Shashi Tharoor, Union Minister & Member of Indian Parliament

Shashi Tharoor, Union Minister & Member of Indian Parliament

Dr Shashi Tharoor, Minister of State, Ministry of Human Resource Development & Member of Indian Parliament, delivered the Keynote Address, “Role of Digital & Social Media in Connecting with Young India” at the Pitch Youth Marketing Summit, held in New Delhi recently. Dr Tharoor talked about his experiences on Twitter and how social media is shaping the current political scenario in India and worldwide. Here is Dr Tharoor’s complete Keynote Address:

Talking about social media today in India, I think it’s important to start off with some global basics. The first is of course is that the freedom of expression is fundamental. That’s my belief and commitment as a writer and as a politician, and as somebody who uses all media, social and otherwise — social and anti-social!

Freedom of expression is the mortar that binds together the bricks of our freedom and it’s also the open window embedded in those bricks. We need freedom of expression to guarantee all of our other acts. In this country we are all entitled to receive and send information thorough electronic networks, to share information, whether through the newspaper, the TV screen or online websites and to do so without censorship and restriction. This is fundamental to the kind of world which we all live in.

As a writer and a politician, I am conscious how fortunate we are to live in a country that guarantees us that right. Writers in some developing countries have to contend with the argument that development and freedom of expression are incompatible – that the media, for instance, must serve the ends of development as defined by the government, or operate only within the boundaries of what the social and religious authorities define as permissible.  The developing world is full of writers, artists and journalists who have to function in societies which do not grant them this freedom.  For them freedom of expression is the oxygen of their own survival, and that of their society, but they are stifled.  In countries where truth is what the government or the religious establishment says is true, freedom of expression is essential to depict alternative truths which the society needs to accommodate in order to survive.

And yet it is all too often absent, because in many countries, there are those who question the value of freedom of speech in their societies; those who argue that it threatens stability and endangers progress; those who still consider freedom of speech a Western import, an imposition from abroad and not the indigenous expression of every people’s demand for freedom. What has always struck me about this argument is that it is never made by the people, but by governments; never by the powerless but by the powerful; never by the voiceless, but by those whose voices are all that can be heard.  Let us put this argument once and for all to the only test that matters: the choice of every people, to know more or know less, to be heard or be silenced, to stand up or kneel down. Only freedom of expression will allow the world’s oppressed and underprivileged a way out of the darkness that shrouds their voices, and their hopes.  The Internet has been giving them this choice as never before.

But then beyond that, and beyond the way in which social media reflects our freedom of expression, we have to go into how the information society of the 21st century provides citizens with full information to allow democratic participation at all levels in determining their own future.

Technology has become the biggest asset for those who seek to promote and protect freedom of expression around the world. The exciting thing about social media is that the new digital technology offers great possibilities for enhancing traditional media and combining them with new media.

The Internet has been made possible by advances in technology that have also transformed the traditional media. Traditional media, and especially radio and television, remain the sole form of access to the information society for much of the world’s population, including the very poor and the illiterate. The poorest, and the illiterate, have not yet been able to use social media and the internet. But even the rest of us rely on traditional media, we can’t wish them away. There is increasing convergence between television and the internet and soon we can try and see how we can marry modern technologies to actually make serious progress in the world.

Today, however, our focus is on social media. Look at the extraordinary transformation that is happening. Just a day after he was sworn in as our President, Pranab Mukherjee announced that he would be opening a Facebook account to receive and respond to the queries from the public. In fact, his fellow Bengali, Mamata Banerjee, has beaten him to it, with a popular and widely read website that the media mines daily for new stories about her views. Just three years ago, when I first went on social media, it was fashionable for Indian politicians to sneer at the use of social media. Today our own President made it clear that these are essential tools for clear, accountable and credible political leadership. The governments of the world or the big institutions of power have become more vulnerable today because of the fact that the new media technology has exposed them to the uncontrolled impact of instant news. And so the fact is that when we speak about the social media, we can’t get away from understanding the impact of new technology on the way the world is working.

Technology is such that everybody has a mobile phone in her or his pocket and you can do far more than when you could have first acquired a mobile phone. Now, you can take pictures, you can take videos, you can transmit them and go on the internet. Something like 5 billion people worldwide, including 84% of Americans, more than 70% of Chinese and at least 60% of Indians, today use mobile phones. You can all get your messages out more rapidly. The strength of this is that you can enable ordinary people to issue and disseminate even raw footage or compellingly authentic images before the mainstream media or the government can actually do so. So you can open up a social media space even not being a professional media person.

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