Policing social media

The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) is reportedly giving a push to ensure that each of the 900-odd higher education institutions (HEIs) under its control develops a “positive” social media profile. In itself, this might, at best, indicate misplaced priorities, given that the ministry has to manage a critical sector with many glaring problems and extremely limited resources. However, the social media initiative includes a disturbing element in that it recommends that all 30 million-odd students studying in the HEIs be asked to link their social media accounts to their respective institutes. That could create a situation where students are placed under a mass surveillance net as well as rendered vulnerable to other potential breaches of privacy. 

In a recent letter circulated to HEIs, the secretary to the MHRD recommended that each HEI choose a member of the staff as a “social media champion”. This person would have to set up and maintain the HEI’s profile on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This champion would also have to release some positive news about the HEI each week and, after linking up with other HEI profiles and with the MHRD, retweet, or otherwise amplify, positive posts and “other good news” from other HEIs and the MHRD. This champion is to be identified by July 31. It would be this person’s responsibility to also request students to link their social media profiles to that of the institute. Students would also be asked to publicise and amplify good news and positive stories about the HEIs.

Upon enquiry by The Quint, the ministry clarified this linkage of student accounts would be voluntary. In practice, however, given the power equations between students and their institutions, such a “request” by the champion would effectively carry the force of a diktat. It is possible to link students’ Twitter/Facebook/Instagram accounts to the HEI accounts without yielding access to their private content. But it would create a huge list for the MHRD to look at and study using Big Data analysis. It would destroy the anonymity of social media users since their accounts would be linked to their identities and institutions.

Given that public criticism of the government usually causes targeting by trolls supporting the government, and indeed sometimes results in arrests under regressive laws, this is a serious issue. Students who express dissent could be made to suffer in many ways if this sort of monitoring of social media is normalised. This measure could, therefore, have a powerful, chilling effect on freedom of expression since students would not only be “encouraged” to amplify “positive posts”; they would know that the MHRD was reading over their shoulder. Quite apart from this, such a database of linked accounts would be a goldmine for any organisation looking to exercise undue influence on elections. There are other ways to amplify the MHRD’s activities and spread good news about HEIs. For example, the MHRD could easily create space for positive feedback and comments online from students and other stakeholders. Policing social media spaces where people interact informally with each other and creating a mechanism for monitoring on such a vast scale is not how the MHRD should set about developing a positive social media profile.

 


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