The power of social media was discussed at length at the India Internet Day organised by the global non-profit TiE in New Delhi on Friday. In back to back sessions, Minister of State for Human Resource Development Shashi Tharoor
explained how the Indian government was changing with the times, while Egypt's Waleed Rashed recounted the story of how social media brought change to his country.
Tharoor, one of the most popular Indians on social media networks, said he did not think the social media could as yet influence election results. Since the medium still touched only a small minority in India, its impact on elections should not be exaggerated. "But the medium is extremely important for brand building and Narendra Modi
is the best example of this," he said.
The United States, however, was a different story. With a majority of the voters being participants in social media, politicians cannot afford to ignore this new medium, he added.
Waleed Rashed, one of the key personalities behind the April 6 revolution in Egypt, said the revolution started with just 50 people, but could not be stopped. "We never gave up," he said. "But you have to get people to join you... that is how we went from 50 to two million." Rashed underlined the influence of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi on the movement, which brought down Egypt's strongman Hosni Mubarak, after he had ruled the country for three decades.
On the social media
rumblings that shook India in recent months, he said there would have to be many such before actual change took place. "Ours was also a business, a business of revolution - planning, organising and marketing," he said. He refused, however, to call the Egyptian uprising a Facebook revolution. "Facebook was just a tool," he added. There were other tools - taxi drivers in Egypt were a better tool of social communication as they never keep quiet and can never keep a secret, he noted. "We would just enter a cab and start speaking in hushed tones... soon the news would be all over the place." That for him was the power of the people.
Tharoor said traditional models saw the new social media as a system of one way communication only. "They have no concept of social media as a tool for outrage," he said. He added that the Indian government had changed significantly in the past few months with ministers organising hangouts
and connecting with people at large. "A democratic politician should not resist a new communication medium... it is important to recognize the value of this platform for debate and discussion," he added.
Rashed summed up the difference as a tussle between people who were changing and people in power who were in no mood to change.
Tharoor, underlining that he was never a free speech absolutist, said lack of some reasonable restrictions would drown out the positive elements of the social media. He, however, reiterated that the government would do nothing to limit freedom of speech in any way.