplation.
Generally, social media in Bhutan has been a cesspool of abusive behaviour, vanity, and petty, myopic views. Consider a Facebook group called Bhutanese News & Forums populated by 122,872 people. This forum is boiling over with negativity and frivolity bordering on insanity.
This forum likes to rip people and institutions apart. Any potentially constructive discussion tapers off into personalised attacks. A post about a person can generate thousands of likes and comments, meaning thousands of people barking and snapping at one another and enjoying doing it. The sheer number of people makes this forum too big to put down and, therefore, worrying. There are many such Facebook groups and pages.
Such groups fester largely due to anonymity that’s possible on social media. Anonymity is a creepy and shadowy incarnation of unscrupulous cowards. It is the very antithesis of a democratic culture of broadminded debate and discourse. Any person with an independent mind and ethical scruples will not hide behind the mask of anonymity. The reality is that anonymous or fake accounts blot the Bhutanese social media landscape.
However, anonymity – and a host of unsocial behaviour it breeds – can be crowded out if authentic users do not befriend anonymous users and do not react to their posts. Even some smart people are seen befriending and interacting with anonymous users until the latter turns against them. The idea is to treat social media as an extension of our social life and online space as an extension of our physical space. Would we, in real life, befriend and interact with people whose faces we cannot see and whose identity we do not know?
Anonymity aside, social media can be much more meaningful if otherwise well-meaning users can spare it regular junk. Selfies, foodfies, personal love notes, and personal diaries of relationship hiccups may sound innocent and likeable but they add to the irrelevant junk. They crowd out the useful and the constructive.
If 400 out of your 500 friends on Facebook choose to post selfies and foodfies on a particular day, you will have seen and read nothing worthwhile by the end of that day although you will have spent substantial time checking out the pictures. Imagine the number of airport pictures you will have to deal with if all your friends routinely post pictures every time they fly out of or into an airport.
Each social media user has the responsibility to generate something worthwhile, kind, something constructive and appropriate. A bigger responsibility falls on people in positions of power and influence because they can often be bigger than institutions on social media.
For example, Dasho Sonam Kinga, the Chairperson of the National Council (NC), is followed by 8,338 people on Facebook whereas only 1,198 people follow the NC page on the same site. Namgay Zam, a popular journalist, is followed by 50,258 people on her official Facebook page whereas only 1,409 people follow Business Bhutan newspaper. So, what we give our ‘followers’ is important.
To be responsible on social media is not a difficult task. In fact, it’s easy. We can start by making posts in a decent language because you are doing it for the thousands out there. Using bad language on social media is a sin just as it is in the publishing industry. We are publishing in both the cases. And there’s no need to make a post if there’s none. Otherwise, we are adding to the mental junk that buries the gems of information and education.
We can start being more authentic on social media by putting up an authentic-looking profile picture, and one of our own. There’s no need to use western camera apps that make your eyes wider, cheekbones higher, nose longer, mouth fuller, skin smoother, eyebrows darker. Being responsible online means being authentic.
For all the beauty apps that make our pictures on social media more beautiful, we are faced with the growing challenge of ugly and unauthentic contents. As the nation looks forward to another round of parliamentary election next year, an increasing number of pictures, views, comments, and observations tend to be coloured by politics. This is not necessarily bad as long as we shed our masks first.
Could we pluck up enough courage to do that? Perhaps this is where we could begin to learn to use social media.
Contributed by Needrup Zangpo
Executive Director of Journalists’ Association of Bhutan.