Extensive use of social media by Indians has enabled the political actors to craft incisive propaganda strikes.
Use of social media was a prominent feature of Narendra Modi-Prashant Kishor’s campaign strategy in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. It was a time when the mobile users were transiting into smart phones. Between 2014 to 2019, most of the Indians families in the urban areas switched to smart phones which had made social media much sought after by political parties and politicians. Extensive use of social media by Indians has enabled the political actors to craft incisive propaganda strikes. The Modi team reaped the gains of being early movers in the social media domain, even though the opponents were not far behind after the 2014 election. Nonetheless, the opponents seem to have been mostly tailing team Modi in the race to dominate the social media. Despite their best efforts they would not be able to beat Modi on social media for two reasons.
First of all, Hindi television as a media remains as influential as it was until the advent of social media platforms. Post-2014, the Hindi news television media tilted towards the central government like never before. The government of Narendra Modi was casted in warrior-like role fighting against the status quo and the status quasits. The 24×7 streaming of dramatized news and discussions on television channels was supplemented by similar content in bigger quantity on social media. The opponents kept creating their own space on social media, and were quite successfully too; however, it lost all space on television news channels. What is worse, the opposition has mostly been painted in a villainous role in news items and discussions. The opposition till date has no clue how to deal with this double assault of TV news channels and social media platforms.
The second and far more important factor is social media’s development into an organism as a reflection of society. It is no more dictated or directed by the top brass of the ruling party. They are only incessantly milking it. The social media platforms have not only consolidated the existing social groups in the form of castes, sub-castes and religions, they have also become the medium of expression of biases, unscientific beliefs, religiosity, post-truth and hatred. It is rapidly undoing what the earlier social mediums – newspapers, journals, magazines, school text books, scholarly academic work in the form of writings and lectures, documentaries, study-groups, literature and even popular cinema – had achieved. The rationality, affection, fact-based knowledge, scientific temperament and scientific inquiry, promotion of fraternity-equality-justice – all of this is being pushed to a corner. A concerted counter-revolution is happening on and through the social media platforms. The technology and new communication mediums are being used, for the first time in the modern age, on a mass scale against the progressive scheme of human society. The role that the printing press technology and the university system played in the movements for social equality, economic well-being, perpetuation of scientific thoughts and de-colonization are dwarfed by the role contemporary social media platforms are performing to maintain the social status quo and reverse the gains of the pre-digital era. The Modi regime is celebrated as politically anti-status quasit to restore the erstwhile social and economic status quo in India. The most direct impact of this phenomenon can be experienced if you post any anti-government message in your social media group of relatives, school-days’ friends, work colleagues and building apartment/society members.
In this context, two initiatives of the central government require close scrutiny. One, the Law minister is taking at least one of the social media giants head on. If social media platforms are dancing to the tune of the ruling party and successfully hegemonizing the discourse in favour of the regime, why should the Law minister warn Twitter from the floor of the parliament? This is simply to erode whatever autonomy the social media platforms have and thereby to control or eliminate all of the anti-government discourses from these platforms. The government certainly would like the social media platforms to work the way the pliant TV news channels function in terms of setting up of the agenda, villainizing the opponents and forbidding counter views. The government must be keenly aware of the role that social media platforms played in the mobilization of people – be it the Arab Spring or the Wall Street Occupy movements, or the anti-CAA protests and the current farmers’ agitation. By reining in the tech, digital and social media giants, the government wants to ensure there is no space for the oppositional discourses. The second initiative of the central government is to recruit volunteers to report so-called anti-national activities on social media. This is nothing but legitimizing the troll army that has come into existence and flourished from 2013 onwards. The next step might be instituting payment for the service of the ‘online volunteers’ by the government, thereby exempting the ruling party from its responsibility of taking care of its supporters.
The government’s anxiety is increasing day by day and so are the measures it is adopting to control dissent and counterviews. In its second term in office, the Modi government has been rattled in successive years by two very different mass mobilizations – the anti-CAA protests and anti-Farms Laws agitation. The national narrative is changing irrespective of the upcoming trends at the state level. The leadership, which knows the pulse of the people, is therefore getting nervous. The nervousness will lead to more authoritarian measures, which must be celebrated on social media and TV news channels. Anything that may spoil the celebration of authoritarianism and arbitrariness must be anticipated and removed well in advance. The opposition parties, progressive and livelihood related movements and individuals and groups fighting against authoritarianism need to calibrate their strategy anticipating a clampdown on digital platforms. The government has many role models to follow – from Myanmar and China to Saudi Arab and Egypt. The opposition needs to create its own model that can influence and show the direction to anti-authoritarian andolanjivees across the world.
Parimal Maya Sudhakar
20 Feb 2021