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Governments without clothes

Governments without clothes
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First Published: Tue, Mar 08 2011. 08 39 PM IST
Updated: Tue, Mar 08 2011. 08 39 PM IST
For long, countries have conducted their business, with other countries and with their own people, on the basis of information asymmetry. Such asymmetry has both a content and a temporal element—it isn’t just what one knows that is important, but also when one gets to know it. The importance of the time element is overlooked, but very often, people don’t respond to a piece of information simply because it is too late to respond. There’s no certainty they would have responded if they had the information earlier, but the probability is definitely higher.
Events of the past months have shown that this asymmetry is slowly but surely vanishing. From Tunisia to Egypt, social media sites have helped citizens react instantaneously to information, organizing protests that eventually effected changes in regime. The WikiLeaks release of diplomatic cables showcases diplomatic and geopolitical cross-currents behind international events, hitherto unknown to most people, even some of the countries involved. And, closer home, wire-taps and leaked documents have shaken the government of the day and forced the resignation and imprisonment of a former Union minister. Meanwhile, several government functionaries have tied themselves up in knots trying to explain their actions or prove their innocence.
Information is the common thread that runs through these. In India’s case, it isn’t information disseminated through India’s sunshine law, the Right to Information Act, but everyday information recorded without the subject’s knowledge or scanned copies of government documents leaked by someone. In India, it isn’t social media that is spreading the message as much as traditional media, especially television. There the asymmetry is being demolished by competition. In the pursuit of eyeballs, every television channel is on the lookout for an exclusive story or a unique angle, and few are willing to wait till the requisite checks about the information’s accuracy are carried out—such delay could sometimes mean losing a story to rivals.
The reason why the government and several of its functionaries are looking distinctly clumsy in their response to the situation is because they are probably unaware of the weakening of the information imbalance. And so, they are trying to manage things much like they did in the 1990s. Or the 2000s. If it’s any consolation to them, regimes around the world are trying to do the same. And with the same result.
Has the digital age changed how citizens see governments? Tell us at views@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, Mar 08 2011. 08 39 PM IST