RQ | Mob courts and social media

The withdrawal of the invitation to former Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal from the Times of India Lit Fest (to be held later this week) has been held up as a stellar example of “victory of social media over traditional media”. Tejpal, who has been accused of rape and is out on bail, was invited to be part of a panel discussion at the lit fest. However, following vehement protests in the social media, the invitation was withdrawn.

Tejpal’s rape case is sub-judice and this blog does not have an opinion on that. This blog also does not at the moment have an opinion on whether it is appropriate for on-bail undertrials to appear at public functions. What this blog is concerned about, though, is about how social media is helping give voice to large collectives of people to outrage and effect change in public life.

A couple of other examples are of relevance here. Last week, Nobel laureate and co-inventor of the double helix structure of the DNA James Watson announced that he was going to auction his Nobel prize medal to raise funds, for most of his sources of income had dried up following a politically incorrect comment he made in 2007 about the intelligence of black people. Then, about a year back, PR executive Justine Sacco lost her job after a tweet which was intended to be a joke went viral and she was accused of racism.

It has long been touted as a good thing that social media gives a vehicle for the “small”, whose voice was hitherto unheard, to come together with other similar “small” people and make enough noise that their opinion be heard. While the merits of such “democratisation of public airing of opinion” are undoubted (for example I’ve made most of my reputation thanks to blogging, a means unavailable to me say fifteen years ago), the concern is that too much importance given to comments on the social media can alter discourse and end up muffling voices (whether “small” or “large”) that have occasionally said something unparliamentary.

The big downside of such outrage and muffling is that it can lead people to stop taking risks in terms of what they say, for saying something even remotely unpopular or politically incorrect might suffice to be branded a villain, which can have crippling impacts on professional (and sometimes even personal) lives. I can actually imagine this leading to a dystopian world where every sentence you say is judged by “the people” for political correctness, where the utterance of a a single politically incorrect statement can result in instant death (of course I’m severely extrapolating here, and constructing a hypothetical dystopian world, so don’t let this blog post become an example of what it’s warning against!). In such a world, as one could imagine, people would only say things that they are absolutely sure that a majority of other people will agree with. People will talk less (not necessarily a bad thing in itself), but creativity itself will be stifled (Copernicus and Galileo come to mind) and there is a good chance that in such a world growth and development might come to a standstill.

I’m in no way proposing that the voice of the “small” be gagged (this blog is also one such voice), or to go unheeded. All I’m asking for is that we do not go the way of being ruled by the mob, in terms of making decisions that receive the highest shouts in favour. For one, the mob is not always right. Secondly, it might only be people on one side of the debate who are loud and vocal, and the other side might, for whatever reason, not be able to make its voice heard. The world simply cannot progress without some people making unpopular decisions or unpopular statements.

So the Times of India, if it didn’t see merit in calls for withdrawal of Tejpal’s withdrawal, might have argued that while the matter was sub-judice, the matter of discussion had nothing to do with Tejpal’s case and that he had enough to offer to make his presence a positive. Magazines could have given Watson writing assignments arguing that he has much to offer in terms of science writing and that one politically incorrect column doesn’t make him a “persona non grata”. Sacco’s employer might have argued that she was entitled to have a bad sense of humour (though given that she worked in PR this (bad sense of humour) is not a useful skill to have). Listening to the most vocal voices is not always good policy.