Picture this. Somebody, under the guise of anonymity, puts up a post on a popular social media site stating that a certain high-ranking government official has cheated the public in a certain dzongkhag and amassed a fortune for himself. The post goes on to say that his wife, also a certain high-ranking official but based in Thimphu, with even higher connections, is in cahoots with her husband.
How do you think the Bhutanese public will treat this issue?
Here is what might happen. When the post first surfaces, it will within a short span of time, thanks to social media forums and smart phones, reach from one ear to another. Then, in offices, homes, and casual joints, the characters of the high-ranking officials involved will be dissected and scrutinized. Within a day or two, the post will be the talk of the town. Finally, a reporter waiting for the story of his life will decide to get in touch with the dzongkhag’s public and perhaps even with the protagonist of the post. When the real story appears in the mainstream media and it becomes clear that the officials in question haven’t pocketed a chhetrum, the Bhutanese public will tire of the talks. Yet some will claim that they knew it was all untrue right from the start and others will, in spite of the newspaper report, insist that the original post is true.
Enter Phase II. One such dissatisfied reader who harbors a personal dislike for the officials in question assumes a fictitious identity in another social media forum and makes another post backing the earlier one. The writer boldly states with matter-of-factness that the evidence for the fraud was hushed-up easily because the high-ranking official’s high-ranking wife is having an affair with her very powerful boss in the ministry who made some very powerful phone calls to make the facts disappear.
Now what do you think might happen? My guess is that the reporter waiting for the story of his life, after making another phone call, would be roundly criticized, verbally abused and, if he still went ahead with the story, scarred by the entire experience. Some other high-ranking official in some other agency would get up and talk about the sensationalism surrounding speculative stories and condemn the newspaper that carried it. The newspaper, in turn, would say in its pages that it is being marginalized by the agency and, with the accusations and counter accusations going public, the Journalists Association of Bhutan (JAB) would be approached by both the parties to conduct a thorough enquiry.
Observing all this, some blogger would say that the newspaper under enquiry is backed by a certain political party, therefore the one sided reporting. Then would ensue a Facebook battle where different factions begin insulting each other along political lines.
Now, suppose that the high-ranking officials, or the very powerful boss in the ministry, or the reporter are people you know. Suppose their lives, including the newspaper owner’s, have been turned upside down, all because some anonymous person didn’t realize the implications of his post.
You probably get my drift. For the past many years, a lot of people have been victims of anonymous posts in Bhutan. Some, because of their own doing, others simply because they were open to target. And the end consequence is borne by our society which, as small as it is, suffers unnecessary subdivision.
I write this not merely out of concern for maligned individuals and organizations but because these sites, whether one likes it or not, are carriers of social change. And this change is inevitable. Social media is here to stay, along with its divisive consequences. We cannot quell this tide. The only way we can use it constructively is to understand that mainstream news providers are accountable for their content. Social media forums are not. Their purpose there is always questionable. We therefore need to become conscientious consumers, to digest anonymous posts and unaccountable forums as entertainment, not news.