Social media came to India in September 2006 and it was considered to be a nice way of making friends, catching up with old friends and acquaintances out of touch for a long time, and also a means to exchange ideas and information. Twitter, which was launched a month or so earlier, in July 2006, was turning out to be another story, altogether.
Not that people were not aware of chat sites like Yahoo, Rediff, Sify and so many others that had hundreds of members who chatted online. The difference was that, on those sites the chatter remained incognito under an assumed chat ID. There too, people got involved. Many friendships, affairs and marriages resulted. Negativism was limited to a few chat IDs.
To top it all, a few books were also written on trends of chat rooms. This was in the late 1990s, computers were slow and so was net connection -- 56kbps with frequent disruptions if you were lucky enough to connect in the first place, something this generation can't even imagine! Internet chat, as in social media, was as safe and fun as you wanted it to be.
In the middle of the first decade of the new century, the very concept of the social media and chat sites changed and reached a new level. Facebook and Twitter took over the social media and, later, went on to set their own terms. As these medias grew they became a hotbed for controversies, abuses and, mainly, an instrument for people nursing frustrations to let it all out here.
Soon, some users became puppets of these medias, earning approval of the masters for spreading their own views. Accusations against them range from spreading hatred, promoting antinational sentiments to even influencing state elections.
The quality of texts on the social media, especially the microblogging kinds, border on pathetic.
What is more surprising is that the news channels have got into the practice of amplifying the social media controversies and using them as issues to debate according to whichever comment suits their personal agenda! Doesn't that give extra mileage to unworthy comments? Some channels support such comments while some others criticise them, but both end up talking only about the negative comments. Strange as it may sound, positive thoughts aired on social media are not found worth talking about! The news media has unwittingly ended up making celebrities out of many unworthy characters.
On the other hand, there is the issue of OTT streaming for over five years since platforms like Hotstar (now Disney+ Hotstar), Amazon and Netflix entered India. Presently, there are estimated to be over 40 such streaming platforms, with the list growing every day. These platforms have no control, either self-imposed or from the Government.
One of the first programmes that should have drawn the Government's attention to the filth that was being peddled in the name of home entertainment was "Sacred Games". Many more content providers followed the trend set by "Sacred Games" and came out with their own versions of gore, violence, sex, including the unnatural kind, bad words and just about everything that is not considered fit to watch for any human, least of all Indians.
If one has observed, most OTT streaming programmes are based heavily on sex and violence, which does not really reflect the taste of the Indian viewership. Especially, considering OTT platforms are for home entertainment and meant to be enjoyed with family, big and small members. Imagine, watching a series with family and kids and suddenly a sex scene flashes on the screen (the kind depicted in the serial "Arya")! The Government's fancily named Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeITY), has last week come out with the draft rules for the social media and the OTT platforms operating in India. The law, Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021.
The Government calls these as Rules and not a Law. Looks like, to start with, these platforms are being requested to cooperate and the approach taken is rather soft.
All over the world, these social media platforms seem to have more say than any government in any country. That they have become a power within themselves with no boundaries is dawning on various country heads. Not only are they making billions but also calling shots and influencing minds of its users.
While India has come down on these media, wanting them to be answerable, Australia has demanded a share of revenue from the news materials they use. More countries are taking note of imbalances caused by the social media networks.
The MeITY draft rules propose that the social media set up a Grievance Redressal Mechanism and appoint a Grievance Redressal Officer. Grievances have to be registered and addressed within 15 days. In addition, the social media need to appoint a Compliance Officer to make sure the Compliance Rules are implemented, besides appointing a Nodal Officer and a Resident Grievance Officer. All these officers need to be residents of India.
But, keeping in mind the misuse and anti-India propaganda, which is forwarded multiple times, creating a chain of misinformation, the MeITY has also sought the information on the First Originator of a controversial post.
How effective these measures will be remains to be seen if you consider proxy settings and expert hackers who can overcome tracking hurdles. Also, considering that a lot of such activities on the social media against one country by another inimical country, tracking them will not only be a challenge but of little help. If some anti-India comments originate from Pakistan, there is little MeITY can do except request to the service provider to act on it.
As for OTT, again, the Government has been very late in laying down rules. The ones proposed in the MeITY don't quite measure up to much. It is suggested that the OTT platforms self-classify their content, which is age specific with facility for parental control.
Self-regulation for the OTT is a rather mild approach. What an OTT platform may deem fit to air may not be so for a viewer. The recent examples are "Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl" and "Tandav", one misrepresenting the India Air Force and the other hurting religious sentiments.
This soft approach towards OTT platforms is not fair to the filmmakers of India who have never been afforded this confidence. Compared to OTT content being aired now, our films come across as kindergarten stuff. In the guise of the censor board, filmmakers are often subjected to humiliation. You have a "Gangs Of Wasseypur" on one hand, which depicts all kind of gory violence and foul words and, on the other hand, you want a James Bond or any other film to limit a kissing scene to a few seconds! Never thought the censors were meant to be the moral guardian of the moviegoer.
The only time the film industry was given the task of self-censorship was when the film associations were given the task to screen the film publicity material used for public display! How successful the self-regulation on the part of the OTT platforms works remains to be seen. Meanwhile, as one associated with film trade journalism for decades, I would suggest that it is high time the filmmakers were also offered self-censorship facility. They are more mature and responsible.
So far, neither the social media nor the OTT platforms were breaking our laws because we did not have any. Now, that the rules are being laid down, they had better adhere to them. These requirements of the Government may look timid, but a rule is a rule.
(Vinod Mirani is a veteran film writer and box office analyst. The views expressed are personal)