Social Media and Democratic Discourse

A two-day national seminar organized by the department of Journalism and Mass Communication (JMC) at the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Shillong campus, on the theme “Social Media and Democratic Discourse”  was held on October 30-31, 2014. The national seminar was a part of a project of Children in Media Experiments (CHIME), which is an initiative of the department of Journalism and Mass Communication in partnership with UNICEF Assam, to introduce Participatory Media through the use of different forms of media technologies. CHIME project also thrives to document the issues of children in the state by students of mass communication and other social sciences, who are the future media practitioners.

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On October 30, 2014, when the programme formally got started with the inaugural session held at the University’s multipurpose hall. Dr. T.K. Kharbamon chaired the session which started off with a warm welcome song by the students of the JMC department. The Key note address delivered on “Media Freedom, Civil Society and the Imagined Nation” by Sukumar Muralidharan, Fellow, IIAS, Shimla who took up the issue of free speech and press freedom in the context of the operation of the power apparatus in India. He enumerated the legal and judicial interventions in the area of public access to information and government control and thereby problematized the free role of media in the democratic discourse in the Indian nation. The construction of the Indian nation was discussed within the process constituting the public discourse of ideas through the mediation of state power and the civil society.

 

The inaugural session was followed by Session A, chaired by Sari R. Khawbung, with the theme “Digital Democracy and its challenges”. The papers presented in this session were titled “Is the Digital truly Democratic, The question of Braille Script and reading” by Moinak Choudhury, which dealt with the theoretical and practical challenges confronting the Braille Script and its relation to the ‘tactile’ nature of the text; “Digital democracy and underprivileged regions: an assessment of political blogs in India”, by Nilanjana Das, talked about the role of the new media in the process of democracy with special reference to North East India; “Digital democracy and student politics: observations from Assam University Students’ Council Elections” by Raghavendra Mishra, explained the pattern of digital media applications in the area of student politics and their role in influencing and mobilizing public opinion.

 

The Session B began with the theme of “Social media and Performing Democracy” chaired by Usha Raman, Head, Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad. The papers presented were titled “CDA and Democratization Discourses in Social media: theories and methods, by Mohd. Sihabudheen K, which attempted to bring together the theories and methods of critical discourse Analysis (CDA) in order to analyze the process of Democratization in social media; “Internet Memes as a public discourse” by Sahana Sarkar, examined the role of Internet-memes as a translation of the language and thought of people about various subject matters or concerns in progress; “Social Media & Religion: A Discourse on Diversity & Democracy” by Benson Rajan took up the case of Catholic and Protestant faith memes in order to address the issues of religious diversity and the forms of democratic participation that revolves around the aspects of religious faith in social media.

 

The day one ended with a Plenary Lecture with the theme: ‘Civil Society & Social Marginality: Voices of the Disenfranchised’, with resourceperson Kishalay Bhattacharjee, Director, Reach Out Foundation, New Delhi who attempted to capture the tension inherent in the power of a single story, among others, to spark conflicts and misunderstandings. He argued that the role of social media is immense and crucial. Because of its reach and instantaneous impact of the social media whose increasing use has posed a serious challenge to the journalists working on the fields in their endeavour to reach out to the heart of the sources, to search for the most authentic one amongst others. On the other hand, social media can also be used as a mechanism to articulate the most pressing concerns confronting the individual at a particular time. Therefore, the role of the journalist in this context is being questioned. In this age of ‘breaking news’ and uncontrolled proliferation of ‘single stories’, he senses that the journalist will be the one who would dissect and present the ‘real’ news to the viewers and audiences. The challenge is to tell the story of the disenfranchised because representing the conflict-ridden areas without stereotyping the inhabitants is the danger of a single story. He concludes his talk stressing on the need to explore the multiple narratives emanating from the region, where the participation of social media needs to be active and ‘trending’.

 

The second day of the national seminar started off with the plenary lecture by resource person Usha Raman, who spoke on the theme of “Citizen-Netizen: Performance, practice, participation”, talked about the relationship between social media and the news space and the role of new media and its practices in furthering democracy with the help of online social networks. She conversed about a face book campaign by Bangalore residents on saving a heritage site from demolition and also inventive online campaign, private individuals and celebrities by posting videos of themselves taking the ice bucket challenge and also mobile wielding voters of selfies “I cast my vote”. She affirmed that social media offer us a variety of possibilities of linking the intensely personal with the civil and the political and those abuses of children have to do with choices we make inside our homes. She raised critical questions on what does it mean to be political on the social network? What sorts of politics does it afford? What does it do to offline policies?

 

She stressed on the fact that online spaces do provide access and voice to different kinds of people in different ways that has been possible in traditional forums. She proposed a typology of roles that we play as netizen-citizens; the one that pays attention to issues of social and political relevance, the one who questions and debates these issues, the one who shares information in a strategic or casual manner and finally the ones who translates performative practice to paticipative practice. She concludes her talk with a question, whether and to what extent we will make use of this potential to move from mere performance to a practice that is truly participative and transformative. The session was chaired by Sukalpa Bhattacharjee, Professor, Department of English, NEHU.

 

The Session C of the seminar took off with the theme of “Social Media and Representation” which was chaired by Arzuman Ara. The papers presented were titled, “Ethnic identities and social media- a case study of young social media users in Shillong”, by Rajani K. Chhetri, addressed the issues of representations and stereotyping and how social media can challenge the stereotyping constructs of identity; “Representational politics of social media with special reference to the Assamese language groups on facebook”, by Anshuman Bora, discussed the discursive domains of social media which are almost always potential sights of political contestations where individuals and social identities are negotiated by means of the politics of language; “The constitution of self on social networking sites and its politics”, by Rachit Anand, argued that there is a critical difference between human interaction in modern democracies and in the sphere of digital social networking; “Social media and presentation of self”, by Sayed Murtaza Alfraid Hussain; “Social media and the representation of Dalit cultures”, presented by Chatrapathi yadav Rasu and Sudarshan Balabiona.

 

Session D began with the theme of “Social Media, Civil Society, Public Sphere: Voices of the Disenfranchised and Gender, which was chaired by Sukumar Muralidharan. The papers presented were titled, “The Beginning and rise of youth ki awaaz by Leslin Bastian and Sajitha Charles; “Platform for uneven voices: concerns of the third gender” by Reetamoni Das and Pallavi Devi; Role of social media in facilitating awareness of child rights” by Syed Mohsin Raza and Dhriti Sundar Gupta, “Social Media and Democracy: Threats, Conflicts and Challenges to a Democracy” by Dr. Caroline Wahlang.

 

Session E dealt with the theme of “Civil society and Social Media Conflicts and Contestations, with Dr. Temsunungsang as the chairperson. The paper presented were titled, Politics of hip-hop tradition through social media: Investigating Native Bapa as a voice against stereotyping of Mapila Muslims in Kerela” by Jahfar Sadiq; Role of civil society and social media in the Naga reconciliation process” by Shonreiphy Longvah; “Social media and political public sphere: rise of social movements” by Rupam Kumar Das; “exploring the legal Nuances of freedom of speech and expression on social media: an Indian perspective” by Shishir Tiwari.

 

After the end of this session the summary of the papers were being presented by Abir Suchiang, and further began the valedictory session with Rebekah Tham as the chairperson where Prof Vridhagiri Ganeshan delivered the valedictory address. The seminar came to an end with a dance performance by the students of the JMC and English Department. The National Seminar was coordinated by the department of Journalism and Mass Communication of EFLU, Shillong Campus with Alankar Kaushik as the Coordinator, Abir Suchiang as the Assistant Coordinator and Caroline Wahlang and Santidora Nongpluh as the Associate Coordinators.

Sonam Sultana Shah is a student of Mass Communication and Journalism, EFLU, Shillong Campus