Taking into context the string of blunders the Government has made over the past one year with regard to governing the Internet, the MyIndia digital volunteer programme becomes one of a two-pronged strategy that betrays the Government’s capability in governing the Web.
The Government is drafting. Not for the armed forces, but rather for a digital horde of citizens—one that will spread the good word, not unlike the child that King Arthur sends out to tell all and sundry that the justice of the round table is indeed possible. And more importantly, the wonders and virtues of Camelot.
The MyIndia initiative, launched a few days ago by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB), is looking to do exactly this. “It is aimed at people who are keen to use their personal social presence on different social media platforms to talk about Government schemes and programmes.”
According to the Ministry’s blog, volunteers must talk and spread word about the Govt’s initiatives by re-tweeting various messages put out by the MIB and so on.
The move has decent intentions no doubt; the Government’s online image has taken quite a beating of late. But intentions and rumours alike, whether true or false, often reveal more than plain facts.
Shooting one's own foot
Taking into context the surrounding environment and the string of blunders the Government has made over the past one year with regard to governing the digital and Internet space, the MyIndia digital volunteer programme becomes one of a two-pronged strategy that betrays the Government’s capability in governing the Web.
Let’s take a look at the initiative first. Note here there is nothing speaking of actually trying to reach out to the public per se. Leaving aside some of the classical Orwellian connotations present – why is there no mention of the Government trying to disseminate useful information through social media? A quick look at the MIB’s twitter account will tell you that much of the information put out is live-tweeting whatever Manish Tewari says or updates on the latest award function/ceremonial gathering that has taken place. Ditto with the PMO of India’s twitter account.
It seems as though this act is to get people to chat up the Government of India throughout the Internets by creating a digital propaganda machine. An almost white-washing if you will. And of course, a white-washing cannot be present without its counterpart, the black-washing. Indeed – the white-washing only assumes any significance in the presence of its antithesis. The MIB’s move comes during the same week that a Government committee gave a stamp of approval to block 306 twitter accounts in the wake of an Assam-communal scare.
It also came on the same day that the Centre and the Jammu and Kashmir Government decided to switch off Internet and mobile services in the northern State – fearing any potential backlash from the hanging of Afzal Guru.
White and black fears
On one hand, you have a white-washing, where citizens will spread the word of the Government’s programmes and policy, and a brand new policy on how the Govt must use social media. On the other hand, there is a blacklisting of anything on the Internet that the Centre does not understand quite how to deal with yet. For what other reason must Internet services be turned off in Jammu and Kashmir? It is easier, after all, to quickly raise the ban-hammer, rather than to actually use the Internet to reassure its citizens.
A cognitive dissonance therefore appears; how far can one trust the white as long as the black exists?
It would be very simple to disseminate information through the MIB and PMO India’s twitter accounts. News concerning the dates and times of curfews taking place could have been posted for instance. If morphed pictures appeared on the Internet, aiming to incite communal violence, all it would take is a quick tweet from the Centre to tell its citizens that the photo is indeed a fake.
To put it briefly – social media could assume immense importance as a disaster-management tool. The Government cannot understand this, however. Why not? Because it involves a rather curious turn of events with regard to governance as a principle. Governance has long been associated with a monopoly of power, essentially change is enforced largely by whoever has power – which of course can manifest in various ways.
When it comes to social media and the Internet, there are no immediate ways to monopolize power. Statements made, by politicians, for instance cannot be erased with doublespeak or retraction. People cannot be dragged away, under the cover of hurting sentiments, that easily as well – not for a want of trying though.
Governing through the Web, therefore, ideally involves not governing through power or force. Simplifying a bit, it involves going with the flow, presenting a credible image and more importantly – carefully listening to feedback.
The last one year has seen the Government stumbling very much like a drunk elephant throughout the Internet – banning legitimate websites over scares of piracy, banning social media accounts accused wrongly of inciting communal violence, dragging people to Court over Facebook posts, creating an Internet governance proposal that would have the countries like Saudi Arabia and China dictating terms, and so on.
A rational approach is called for. Stop setting up special committees which claim to listen to civil society – but usually include various NGOs that are more than often out of the loop— and try to use the Internet as a tool. It doesn’t have to be something that one fears.
No one is willing listen to a child run from one Internet community to the other, speaking about the glories of the UPA Government. After all, it's no Camelot.