New MHRD circular for college students creates fear of surveillance

The circular, issued by the ministry on July 3, gives guidelines for colleges and universities on their social media presence.
New MHRD circular for college students creates fear of surveillance
New MHRD circular for college students creates fear of surveillance
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A circular from the MHRD has fueled controversy among students and internet freedom advocates alike. It asks educational institutions – colleges and universities – to link the social media accounts of the students with that of the ministry.

The circular, issued by the MHRD on July 3, and orders all Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to appoint a ‘Social Media Champion’ (SMC) by July 31, 2019. The news of such a circular was first published in The Hindu Tamil daily which said that the government of India has decided to watch the social media accounts of all the students in the country.

The circular, a copy of which TNM has read, stated that the role of these SMCs would be to ensure the presence of the institution on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. However, it is the other duties in that list that have caught the attention of people now. One of the duties of the SMC in institutions is to get all the students studying in the college to connect their social media accounts to that of the social media accounts of the institution.

“Connect all students’ Twitter/Facebook/Instagram accounts with the HEI’s Twitter/Facebook/Instagram accounts, as well as the MHRD Twitter/Facebook/Instagram accounts,” reads the circular. 

Though the motive of the circular was mentioned upfront as something intended to ‘share’ the achievements of the HEIs across the country to the people, the direction about linking social media accounts of students has become controversial. This move is considered as something that could end up as surveillance of the students. TNM spoke to students and experts about the direction to gauge the reaction to this move.

‘Could lead to profiling of students’

“The circular by itself does not expressly state that the linking of the accounts of the students with the MHRD portal will be something which will be done purely on a voluntary basis as per the consent and choice of the student,” says Apar Gupta, Executive Director, Internet Freedom Foundation. He adds that this move could lead to profiling of the students by the educational institutions.

Pointing out that social media is used by students majorly for expressing political opinions and to let out steam, he adds, “This would, by itself, cause the students a level of anxiety that they are being overseen and surveilled in their private spaces which is often used by them to let out steam and for bonding with other colleagues.” He also says that bringing in this level of surveillance by those who exercise power over the students could put an end to a natural human function.

Apar calls this an intrusion into the personal space of the students and one that can cause anxiety among the students. “At the very least, it sets an expectation that the student is expected to disclose the social media accounts and expected to be on social media. Some students may choose to not be on it,” he says.

‘Image-conscious decision’

However, not everybody is focused on surveillance aspect as Apar is. Srinivas Kodali, an independent researcher, tells TNM that the circular can be interpreted in many different ways. He is of the opinion that the MHRD is trying to do its own propaganda through the social media channels of the students.

“The current government is more selective about what information comes out in the media. I look at this from the information propaganda angle. But at the same time, I don’t think they are collecting the students’ social media details in any database. The actual threat that poses is the information propaganda at some level,” he explains. He says that the MHRD basically wanted the students to follow it on social media and the wording of the circular might have actually gone wrong. “But, we never know,” he cautions continuing to add that at some level this proposal will help these companies get more users.

Srinivas is also pertinent that this could end up as a form of passive surveillance. “When they connect with MHRD network, they will know who a person is, what they are saying about the university etc. that could happen involuntarily,” he says.

‘Not college’s business to monitor my social media’

Though experts expressed a cautious view on the controversial direction by the MHRD, students remain divided on the repercussions of such an idea.

Nivesh Ram, a student of IIM Lucknow questions why the college needs to know what he does on social media and adds that this would give rise to fake profiles since students would want to mask their real identity for fear of noncompliance.

“Say even if they link it all, who is going to stay and monitor it? Are the social media committees going to tell students what to post and what not to?” he questions.

However, Viji* (name changed), a student at a private college in Andhra Pradesh thinks otherwise. She says that it is a good move for the students to keep themselves updated and is an opportunity to learn something new. “Students can open a separate account for this purpose if they don’t want to expose their personal social media activity,” she says.

Apar Gupta however feels that the objectives of the circular can be achieved in ways other than monitoring the students’ social media accounts.

“Rather than inviting feedback like this, there are many other ways to get feedback which are much more confidential,” he points out adding that this move, if brought in would instill fear among the students and end up being counter-productive.

However, MHRD has clarified to The Quint that the linking of social media accounts is not mandatory. 

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