It is in the midst of a raging debate on whether it is imposing social media censorship – including an attempt to block satirical Twitter accounts – but that didn’t stop the government from holding its first ever “press conference” on Twitter on Tuesday evening.
After 45 minutes of virtual chaos, the final verdict of the Twitterati on @pitrodasam’s initiative seemed to be that it was a welcome first step to engage the citizens on cyberspace – which still needs a lot more work.
In an attempt to demonstrate Marshall McLuhan’s adage that “the medium is the message,” Sam Pitroda – telecom pioneer and the Prime Minister’s adviser on Public Information, Infrastructure and Innovations – chose to use microblogging site Twitter as the venue for an online discussion on the topic of “Democratisation of Information.” The hashtag #DoI was soon trending as curious Tweeple logged on.
Mr. Pitroda kicked off the conference with a YouTube video presentation on the high speed National Knowledge Network and the government’s plan to bring rural India into the digital age by connecting 2,50,000 panchayats through an optical fibre network.
He batted for the UPA government, arguing that its plans to build a robust information infrastructure would “democratise information on a scale that has never been done before… Information is power and not many wish to share,” he said. “The UPA government also has political will to make it happen,” he added.
Once the floor was open for questions after Mr. Pitroda’s initial spiel, the online bombardment began. Even at regular, mainstream media press conferences these days, there is often a barely restrained sense of chaos as camerapersons and reporters jostle for soundbites and quotes.
Mr. Pitroda’s initiative was wrongly termed a press conference; in keeping with the democratisation theme, it was open to any member of the public, not just the press. Without any sort of moderator in place, the enthusiastic questions poured out at a much faster rate than a lone Mr. Pitroda could churn out answers for.
Many questioners were left frustrated that Mr. Pitroda seemed to be ducking controversial topics including social media censorship, privacy concerns and technology timelines, instead sticking to optimistic tweets on the government’s infrastructural initiatives.
In response to @ShivangiNarayan’s query on what documents and departments would be made public in the drive to democratise information, @pitrodasam replied: “Certain sensitive information will have to be controlled by the government.” Asked about policy changes to democratise information, he told this correspondent, tweeting as @prisjebaraj that “It starts with the RTI. To back it up, we need PII [public information infrastructure]. And then provide access to real time info to ppl on demand.”
Asked by @DevjyotGhoshal how the high-speed National Knowledge Network could actually make a difference to a tribal in Chhattisgarh or a schoolgirl in rural Bihar, Mr. Pitroda offered the response: “They can take online courses.” Appalled Twitterati started comparing that exchange to Marie Antoinette’s infamous advice to her starving people that if they didn’t have bread, they could eat cakes.
When it was pointed out that without power in rural areas, broadband connectivity was of little use, Mr. Pitroda’s response was simply that “solar power is being planned at Panchayats.”
While 140 characters may not be ideal for an in-depth discussion anyway, better preparation might have helped the coherence of the online conversations, felt several participants. Several suggestions that emerged: a larger team to help Mr. Pitroda field the vast number of simultaneous questions, and the use of the “reply” button, so the audience could trace the thread of conversations. Despite his reputation as the government’s tech czar, Mr. Pitroda – who has only posted 235 tweets over the last two years – often seemed uncomfortable with the medium.
At the end of the session, for every disappointed user who screamed “EpicFail”, there was another who praised the “democratic platform” and called for politicians to interact with young India using Twitter, praising Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s interaction via Google Hangout last month.
Mr. Pitroda, however, promised a re-run soon. “I am impressed with the energy of our young,” he said.