While the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal and the manipulation of social media at election time has not got the attention it deserves here in Nepal, we will need to keep watch as the spread of Facebook throws open the possibility of future data mining for electoral advantage here, too.
Of much more immediate concern, however, is the lack of media literacy. Adolescents are using these platforms without being aware of privacy settings.
The Police cyber crime division receives dozens of complaints a day of public sharing of private images and videos, sometimes leading to suicides. There hasn’t been a definitive study yet, but anecdotal evidence points to the current epidemic of rape in India and Nepal being linked to the spread of hardcore pornography on the Internet. There have been reports of gang rapes where fellow-perpetrators recorded their crime on phone video.
We always knew the Internet was a double edged sword. It hasn’t lived up to its promise of levelling the information playing field and encouraging healthy debate on issues. Instead, it has fragmented audiences into echo-chambers that magnify extremist views. Algorithms and bots expose users to ever more radical ideologies ever more efficiently – mainly because that directly allows YouTube, Facebook and others to generate greater revenue.
Despite the gloom and doom, there is hope that the current scandal over Facebook will tame its wild ways, and force it to be more careful. It is not just a matter for the U.S. Congress, what America decides to do with Facebook will affect the whole world.
Here in Nepal, there is a silver lining in the Sharecast survey results in this issue. Despite the fact that such a large proportion of young men and women use Facebook, it seems less than 2% trust the information it contains. There is still far more trust of the mass media like tv and radio, although the low level of trust of newspapers and magazines (3%) is a bit troubling.
The distrust of information on the Net may actually insulate Nepalis from those using the platform to spread intolerance, extremism, bigotry and hate. Although more people will be online as mobile data spreads, the fact that 65% of Nepalis still do not use the Net means that it may actually buy us time to set things right and reduce the harm.