When governments "unlike" you?

To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticise.

Social media has a double edge. As with all tools and technologies, they can have a positive or a negative impact depending on how they are used.


Social media is no different. Citizens can use social media and web 2.0 technologies to engage with governments, build pressures on them, mould public opinions, build up campaigns and movements, and more.


But Governments too can use the same technologies for achieving their personal objectives and which may not always be for public good.


In November 2012, a 21 year women in Mumbai (India) posted a message on facebook that she was shocked by the shutdown of Mumbai after the death of controversial politician Bal Thackeray. Her specific comment was "People like Thackeray are born and die daily and one should not observe a 'bandh' [shutdown] for that."


Second women, her friend, then "liked" the comment.


These two actions on facebook were enough to make them unliked by the Government and both were promptly arrested. Shockingly they were charged by the Government, under the Information Technology Act.


Similarly, in October 2012, a 46-year-old businessman in the southern Indian city of Pondicherry, was arrested for a tweet criticising Karti Chidambaram, son of Indian Finance Minister P Chidambaram. And in April 2012, the West Bengal (India) government arrested a teacher who had emailed to friends a cartoon that was critical of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Both were later released on bail.


The arrests reflect the wariness with which the Governments look at social media and they have not hesitated to use their sweeping powers and immunity to suppress or silence public opinion on the social media.


In United States, a 26 year old former marine was arrested for posting comments against the American ruling establishment on his facebook and which the government authorities deemed were threatening. The arrest was made under an obscure statute which gives the government power to involuntary detain a citizen for psychiatric evaluation.


In Venezuela, people were arrested for suspected of spreading messages on twitter about the health of the president. In Kuwait, the country court jailed an activist for two years for insulting the Kuwaiti leader (emir) while in Brazil, a judge ordered the arrest of the head of Google's operations in Brazil, for failure to remove YouTube videos that attacked a mayoral candidate.


It should not be assumed that Governments are wary of public opinion on social media only because they do not understand it. Often they understand it too well.


Governments sometimes use guerilla tactics to ensure a positive public opinion is reflected of them and they do hesitate to use a combination of social media and the government machinery.


A case to point is that is in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada where provincial government officials were caught padding online media surveys to shift public opinion in their favour. When a local media brings out a survey aimed at general public to get their views and opinions on government policies, there was a coordinated message sent to the party members, including through blackberry messages, to vote in a particular way, and as many times as they can.


Furthermore calls to the radio call-in stations asking for public opinion, were coordinated to ensure the same party line and opinion was broadcasted.


The silver lining to these issues is that whenever they are caught and public becomes aware of them, there has been an outrage and backlash against the Government. The people have voiced their opinions in the strongest terms against these sweeping powers of the governments. In many cases, the Governments had to apologise, back track and make the rules more clear to prevent their misuse.


Whether such incidences and public backlash will reform governments or make them use their sweeping powers even more surreptitiously and heavy handedly so that they are not caught or there is no mass outrage is difficult to say. Ultimately it may depend on how much the Government “like” or “unlike” public opinions.