Change is in the air. Now you don’t have to get on a stage with a mike in one hand and have audiences in attendance to air your views. All this is now just a click away.

Be it social networking sites, blogging or micro-blogging pages, opinions on various subjects are constantly shared by users. From discussions on who the most suitable candidate to be the country’s next prime minister is, demands for justice for the journalist who was allegedly sexually assaulted by founder-editor of Tehelka, Tarun Tejpal, the country is currently engaged in serious debates.

A voice for the voiceless? 

Social media is another channel of communication. Unlike traditional media, with their various intermediaries to cross before one can air their views, social media is easily accessible to everyone. Thus, people who are otherwise unheard can freely voice their opinions — a right granted to us by our constitution — on social media platforms. This is why it is gaining immense popularity,” says Sunil Abraham, executive director of Bangalore-based research organization, Centre for Internet and Society.

Popular blogger and activist Usha Mohan Das agrees and terms social media a fantastic and quick tool. Change can be introduced by the correct use of social media. If one has a strong view on any subject, social media is the perfect platform to raise issues. However, this is a social tool and should not be used for individual gain,” says Usha.

However, Anja Kovacs, project director at the Internet Democracy Project in India, says social media is not accessible to all. Social media allows people who did not have a voice earlier to be heard. But even now, only a small segment of the population has internet access. That has to change before we can make statements like Social media is the voice of India’,” adds Anja.

Social and political issues

Anything that directly or indirectly affects the aam aadmi is likely to be discussed both online and offline, say experts. Social media plays a formative role in strengthening the public sphere through debates on social and political issues. The extensive reach of social media, and the possibility of information becoming viral in a short span cannot be accomplished offline. This makes it a vital catalyst for advocacy and campaigns,” says Kamayani Bali Mahabal, a lawyer and human rights activist.

Fanning rumours?

On several occasions, social media has been misused to spread rumours, as was alleged during the Muzaffarnagar riots. Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stressed on the need to check social media’s misuse to foment trouble. I am sure they (social media users) sometimes do spread rumours, and it is important that more people learn how to deal with information in a critical manner, rather than believing everything they are being told,” says Anja. But, social media also plays an important role in stamping out such rumours, as people can rectify incorrect information quickly. Though there are exceptions, many rumours do not survive on the internet for long,” Anja adds. Kamayani, who blogs frequently on social issues, says that it’s not just on social media — rumours spread like wildfire in the real world too. It’s just that rumours spread faster online. Social media users are people from society. It’s a tool that can be used and abused, and we need to be aware of that,” she says.

Dos and don’ts for social media users 

-Cross-check facts and figures before you post anything online ‑Only share your views if you feel strongly about them ‑Don’t use social media for personal gain ‑Don’t vent your personal ire online

Originally published in Times of India.