Event ReportsPublished on Feb 25, 2019
Students spoke about the potential of social media in espousing causes like Arab Spring and #MeToo movements, and the Nirbhaya rape case.
Social media as the new courtroom for justice — a debate

The pervasiveness of social media in contemporary times and its efficacy as the new courtroom for justice was hotly debated and discussed by students and distinguished invited speakers at the Victoria-ORF inter-university debate organised by Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata in collaboration with Victoria Memorial Hall on 13 February 2019.

The debate saw participation of 18 post-graduate students from eight institutions of higher learning from across the Eastern and Northeastern states of the country, lending it a regional thrust in line with ORF, Kolkata’s cherished vision of ‘Looking East’ or ‘Acting East’. Students of the following institutions participated in the debate:

  • Indian Institute of Management-Calcutta
  • Jadavpur University
  • Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati
  • Tezpur University
  • Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology (KIIT) University, Bhubaneshwar
  • Ravenshaw University
  • Sikkim University
  • Sikkim Manipal University

Dr. Jayanta Sengupta, Secretary and Curator, Victoria Memorial Hall, gave the welcome address. Dr. Nilanjan Ghosh, Director, Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata introduced the proceedings of the day and chaired the debate. The judges of the debate were Ashok Dhar, Visiting Distinguished Fellow, ORF Kolkata, Bhaswati Chakravorty, Eminent Journalist, The Telegraph and S.V. Raman, Program Consultant, Victoria Memorial Hall.

Arguing in favour of the motion, students highlighted the differing notions of justice of formal legal institutions on the one hand and of social media on the other. They spoke about the immense potential of social media in espousing causes like Arab Spring movement, Me Too movement and the Nirbhaya rape case where social media platforms were used to build solidarity and challenge status quo. Students speaking in favour of the motion also cited the role of media in bringing to book criminals in the Jessica Lal Murder case.

Debating on the flip side of social media the students highlighted the scope that social media offers to uninformed, biased and violent opinions. Unlike, the formal institutions of justice, social media is susceptible to being taken over by impulsive and emotive posts that are far removed from the ideas of justice and democracy. With the help of special algorithms, social media manages to mold content based on the user’s preferences, hence insulating the user against a variety of opinions and information. So, how can social media be a courtroom for justice, students asked.

Rashmeka Banerjee and Paras Gala, both students of Indian Institute of Management-Calcutta were adjudged as winners speaking for the motion and against the motion respectively while Tenzing Doma Bhutia from Sikkim University and Rajeshwari Dasgupta of Jadavpur University bagged the runners-up position in the intensely contested debate.

The debate was followed by a panel discussion on the topic ‘Is Social Media the New Courtroom for Justice?’ Senior Consultant and Cardiac Surgeon, Dr. Kunal Sarkar moderating the panel discussion, set the context of the debate by highlighting the unprecedented change internet has brought about since the 1980s, dawning the age of ethereal communication.

The panelists, Professor Sekhar Bandopadhyay of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, Former Justice Nadira Patherya, Entrepreneur Swati Gautam and Dr. Debanjan Chakraborty of the British Council spoke on different aspects of social media and whether it can be called as the ‘new courtroom for justice.’

Arguing about the great emancipatory potential of social media, Prof. Bandopadhyay said that social media has opened up the public space. Public space is an index of modernity. Unlike, the telegraph that was invented in the 1850s and ceased to go beyond being a tool of governance, the Internet that only arrived in late twentieth century, was accessible to a large majority of people, going much beyond its use as a tool of governance. Social media has opened up space for debate, discussion and knowledge sharing.

Despite its use as a technological emancipator, Bandopadhyay cautioned that no technology can evade the control of the state, which threatens with ills like use and abuse. Similar was the response of entrepreneur Swati Gautam who argued that social media cannot be a courtroom for justice as it is an outright commercial venture where there are regulators deciding upon the content and justice is far removed from the corridors of power and money.

Gautam also argued that social media tends to impinge upon the judiciary as highlighted by Justice A.K. Sikri. Sikri had said at an international conference on February 10, this year that media has come to influence on how a judge decides a case. Justice Patherya, citing of Justice Sikri, argued that the judge’s occupation is specialised wherein he/she is expected to apply his/her mind to facts alone alongside taking into consideration the social environment. It is a painstaking job and social media fails to equal it in any respect.

Dr. Debanjan Chakrabarti of the British Council compared the Rawlsian idea of Justice as a ‘Social Contract’ with social media as a ‘social contract’. Social media is an approval or disapproval machine, almost like an echo chamber of what we already believe in programmed with algorithms that are constantly clutching the numbers behind the scenes.

Citing the example of the Cambridge Analytica case during the U.S. Presidential Elections, Chakrabarti posited social media as a massive data harvesting machine and hence has its own implications for democracy. Convergence of artificial intelligence, big data and bioengineering is set to completely undermine the ideas of democracy and justice that heretofore were taken for granted.

The vote of thanks was given by Dr. Jaya Thakur, Junior Fellow, ORF, Kolkata.

This report is prepared by Mihir Bhonsale. Junior Fellow, ORF-Kolkata.

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