Facebook strikes

Listen to them!

After several friends suggested it, I’ve added a new page called “News clips”. The idea is to provide links to news articles, especially to critical ones, that talk about what the opposition party and I have been doing.

The first link is to a story by Kuensel. It’s about the growing influence of social media in Bhutan, a discussion that took place during the recent Mountain Echoes literary festival.

Social media has already made remarkable inroads in Bhutan. In past five years, there’s been a proliferation of discussion forums, social networking sites and blogs. And some of them – like Bhutantimes.com, Nopkin, Kuzu-Bhutan Weblog, Kuzu.net and several Facebook groups – have emerged as powerful ways of creating, sharing and discussing information.

Foremost among them is Amend the Tobacco Control Act, a Facebook group created by Kinley Shering, dedicated to discussing the tobacco law. The group’s 2,252 members have already logged 1,417 posts, and both, numbers of members and posts, keep increasing each day.

The tobacco group’s discussions are diverse, vibrant and persistent. And its members readily express their opinions and vent their frustrations. This, however, is not exactly new, as online discussion forums, like Bhutantimes.com, also host lively discussions.

But Amend the Tobacco Group is different in several other ways. One, and most obviously, the group’s members are not anonymous – Facebook profiles generally have real names along with real addresses, photographs, email IDs and even telephone numbers.

Two, the discussions are focused on just one topic, tobacco, and have some order and discipline – members are not unnecessarily nasty, abusive or profane.

And three, the group has organized real measures to back up their virtual demands. First, they collected signatures – online and off – to petition for an amendment to the Tobacco Control Act. That has not worked, so now they have begun to write letters to their respective MPs and to publish those letters on Facebook.

All this is powerful stuff. And potentially dangerous too.

If the group is ignored, if their voices remain unheard, and if frustration grows, emotions could escalate and spill onto Thimphu’s streets. That would not be good. And that must not happen.

So the government would be well advised to take the group seriously. They should join the group and explain their position. They should take part in the discussions, listen to the grievances, and spearhead common solutions.

In a healthy democracy, citizens must be able to express themselves – individually and collectively. Facebook has provided a platform to do so. We can protest, rally, picket and demonstrate online, on Facebook. But for that to work, the government must also take part, and ensure that the voices on Facebook groups are heard.

The government should use Facebook, not ignore it. That’s why I say: “Rather than taking to the streets, take it to Facebook!”

 

Facebook Comments:

Comments

  1. For an actively connected citizen like you, it is far too easy to feel that the online populace is representative of the general population.

    It cannot be. The number of internet users as a percentage of population is well below 10% in Bhutan (http://bit.ly/iSFpM2). I have no statistics to back it up, but I would venture to guess this narrow slice of society, compared to the general population, is more educated, higher-incomed, employed, and tend to be living in a urban environment. For many reasons, this small slice of society is also far more vocal, but it would be a mistake to think that they are representative.

    Singapore, a far more connected society (see chart linked previously) recently concluded its general elections. Social media played an important role in the hustings. The opposition executed an excellent social media strategy while the ruling party stumbled and were often embarrassing in their online outreach. If you were to take the pulse of nation through a simple poll of its online communities before polling day, you would think that the opposition would romp home with a quarter of the parliamentary seats.

    The results speak for themselves. While the ruling party suffered a historical drop in popularity, they were returned to power with a comfortable margin. The opposition won only 6 of 87 seats.

    I have to disagree with your call to the government to expend resources engaging this group. This may make sense in 5 or 10 years, but for now, the government would do better to listen harder to the other 90-odd percent of the population.

  2. Dear Glitch,

    This is not an “either/or” suggestion. The government must reach out to all people.

    My support of social media does not mean that the government can or should ignore people who not connected, i.e., the majority of our people.

    Tshering

  3. I am not suggesting that the government completely ignore all online citizens either. However in the grand scheme of things, I would venture to guess that it is not even in the top 100 things that the people of Bhutan would what their government to do.

    It is a matter of priorities.

    And to insinuate that if citizens are unheard by their government on Facebook, it will result in civil unrest on the streets of Thimphu is, frankly, ludicrous. Civil unrest arises from more deep-rooted causes than a government not engaging social media.

    Bhutan is not Egypt. And even that is a moot point. Because as much as I, being a big proponent of technology, would like to think that social media is a force for change, Facebook did not spark the revolution in Egypt. The power of the people existed long before Mark Zuckerberg was even a twinkle in his Daddy’s eyes.

  4. Thinlay says:

    Gauging people’s opinion through social media network, at this stage in Bhutan, is non-starter. If politicians sincerely want to know what and how people feel on any issue, the best method at this stage of development in Bhutan, is through walking to villages, both far and near and talk to them.

    As stated above, social media user in Bhutan is far less than what is desirable to make any impact: And please do not mention about using social media to stir up unrest in the country.

    Cheers

  5. Karma 1 says:

    OL and Glitch are both right. Both of you make intelligent argument. This is what responsible online forums should be like. We all get to learn from each other and from differing points of view.

    I think the most important thing here is to find the right balance. It will be a big mistake to ignore the majority—people who are not connected to the internet—but it will also be a serious mistake, even dangerous in the long run, to ignore the educated and social media savvy minority. We may have 90-odd percent of our population not connected to the internet, but in terms of influence, I think this 90 percent will not weigh much more than the 10 percent of our more educated, more affluent, connected, mobile, and employed population in urban areas. Just look at how this 10-odd percent influenced the voters in the rest of our country during the 2008 elections—especially in the East.

    As we all know, it will be the above minority 10 percent who will have a much greater influence on how we shape our nation’s future—be it our young democracy, development priorities, foreign policy, or public discourse and debates.

    Singapore is a unique case. Since its independence—for such a long time—they had virtually no opposition. On the other hand, we can also look at how Obama won the presidential election. He was the most disadvantaged candidate: African American, didn’t have much money and connections, didn’t have much experience, etc.. But, largely with social media and capturing the imagination of the youth, he beat Hillary Clinton and John McCain—two of the most influential, experienced and connected candidates in the USA.

    Have a good day.

  6. YPenjor says:

    “If the group is ignored, if their voices remain unheard, and if frustration grows, emotions could escalate and spill onto Thimphu’s streets. That would not be good. And that must not happen.”

    Yes, that would not be good and it should not happen!

    If the whole purpose of Social media is to ignite social unrest, then, OL you are wrong and you will remain defeated.

    Even out of the less than 10% IT elite (having internet access) pointed out by Glitch, you will have to survey how many are smokers and how many are not. The Tobacco Act definitely is not favored by Smokers, but it is highly appreciated by non-smokers. If you intend to bring people on the street, they will get stoned down by the mass of the Tobacco Act supporters….please be cautious!

  7. YPenjor says:

    “The government should use Facebook, not ignore it. That’s why I say: “Rather than taking to the streets, take it to Facebook!””

    Probably Govt. does not have time to visit FB as you, OL has.

    With this Tobacco Act battle you are reversing your political mileage. You have said enough. I feel enough should be enough and no more articles on Tobacco issues. Unless it is the only thing that you can represent for the people from your constituency.

  8. The OL’s concern about people coming on the street if the Government doesn’t pay attention to the facebook page on Amend the Tobacco Control Act is I think because he listens to the people and have been talking to the active members.

    And its not just an insinuation. It might happen, if people are not freed from the prison under this Act. It might happen if Government ignores the issue further because honestly, representative or not we have had it up till the neck and more. Glitch, I don;t know where you are from and I bet you are a very well qualified person but so are some of the people who write on these forums and our opinion should count. I don;t care whether or not every people in the Government has a facebook account and we are not suggesting that. But what we want is for them to read some of the comments and arguments that are made and pay attention.

  9. guardian says:

    As a matter of principle, the OL should take the government to court for allowing the RGOB to change some provisions of the tobacco act to suit it’s needs. That’s exactly what he did when the government unilaterally raised taxes which was illegal as per our constitution.

    So how is this different or is it that the tobacco act can be interpreted in so many different ways.

    As for this facebook group, at this point, we should just ignore them. They hardly warrant our attention and the RGOBs. We have far more pressing issues to worry about than to make these wasters look important.

  10. asdfjkl; says:

    guardian,

    If we have far more pressing issues and if that be the case, why did the govt. draft this ACT in the first place? why can’t the govt. just ignore them smokers and let the smokers smoke their way to death? Why did the govt. make criminals out of ordinary citizens? and more importantly, why do they have to turn their back and ignore after so much harm and controversy has already been done? why? why? why?

  11. I think talking about ‘taking to the street’ is cheap politics. We must not encourage such things in our peaceful country; either directly or indirectly.
    I am at doubt as to what made the OL use these phrase.

  12. The debate over the minority versus the majority will never end. yes, to some point, of the 45,000 or so Bhutanese Facebook users,just about 2000 are members of the Amend the Tobacco Control Act group. Of which, not all are vocal or support the amendment drive (That’s fine. It provides space for opposing views as well).

    But what is important is, this segment of educated Bhutanese are voicing their concern. Forget everything. The point is, 37 people have been arrested so far. If human lives and its value mean nothing, especially to a government that espouses the high flown principles of equity and justice, and of course GNH, there is no compassion in our society! We might as well do some earnest soul searching!

    What Guardian says is true – the government has bigger priorities. But the tobacco debate is not insignificant either. It has resulted in the arrest and incarceration of otherwise innocent citizens. As fellow citizens, people in the group are being more useful and thoughtful than any other members of the society. To say it does not deserve attention is also pointless because it has received massive attention (from the media and the government as well). See what the government and the police have been trying to do with the TCA, the guidelines and the rules and regulations. And in the process, making themselves look more stupid. It only means the pressure is working. Members of the Facebook group, you guys have been doing a wonderful job so far, keep going!

    Plus, if the TCA is explained to a lay man or rural folk in the simplest manner possible (not bringing in the Buddhist aspect to banning tobacco products), people understand that it is, in actuality, unfair in many ways. They don’t want a man go behind for 3-5 years just for 10 packs of cigarette. (well, of course, now a man carrying 10 packs will not be sentenced)

    As for OL’s comment on the possibility people taking to the street, I think that is a little far fetched and radical idea, right now. But never know, as frustrations heap and mount ad nauseum,perhaps people may come out and protest. Peacefully, that is. And that is constitutionally allowed. To directly denounce peaceful assembly as something unusual or going against the system is to denounce the very right bestowed by the constitution.

    When some MPs remark that TCA must be amended only if 100s are arrested. well, just to prove him wrong, what if 100 people come out and protest!!

    (“If you intend to bring people on the street, they will get stoned down by the mass of the Tobacco Act supporters….please be cautious!” – YPenjor)

    This would be the perfect thing, if it ever happens. Supporters versus non supporters. Perfect because, this in itself reflects the flaws of the Act. Creating division in the society? Who is to be blamed?

    (“Bhutan is not Egypt. And even that is a moot point. Because as much as I, being a big proponent of technology, would like to think that social media is a force for change, Facebook did not spark the revolution in Egypt. The power of the people existed long before Mark Zuckerberg was even a twinkle in his Daddy’s eyes. _ Glitch”)

    Facebook did not spark the revolution in Egypt or now Syria and Libya. But it gave them a platform. Say technological empowerment that could be used to garner support, bring like minded people together, and facilitate protests against a dictatorial regime. We can’t liken these events elsewhere to our own context. But the possibilities are the same – there is a whole new generation growing up with technology! and we know, this is only going to be more complex and sophisticated to the older generation who grew up without one!

    My personal observation:

    The discussions on the TCA, not looking at things in isolation, has in fact raised a whole lot of issues. First, it questioned the process, rationale and the impending consequences of passing a legislation. Second,it questioned the way it is being implemented by the law enforcement agencies. Thirdly, it questioned the manner in which the judiciary interpreted the law. all in all, i would say, the TCA, has opened a flood gates of discussion, beyond the Act itself.

  13. Please don’t mistake the wood for the trees. Obama won office because of his message “Change”, not the medium. When Egypt shuttered the internet, the revolution did not collapse.

    Less than 10% of a population centered in Thimphu does not a generation make.

    Facebook/Twitter is not the focus; the focus should be on legislative balance and the enforcement of the laws of the land.

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