Social media in India: need for balancing between state regulation and self-regulation

India has one of the largest population of social media users | Picture: Aviv Digital

In the last few years, social media has emerged as one of the most important modes of instant relief mechanism during natural disasters and Covid-19 and especially so in a big country like India. Therefore, social media regulation and reform must be brought in accordance with the right to life as enriched in our constitution.

Dr Ahmed Raza | 

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A new foundation for social media and journalistic independence was strengthened legally after the recent Supreme Court of India’s order against social media clampdowns by the state governments and police departments. The order came in response to the police crackdown on individual’s use of Facebook, Twitter etc. during the ongoing second wave of pandemic seeking medical help or administrative attention by sharing information about scarcity of beds, oxygen, medicines, ICU, ventilators, ambulances etc. in both government and private hospitals. 

The second wave of Covid-19 pandemic in India needs to be viewed very seriously by the government, health administration, health sector industries etc as a large number of unfortunate cases of fatalities, shortages of beds and medicines, oxygen supply as well as coordination gap among the agencies etc were reported by social media platforms. Though, the authenticity, reliability and facts of the reporting by the social media have always been questioned by the existing state governments as several states always remain intact in achieving the number one position among the Covid-19 management state. Even, few of the states namely Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra have acted strongly by booking various cases against the citizens who sought help on social media platforms help during their emergencies. The governments of these states reasoned that these posts on social media were spreading misinformation about the availability of the resources in the hospitals and thereby creating panic in the society. 

However, after the Supreme Court order, exposing grievances or seeking help on social media, emergencies or any natural disaster like situation amounts to be a legal right. At the same time, we cannot misuse social media freedom in the name of the right to freedom of expression as manipulation in social media has undoubtedly contributed to other sensitive issues in our society such as political polarization, increasing the crime of mob lynching, triggering communal conflict, communalism through hate speech, converting nationals into anti-nationals etc. This article tries to explore the possibilities of social media reforms following the legal provision, right to freedom, right to privacy, right to life etc which must be taken as a balanced approach while dealing with social media reform in India. India has emerged as the seventh-largest market for social media sites as it provides an opportunity to every citizen to discuss political and social issues on the platforms and give their views. 

The first political experiment in India could be associated with BJP which mainly focussed on social media campaigning during the 2014 elections to grab the minds of youth. This led to a grand victory for BJP over the Congress party. Over the years, the misuse of social media by members of some members of society has appeared to be like an unguided missile that always poses a threat to fundamental ideals of the state. Hence, social media reforms in India is indispensable for the government. 

Following are the two models of social media reforms providing a balanced approach among several rights such as the right to freedom of expression, right to access information, right to privacy etc.

Need for regulation
The contents of social media are expected to be publishable on a public portal in accordance with the freedom of speech and expression conferred under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Indian constitution. Although, a large number of incidents of misuse of social media platform by the citizens, political parties, social activists have been reported whose views would go against the security, sovereignty and integrity of the state, or be dangerous to public order, or be in contempt of court. Such instances of expression of freedom of expression need to be regulated as social media gives a free hand to everyone. 

The role of social media in increasing the hatred and inhuman crime of mob lynching has been felt during the last few years. 

Social media has also been misused to contribute to communal violence by spreading fake, fabricated and manipulated message and videos. 

In 2012, many states of India including Karnataka and Pune saw a migration of students from the northeast and people from the southern Indian states due to instigation carried out through erroneous propaganda on social media. Converting national or intolerant people to anti-nationals has become a common feature of social media platforms by tempering the original videos, pictures and message before uploading into the social media sites to set a narrative against the targeted people. Such kind of misinformation and unlawful activities amount to be the consequences of untethered use of social media platforms, which are being used as a freehand tool in the hands of citizens, political parties etc that must be formally regulated following the constitutional provisions.

Don’t censor calls for medical help on social media
The contents on social media cannot be formally censored by the government on many accounts such as posting critical view on policies, governance models and call for help during health emergencies. The Chief Justice of Tripura High Court broadly remarked that posting on social media was tantamount to a “fundamental right” applicable to all citizens as the police had booked a man who was earlier arrested over a social media post against the union government policies. 

On the other hand, there must be full freedom to all citizens for exposing the mal-administration, and freely ask help from anyone during emergencies or natural disasters. Posting about such issues are associated with the right to life of an individual. In the last few years, social media has emerged as one of the most important modes of instant relief mechanism during natural disasters and Covid-19. Therefore, social media regulation must be brought in accordance with the right to life as enriched in our constitution. 

Scores of cases were reported in the last decade where social media acted as a quick informer to the authorities if and when an individual life was at high risk. 

The first instance occurred in the Uttarakhand floods during which Twitter played a vital role in helping the people. At the same time in 2015, during a cyclone in Chennai, social media platform Facebook acted as a tool to ensure the safety of people by introducing a feature called ‘Safety-check’, through users could mark themselves safe and their friends and acquaintances would come to know about it. 

To conclude, it could be argued that in this day and age social media has appeared to be a lifeline for many during the ongoing second wave of Covid-19 pandemic as they could inform the authorities about their situation through social media. Informing the authorities can lead to timely disposal of their grievances or redressal of their issues from government agencies, civil societies, NGOs etc. Therefore, the time is right for us to think of social media reform instead of social media regulation in terms of its relevancy to society. 


Dr Ahmed Raza is an Assistant Professor, MANUU (a central university) & Project Director- (MRP, ICSSR) Ministry of Education, Government of India.