| Asia Pacific Review | Edited
SUVA - Social media is a mixed bag, with both democratic and undemocratic tendencies. But then few things in life are perfect.
And in that regard social media poses a major dilemma. Not just in Fiji, but many countries that are grappling with how best to tackle it.
This includes even developed countries like Australia.
But it is in fragile states like Fiji that the threat of social media is more pronounced.
This is partly because of long-standing ethnic tensions and political differences.
The ills of social media — racism, xenophobia, cyberbullying and hate speech — are rife in Fiji.
We have also seen sophisticated examples of disinformation peak around elections.
The election period has been the riskiest time in Fiji, even before social media arrived.
There were appalling examples of disinformation in the 2018 elections, some so convincing that it may well have swayed a number of voters.
We might even see more disinformation in this year’s elections.
However, in Fiji, as in many other countries, social media can also be empowering and liberating.
Even so, it seems disenchantment with social media’s undemocratic traits can be greater than the appreciation of its democratising tendencies.
I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect social media is sometimes over-demonised and under-appreciated.
In Fiji, social media is pivotal because mainstream media are hampered by the punitive Media Industry Development Act 2010.
We analysed mainstream media coverage of the 2018 Fiji elections.
We found that all national media except one gave overwhelming positive coverage to the ruling party.
The opposition parties were shut out — this claim is based on solid research, not hearsay.
Besides The Fiji Times, the only place to find dissenting views during the 2018 elections was social media.
When mainstream media fails to hold truth to power, social media is the saviour for the opposition and the public.
Unlike social media, mainstream cannot be everywhere 24/7. Social media created citizen journalists out of citizens.
This is not to say that social media and mainstream media are always competing. Not only do they complement each other, each is a check and balance on the other.
My main point is we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater by over legislating social media or under appreciating its value.
Education, not just legislation is the way to deal with issues like disinformation.
In Fiji, this is not as simple as it seems: Many people are disillusioned with social media, with good reason.
And government is bent on legislating social media, with a certain level of public support.
We should remember that mainstream media are also caught in the crossfire of social media legislation.
Their space is also restricted even though professional journalists are not normally party to the abuse of social media.
Education would mean more than just how to spot disinformation, or use social media responsibly.
Education also means understanding the value of social media and the need to protect our access to it, rather than unknowingly surrender these rights.
Such education should become part of the school curriculum.
This is because any government, by nature, will try to control social media to curtail criticism, win elections and stay in power.
Only if the population is well educated in what social media means in a democracy will they challenge governments trying to take over social media.
Dr Shailendra Singh is associate professor in Pacific journalism and coordinator of journalism at the University of the South Pacific. He is the 2022 Pacific Research Fellow at the Australian National University