"Yes, they exist. Yes, they are our own people. It looks like they have some valid concerns. Let’s talk to them!" This finally appears to be the response of the government to those who talk to it through the Internet and want it to react in hours, not days.
The government has taken two baby steps to catch up with the fast and furious online community.
The Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has formed a team to monitor the social media on critical issues, reports The Times of India. “Social media has meant that there are millions of broadcasters who are giving views and opinions in the comfort and anonymity of their homes. The government, meanwhile, is trying to combat that with 19th century tools,” the newspaper quoted a source in the Ministry as saying.
Second, the Congress party wants AICC members to update their resumes with details of Twitter handles, Facebook and YouTube accounts, says The Hindustan Times.
Social media savvy citizens swarmed in thousands at the Jantar Mantar during the Lokpal agitation. They tried separating rumours from facts in Karnataka. They asked if a city should grind to a halt on the death of Bal Thackeray. Last month, they stormed Raisina Hill and wondered if a woman would ever live safely in the national capital after a 23 year old student was gangraped and unspeakable violence perpetrated on her body.
At first, the government ignored the presence of this class of citizenry which bonded online and then took to the streets. Then, it tried setting examples by arresting the outspoken ones among the community in the garb of the IT Act; content considered inflammatory was taken offline; websites were blocked.
“The government is living in a black and white era when the world around it has changed to colour television,” said Jharna Bhatnagar, who invited people via facebook to Jantar Mantar and Delhi University for anti- rape protests. “Agitation after agitation is happening where so many of us are mobilizing the masses through social media. But the government has taken the online community for granted,” she added.
But lately, the government has admitted that there is no escaping the social media. Hence, the catch-up after the big yawn.
Following flak for its inept response to social media during the North East exodus in Bangalore, Union Minister of Communications and Information Technology, Kapil Sibal held discussions with stakeholders on how to tackle the issue.
After the much publicised arrest of two Palghar girls under the IT Act, Sibal assured changes would be made to the Act.
And now, the monitoring of critical content on social media.
Sanjay Jha, co- founder, Hamaracongress.com, said that globally, the government’s recognition of the power of social media has been a gradual process and the UPA government’s attitude is not laidback. “There will always be criticism. I think the government is just in time,” said Jha. “The social media’s use in the US presidential campaign only kept growing bigger in subsequent elections. Here, the Congress party is smart in recognizing that the future lies in the Internet".
A significant number of protesters in the movement against graft and the anti- rape agitation belonged to the middle class. They did not necessarily share the same ideology or inclination. Nor were the protests totally instigated by the BJP in which case the government would have labeled them as strategy of the opposition to go into early elections. Yet, the government had to sit up and take note of the online community.
Ishan Russell, Managing partner, The Image People, a Delhi based firm that specialises in political campaign management, said that the current regime cannot afford to ignore social media. “Poor communication strategy is not something specific to the Congress Party. For all of them, there is no other way but to realise that the time has come for two way communication. They need to address the people in real time and not at the time of their convenience. Social media is exploding right now. The ones who do not ride the wave are in the danger of being rendered obsolete", he said.