Thursday, 20th Jul 2017

Pluralistic publics in the age of social media

Pratyoush Onta and Yogesh Raj

How do you promote pluralistic publics in the age of social media if you are an organisation which has a remit for public discussion and seminars? The answers might not be obvious.

The character and extent of the Nepali public sphere has changed significantly since the early 1990s. Then the powerful media outlets were all state-owned. Print and radio media ruled the public domain. Non-state owned print media was in its infancy and non-state radio and television were not even present in the landscape. Electronic mail was hardly in use and social media as we know it today had not even been invented. Not only was the media restricted, the number of participants also came from a predictable social geography. In such a milieu, face-to-face interactions and observance to community bound rules had an obvious high value. Over the last 10 to 15 years, Nepal’s public sphere has been saturated by non-state print, radio and television media. The active use of social media as part of the public sphere has become quite common. The public sphere has now been extended to encompass the diaspora and short-term migrants scattered globally. Maturation of various social and identity movements have introduced themes and styles of discourse in Nepali public life in ways that sometimes seem very discordant. The universities, with their annually burgeoning graduates entering into social space with their linguistic and political competence, have multiplied. Growth in the volume of public research activities has also added to this mixture.

Martin Chautari (henceforth Chautari or MC), the organisation where we both work, began as an informal discussion group in Kathmandu in 1991, allowing (as the official history of the organisation puts it) “development professionals, social activists and academics to meet every two weeks to share insights and experiences related to Nepali development and society.” Since its inception, Chautari’s core objective, “has been to enhance the quality of public dialogue and the public sphere in Nepal, particularly in matters pertaining to democracy, development, pluralism/diversity, civil liberties, social justice and academic research.” Even as other activities-—research, publications and a library open to the public—have been taken up, Chautari’s discussion seminars continue to be its most-known work. MC currently organises two scheduled discussions/seminars a week with speakers and topics drawn from a wide social spectrum. Having completed almost 26 years, Chautari’s discussion and seminar series is the oldest, continuously running such series related to Nepal organised by any institution anywhere in the world.

Main challenges

MC, however, is now embedded in a differently structured and perceived public sphere as described above. In this current landscape, one of the main challenges facing MC is to keep serious and critical dialogue in and about Nepali society alive in a traditional and social media saturated environment. Social media use in Nepal is dominantly characterised by the dumbing down of public discourse by mobbing. The social media also has a skewed social demography of access and use. While the media seems to have opened up unprecedented access to historically marginal populations such as young women, it has created new versions of exclusion and marginalisation for the old and semi-literate populations. The media appears to prioritise speed and shorter format over serious content and length. In such a context, organisations like MC need to rethink their engagement with the public that loves social media. Simultaneously, they need to rethink their commitment to more inclusive public dialogue for those who are pushed into the margins of socio-economic and political demographics and its engagement with other publics which still prefer face-to-face interactions.

But how do we do that? There are several questions waiting to be answered. We mention a few here. Should all MC seminars be uploaded on YouTube as demanded by some members of its constituency or only those that are lectures based on finished research or extensive experience (in the manner of, for instance, TED Talks)? Will in-room participants—who sometimes are thinking aloud about subjects for the first time—feel comfortable speaking if they know that what they say will be recorded and uploaded and hence can be seen/heard by a potentially overwhelming public? What is the responsibility of a discussion host such as MC in a digital media saturated environment if it is specifically trying to foster an inclusive public sphere, one in which those who have been traditionally missing from it in Nepal feel comfortable to speak?

There are no easy answers to these questions. Hence while our engagement with social media must be enhanced (eg, important lectures should be broadcast live on Facebook and later uploaded on YouTube for sure), it cannot be done without being sensitive to the issues embedded in the possible answers to the above questions.

A second challenge currently facing MC is related to the links between research and public life in Nepal. This goes beyond engaging in what has been traditionally described as policy research in some domains in terms of both the expected social role of the researchers and the type of enquiries the researchers could perform. What are the specific natures of public academia that work in Nepal, one in which the professional research base in the social sciences is relatively weak? How do academics serve the public good? Do they do so by adding exclusive depth to the domains of their research-based knowledge through the publication of journal articles, monographs and edited volumes (hence accruing academic capital among their peers in Nepal and abroad), or should they step outside their fields of expertise to engage larger publics, even when these engagements are not informed by their own research? Should they be having more opportunities for disciplined investigations within their fields, or for undertaking research in areas beyond their immediate expertise but within what they perceive as significant to Nepali society? The former will promote specialisms. One might hope that the resulting distinguished scholarships would, in the long-run, help improve public policies and gradually help calibrate both the general discussions. The latter would create conducive environment for general researchers directly in conversations with the public and indirectly help trigger policy changes through public pressure.

Fair, inclusive, tolerant

Can there be ways in which the researchers would help mature the discipline while interpreting the research outputs for the general readerships? If they choose to do the latter, could they perform a valuable service to the public at large in a way that does not bring shame to their academic disciplines? In addition, what are the media of these engagements and what kinds of complexity-losses might be traded off for reaching larger publics? Hence, while MC’s commitment to policy research must be continued and enhanced, its engagements with a broader public via research must be carefully re-thought along lines of inquiry mentioned here.

There is little research on the profiles of active participants on social media, and sometimes it is difficult to know whether on-line contributions are not orchestrated. What is certain, however, that just as in face-to-face public discussions and open debates, we need interventions to ensure that the virtual public sphere is also fair, inclusive and tolerant, particularly by safeguarding the rights to speak and dissent by the minorities. MC encourages its researchers to play such moderating roles in the virtual world, as they do in its discussion forums and wherever required, to speak for those who do not have power to participate or to resist the mobocracy. We hope that all institutions, which are committed to promote plural publics, will develop capacity and skills to extend positive qualities of vibrant Nepali public sphere to the online world. This will go a long way towards stopping reproductions of social and geographical exclusions, and dumbing down soon becomes an archaic and best forgotten practice like lynching.

Onta and Raj are former and current chairs, respectively, of Martin Chautari


Pluralistic publics in the age of social media