Education and awareness recommended to address ills of social media in Bhutan

About 90% of the people in Bhutan are active members of at least one social media, according to the Bhutan Media Foundation

While there was a general consensus that social media has benefited the Bhutanese society and it has become an integral part of Bhutanese life, the pivotal need for education and awareness was also emphasized to address the negativities that have crept in too with social media.  

This was the general recommendation that all panelists had during the webinar on the “Impact of Social Media on Modern Bhutan” held on June 7 and organized by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF). The FNF aims to promote the goal of making the principle of freedom valid for the dignity of all people and in all areas of society globally.

Addressing the opening of the webinar, the president of the German-Bhutan Himalaya Society, Mr. Reinhard Wolf said that social media is a blessing and a curse at the same time.

While it is helping people stay connected in remote areas, like Bhutan, where it is helpful because of the rugged terrains, Mr. Wolf said the curse is that social media can be used to spread misinformation and fake news.

As dealing with the increasing lies on social media could be arduous, Mr. Wolf said that the start can be through curriculums in schools that teach children to make wise use of social media and engage them to identify fake news.

Sharing a study conducted by the Bhutan Media Foundation (BMF) on Social Media Landscape in Bhutan in 2020, BMF’s executive director Needrup Zangpo, who was also the moderator for the webinar, said that the study found the penetration of social media in the country ‘very high’, with about 90% of the Bhutanese people being an active member of at least one social media platforms.

Further, it was shared that Bhutanese people on average spend 163 minutes daily, which is 18 minutes more than the global average of 145 minutes per day, on social media. Seeking information, communication, and entertainment were the major purposes for social media usage, and the commonly used social media platforms include WeChat, Facebook, and YouTube. 

Facebook, according to the BMF’s study, is the most widely used platform by organizations in Bhutan. 

Needrup Zangpo also shared that about three-fourths of the people in the country have little or no awareness of privacy and ethical issues and that 66% of the parents believe that their children spend more time on social media other than on good and healthy activities.

A technology strategist and consultant, Dr. Tshering Cijay Dorji, who was one of the panelists, said the positive benefits of social media outweigh the negative ones when looking at the impacts of social media in Bhutan, even though the technology is quite new in Bhutan.

“One benefit is the building of democratic culture. Social media has helped to give voice to everyone; every citizen. It has given opportunities for every citizen to raise their voice through the use of various social media platforms and be heard,” he said, adding that people now have the chance to reach a wider audience.

“People without formal education in rural areas use the WeChat platform to discuss issues with their elected representatives,” he said.

Citing the example of people raising their voices on social media about the prolonged lockdown in the country, Dr Tshering Cigay Dorji thinks that it could be because of this reason that the lockdown ended sooner. 

While social media provides every citizen a free space to express themselves, Dr. Tshering Cijay Dorji said it is important, at this juncture, to educate the people in the country on how to deduce social media content and use social media productively.

Talking about the use of social media, the press secretary of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), Kesang Dema said they use social media to inform people about major decisions of the government and inform the public on important matters and developments and explain to people why the government is doing what it is doing.

“The use of social media has not changed the function of the PMO. Instead, it is complementing the PMO to inform the public,” she said, adding that social media provides that kind of reach and coverage when the idea is to inform and connect to as many people as possible in the shortest time.

“At the same time, it also helps the government to consider certain ideas and make informed decisions with social media’s mechanism of feedback and comments,” she added.

While social media, in general, has brought about positive benefits in Bhutan, the executive officer of Nyingnor (a company with a team of digital problem solvers), Phub Dorji said a lot of attention is given to negative things or negative content on social media.

He said there is a need for traditional media houses to pace up with the technology change and to provide insightful information by conducting research and giving proper context to social media content.

“The internet has surpassed all other mediums, but the role of traditional media is still important and relevant in this age of social media. Traditional media houses have a role to fight disinformation on social media,” he said.

Dr Tshering Cigay Dorji said the negative use of social media should not be encouraged.

“We have people naming and shaming others based on their personal perceptions, there is also anonymity with anonymous users, and politicking during the elections. The best way to combat these is through awareness and educating the people,” he said, adding that the public need to be educated on social media and how to use it responsibly.

Kesang Dema said digital literacy, awareness, and advocacy in the country should be continued to tackle the menace of social media in the future. 

Namkhai Norbu from Thimphu