Kathmandu: Like offline society, Nepal’s social media sphere is also largely polarized and compartmentalized.
People stand even more polarized and intolerant to dissent when they are on social media platforms. Of late, groups are formed based on users’ affiliation to a particular political party and they are used by supporters of one party or the followers of one ideology to abuse, insult and blame supporters of another party and ideology.
Youth wings of the political parties have created online versions of the Young Communist League, Youth Force and Tarun Dal.
Many Nepali people still recall scuffling among the youth wings, the members of which are largely thought of as ‘goons’ by the general public.
Following in the footsteps of CPN-UML, which formed ‘Cyber Army’ and ‘IT Army’ a few months back, Nepali Congress on Tuesday formed Nepali Congress Wide Information Network (NC WIN).
Commentators argue this will bring the youths and cadres to the online battlefields. Also a pressing question is: Will political parties teach their online supporters to respect each other’s views, a fundamental norm in a democracy?
What is happening?
Social media has already become a platform to show offline polarization among the political parties’ leaders and cadres. Echo chambers are being created, resulting in further social and political polarization. More worryingly, social media has become a tool for disseminating misinformation.
“In the last two to three years, social media has been used for abuse, insult and destructive criticism. Such networks are being misused to serve political interests,” said Hima Bista, a rights activist. “Space is not being given for opposite opinions, ideas and dissent.”
The recent ‘Malai Sher Bahadur Deuba Man Parchha Kinaki’ incident turned out to be counterproductive for Nepali Congress and the government head. “If they don’t use their information network wisely, they will be no different to previous formations such as IT Army and Cyber Sena,” Bista added.
Without doubt, there exists an intimate relation between the digital world and democracy. Even developing countries have now begun to adopt the concept of digital democracy.
But digital democracy also raises the risks and threats of misuse of online platforms for vested political interests. The situation could be worse if political leaders do not orient their cadres to safeguard personal freedom and the dignity of people.
Ahead of the general elections scheduled for 2022, political parties are attempting to get a stronghold on social media. But many fear this will result in polarized and indecent social media platforms.
Bista argues that the formation of an information network, as done by Nepali Congress, in itself is not a wrong move, but such a network should be used properly. “Social media should be used to share information and disseminate ideas and opinions,” she said.
According to datareportal.com, there were 13 million social media users in Nepal in January 2021. The number of social media users in Nepal increased by 3 million (+30 percent) between 2020 and 2021. The number of social media users in Nepal was equivalent to 44.2 percent of the total population in January 2021.
This rise in the number of social media users reflects the growing shift of the political leaders toward digital platforms to communicate to the people. Almost all of the political parties and leaders have increased their presence in social media.
But instead of using it as an important platform to disseminate the agendas and information of the parties, the users (political cadres and supporters) in recent time have made it a major platform for destructive criticism and online battle.
If social media and online space is used for information sharing, that will help political ideas to flourish as it is an important platform for two-way communication, said Aakar Anil, a blogger in Nepal. “Social media should be used to express our ideas and learn about others’ ideas and opinions to preserve and promote democracy,” he said.