Democracy is a type of government in which the general public has the authority to deliberate and decide legislation. They have the authority to elect their representatives. It is a form of government that is for the people, of the people, and by the people. The essential elements that constitute democracy include equality, free expression, free and fair elections, and freedom from excessive governmental control. The concept of democracy has evolved with time. However, access to information and freedom of expression remains one of the basic tenets of democracy. This is where we understand the role of social media in a democracy. Social media refers to forms of electronic communication through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content. It is an integral part of our society today and has deeply penetrated the business as well as the private sector of our lives. It helps in the exchange of ideas and information and thus helps shape the social, political, and economic spheres of our lives.
ROLE OF SOCIAL MEDIA IN A DEMOCRACY
Following are the ways in which social media promotes democratic ideals:
- Social media primarily helps disseminate information and facilitates the development of online social networks and communities which act as platforms for having democratic discussions.
- Through the information that is conveyed, social media helps shape public opinion. It gives the citizens access to information that allows them to make informed discissions and form an educated opinion. This further leads to conscious political participation of the general public and greater civic engagement. Since the general public elects and works for the smooth functioning of a democracy, this advantage given by social media becomes very crucial.
- The principle of equality is promoted by social media as it gives opportunities to everyone to voice their opinion. Not only does the majority voice their opinion, but the minority is also given a chance to do so.
- Social media has democratized news consumption by allowing the general public to participate in the discourse of news. Due to its far-fetched reach and easy accessibility, social media allows the citizen to play an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analysing, disseminating, and presenting news and information thereby facilitating the development of citizen journalism. Owing to the speed and technology of the social media handles, hard news can also be conveyed instantly to the readers who do not have to depend on traditional media channels to communicate this information.
- Communication between elected representatives and the general public has become easier due to the emergence of social media. Social media informs the citizens about their rights and duties and the welfare measures introduced by the government for them. Hence, it helps citizens avail the benefits of the initiatives introduced by the officials. Today, all elected representatives have social media handles and official communication is carried out using social media platforms like Twitter.
- Due to easy access to information, social media facilitates good governance, transparency and accountability by helping the general public keep a check on the working of the government.Besides that, it also plays a very important role in elections. Online political campaigns have gained a lot of popularity in recent times. It is often through social media platforms that the general public is informed about the candidates contesting for elections and their agendas.
- Social media has led to increased cyberactivism. Various initiatives are taken on social media platforms to bring about a positive change in society. These initiatives have the power to mold the perspectives of the public in a socially and morally correct way. The information disseminated on social media can help alter attitudes by presenting both sides of an argument and allowing the oppressed also to express their grievances. Active participatory culture is encouraged and hence, social media has the power to stimulate collective action among people by giving social issues the exposure that they require.
INCREASING RELEVANCE OF SOCIAL MEDIA
Social media has become an indispensable part of our lives today. It has facilitated globalization and led to the formation of interconnected international communities. Apart from building online communities and spreading news and information, it has also penetrated the business sector. Social media branding and marketing have become an integral part of any business. The whole market structure has evolved due to the emergence of social media. New business models and job opportunities have been introduced. The algorithms of social media platforms also help the brands communicate their offer to their target audience easily. Social media primarily has allowed citizens to be increasingly digitally empowered and is increasingly making us a knowledge-driven society.
CHALLENGES AND LAWS TO KEEP THEM IN CHECK
Along with benefits, social media also has a few downsides which can disturb the democratic setup. However, various laws have also been introduced to manage these challenges. Fake news can spread like wildfire on social media channels. Misinformation often goes unchecked. This in turn can create a bubble situation where the user is unaware of being trapped in the maze of disinformation. If fake news creates a false alarm in the public, the person responsible for it is punishable under section 505(1) of IPC. If it leads to riots then the perpetrator is liable under section 153 of IPC. If a false alarm is circulated or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, individuals responsible for this will be liable under section 54 of the disaster management act.
Social media defamation has also become very prevalent in recent times. Section 499 and 500 of IPC specifically deal with cases of defamation and hold the perpetrators who have been involved accountable. Fraud and cheating are also major concerns when it comes to social media. Users can anonymously act dishonestly in these virtual spaces. Section 66 of the information technology act has been introduced to keep a check on the same. It states that “If any person, dishonestly or fraudulently, does any act referred to in section 43, he shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with a fine which may extend to five lakh rupees or with both.”If not used ethically, social media handles can often be used as tools to promote political propaganda and brainwash people into believing a particular side. The algorithms of various social media platforms often show the viewer the side of the story that he/she is interested in. Political polarization can be amplified due to these handles. However, there is no explicit law for this.
Social media has deeply impacted our lifestyle and has led to increased social collaboration. It has caused a shift in our personal as well as our professional lives. It has truly allowed people to express their thoughts and ideas and be heard by other like-minded individuals. Due to its ability to connect people from all over the world with a click, it has led to the formation of a global community. India is the world’s largest democracy but there is a lot of disparity when it comes to individual voices being heard. The bridge between the privileged and the underprivileged has been reduced by social media. Due to its easy accessibility and cost-effectiveness, social media has in a way provided an equal footing to all individuals. It has helped citizens be more informed about their surroundings and encouraged greater political participation and hence, the emergence of social media platforms has led to the strengthening of democratic principles. However, social media proves to be a boon only if it is used ethically and every responsible citizen must do so.
Author(s) Name: Mihika Ambikar (Government Law College)
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 Indian penal code, 1860, s 505 (1)
 Indian penal code 1860, s 153
 Disaster management act, 2005, s 54
 Indian penal code, 1860, s 499, s 500
 Information technology act,2000, s 66