By Zoya Sham:
According to a report published by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and the Indian Market Research Bureau International (IMRB), the usage of Social Media in rural India has grown by an impressive 100 percent during the last year with 25 million users. Comparatively, urban India showed a growth of 35 percent with the total number of users at 118 million as on April 2015. This report definitely signals great progress in rural India. However, like the urban-rural social divide in the country, India has also been experiencing a gap in urban-rural digital divide for the last two decades. Here’s how the IAMAI-IMRB findings reflect the digital divide.
While India ranks third in Internet users, the penetration is only 19.19% of the population, amounting to roughly 15 people for every 100 (as of 2014). Most of these users hail from urban areas, comprising only about 30% of the population. Since 165 million out of the 1.2 billion people in India are not the accurate representation of public opinion, more social dialogue from rural India is necessary. Social media is an ideal platform for free and uncensored public opinion. Hence, 100% growth in the usage of social media by 70% of the population has the potential to vastly increase social dialogue in the country.
The IAMAI report implies that 25 million (and growing) people from rural India are now using Facebook and Twitter. Significantly higher percentages of all posts on these platforms include links to an information source. People like to share what they read thus facilitating conversation on news, encouraging action, and providing interpretation. This increases knowledge and awareness and creates an informed citizenry.
Social media can also augment communication and provide forums for rural communities. This faster, mobile and peer-to-peer communication has huge potential to enable social change. An example of this is when in 2012, one of the farmers of Maharashtra’s Sangli district used Facebook to connect to other turmeric farmers across the country. Online social networking was used to discuss the crash of turmeric prices due to oversupply in the market. They collectively decided not to participate in the local auction. The news spread using social media and 25000 turmeric farmers of Sangli heard of the boycott. The boycott served its purpose as the prices doubled.
On the other hand, growth of social media in rural India also has its drawbacks. Social media forums are often breeding grounds for hate speech and propaganda. This could mislead opinions and possibly even incite violence. It opens the door for unchecked sexual, social and economic predators that could take advantage of unsuspecting victims who are relatively new to this technology. Falsifying identities, cyber-bullying, hacking of personal information, misusing automating technologies such as geo-tagging are common cyber crimes that will now be open to rural India as well. If it remains unsupervised, it could pose a threat to both personal and national security.
Language barriers, illiteracy and poor infrastructure for electricity, connectivity and telephony, in addition to the high cost of instruments and telecommunication services have widened the digital divide for decades. Both public and private sectors working to eliminate these barriers by making mobile communication affordable and accessible contributed to this 100% growth rate. Still, 25 million is only a fraction of India’s rural population. This development has to be sustained to ensure long lasting progress and bridge the social and political gap created by the digital divide.