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How Social Media Is Shaping the New Political Order

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Media partners in the politics of change for better or worse

Even his inveterate opponents wouldn’t contest that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has few peers in employing social media for political gains. Since August, when he overtook Amitabh Bachchan on Twitter, his personal handle @narendramodi has been the most followed account in India, and he is the only non-Bollywood personality on the top 10 list of the microblogging site, besides his official@PMOIndia handle which is ranked tenth. In comparison, Barack Obama, the outgoing US president, has the fourth slot in his country. Wait. Modi is also the first world leader to use a Twitter Mirror, an exclusive app that produces autographed selfies and posts them on Twitter while he is on tour. He is immensely popular on Facebook as well. Like Obama before him, and US President-elect Donald Trump after him, Modi has zealously used these alternative platforms to navigate his way around the print media and TV outlets.

With more political leaders following in their footsteps in this rapid transition away from conventional communication channels and using social media as the lynchpin of their campaigns, the global political landscape is witnessing a massive churn, a key aspect of which is the participation of and interaction with the common man via the internet. While billions were spent on social media campaigns in the recently concluded US presidential election, leaders elsewhere are also investing a substantial amount of time and energy on these sites. German Chancellor Angela Merkel maintains an Instagram blog called Bundeskanzlerin; and Vladimir Putin of Russia puts out bold statements on Twitter, making commentators wonder whether the web is being used for Cold War-style propaganda. From Greece to Brazil and China (where Facebook and Twitter are banned) to Canada, leaders are taking exclusively to social media to vocalise themselves, a trend that makes the TV reporter Christiane Amanpour worry about the future and usefulness of journalism through traditional media, edited and filtered as it is. 

Yet, as the Arab Spring demonstrated, it is social media that is the sole hope for pro-democracy movements and for marginalised groups such as women in many countries of the Middle East and North Africa that are under repressive regimes. It has the power to link up people who would never have met otherwise, but like a double-edged sword, it also promotes ghettoisation by encouraging homogenous groups to bind. A smartphone with a net connection is for some a window to the world, but it could also tune people out who don’t conform.

Modi understands both. So do Obama, Trump and other leaders like Canada’s Justin Trudeau and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.  After all, what came in handy for Erdoğan to address and rally people against a ‘military coup’ earlier this year was FaceTime, an iPhone video chat feature. “Go to the streets and give them their answer,” Erdoğan told a reporter who held up her phone to CNN’s camera.

The triumphant Narendra Modi campaign of 2014 used video-sharing apps and social-media pages to connect with disparate groups across the country and deployed technology to reach villages unconnected to the power grid, an outreach exercise that featured mobile vans and holograms. Having achieved vast popularity through direct contact, Modi now routinely addresses his countrymen with his Mann ki Baat radio programme and frequent Twitter videos.

Modi learnt it the hard way. Faced with an unofficial boycott and vilification in mainstream media following the 2002 Gujarat riots under his watch as Chief Minister, Modi first began to strike up friendships with editors of local dailies. A functionary of the Chief Minister’s Office would regularly scour Gujarati newspapers to pick up bad news—say, about a school without a roof in an interior part of the state. The Chief Minister would despatch an official right away to have the problem fixed. Then the CMO would contact the daily’s editor to thank him for bringing it to its notice. Impressed, the editor would reward the leader with favourable write-ups. Next, the ‘war room’ at the CMO began to align with religious groups and gurus such as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and corporate bodies. It was around this time that Modi discovered the power of social media. It was exactly what he needed. He had found a sure-fire way to get past mainstream media.

Modi continues to use social media and texting apps to navigate around the print media and TV outlets—and even Parliament

The Prime Minister’s latest salvo was fired from his phone app, asking the people of the country to answer a set of 10 questions. It was entirely consistent with his penchant for bypassing traditional media and making himself loud and clear on social networking sites, especially Twitter. This time round, he also sidestepped what he himself had described as his temple, Indian Parliament, to reach out directly to the masses to drum up support for demonetisation. The questionnaire of his app survey, intended to elicit answers on the scheme, seemed designed to gather data that would counter the spiralling criticism of his move to nix Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes. The exercise highlights the rapidly expanding influence of social media and other instant messaging apps in shaping political preferences and moulding public opinion. Interestingly, it also puts the spotlight on the nature of the medium where the message, with all its trollsome meanness, could be as effective as it is fallacious and deceptive.

Most politicians have discovered that social media is almost ubiquitous now, and none of them wants to miss the ride, be it for airing their opinions, cracking jokes or connecting with grassroots workers and colleagues. Union Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan tells me that he uses his smartphone to interact closely with co-workers for the ambitious Ujjwala scheme, which envisages offering LPG connections to all BPL families in the country. He gets messages on WhatsApp from district nodal officers of state-run oil marketing companies who are part of the government programme. “They keep giving me feedback from the field of action. Some of them tell me about the grievances that people who are not considered for the Ujjwala scheme have. All of their suggestions are considered and we keep ourselves abreast of problems that OMC (oil marketing companies) executives typically face in implementing this programme,” says Pradhan.

RJD chief Lalu Prasad, not known to be social media savvy until recently, has lately been active on Twitter, launching a tirade against Bihar’s BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi. In his trademark style, Lalu tweeted, ‘Indian Railways is rapidly slipping into a financial morass and terminal debt trap. To avert the impending tragedy, it time to think anew.’ Sushil Modi retorted, ‘@laluprasadrjd milked railways like cow but Modiji know Rlys better than you bcose he served tea with milk on platform.’ Lalu hit back, ‘@SushilModi What a rubbish logic! Do u kw wat happens when u don’t milk a Cow?..cow falls sick..& this is wat happening now.. ’ Despite his initial display of Bihari witticisms, Lalu beat a hasty retreat when Sushil Modi dragged the name of his ally and JD-U leader Nitish Kumar into the argument: ‘@laluprasadrjd Are you blaming Nitish Kumar for the so called mess of Rlys bcose you inherited from him?’

Trump's preposterous tweets took the US presidential campaign to new lows, yet he struck a chord with blue-collard White workers and won

Former Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah also lightened up the Twitterscape while commenting on his father, Farooq Abdullah. Abdullah Jr said he’d avoid standing in a long queue to exchange demonetised notes and instead send his father who could join a special line for senior citizens. ‘Gotta send my dad to the bank tomorrow but before that I’ve got to get him to admit to being a senior citizen,’ he tweeted. Equally witty are some tweets by Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda, leader of the Biju Janata Dal and a Member of Parliament, ‘#HeardInCentralHall MP: “FM didn’t know abt #demonetisation” NDA MP: “Not true & anyway in their time the PM didn’t know abt most decisions”.’ He was referring to an NDA MP rebutting a claim by a Congress lawmaker, alleging the former Congress Prime Minister Manmohan Singh didn’t know about decisions taken by party President Sonia Gandhi. Meanwhile, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj went public with her health condition in a departure from the tradition of being tightlipped on such matters. She tweeted on November 16th, ‘I am in AIIMS because of kidney failure. Presently, I am on dialysis. I am undergoing tests for a Kidney transplant. Lord Krishna will bless.’ It got her a spate of messages wishing her well from across the country, including kidney offers from would-be donors.

Several other ministers and leaders use social media to post updates on their activities, while many use the forum to criticise—even harangue, one another. Sitaram Yechury of the CPM often criticises Modi for what he calls anti-people policies. ‘A PM who has time to address pop music concerts but is refusing to face Parliament.#Demonetisation #ManMadeDisaster,’ he tweeted, referring to Modi’s addressal of a Coldplay concert in Mumbai and absence from the House.

Globally, though, attacks on opponents have got nastier by the day. In the US, Trump invariably refers to New York Times, which has been highly critical of him, with an adjective: ‘failing’. Trump has kept up a sharp attack on the media, which he claims was out to malign him and ensure his defeat. His tweets and videos, however, struck a chord with blue-collared Whites in the US who voted overwhelmingly for him after a bitterly fought election that saw candidates stooping to new lows and the media resorting to highly partisan coverage. Trump’s twitter outbursts against Obama and singer Katy Perry and his remarks on American democracy were mostly below the belt. One of his tweets about Obama went like this: ‘Obama is, without question, the WORST EVER president. I predict he will now do something really bad and totally stupid to show manhood!’ About democracy in his country, he said before the polls, ‘This election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy!’ Attacking a Hillary Clinton supporter, the now president-elect said, ‘@katyperry Katy, what the hell were you thinking when you married loser Russell Brand. There is a guy who has got nothing going, a waste!’ Media experts call this type of campaign ‘attack’ advertising, which highlights weaknesses of the opponent in often uncivil and misleading terms. Of course, politicians worldwide have also gained enormously from social media. In the face of vehement attacks from ‘rightwing-oriented media’ on the UK’s Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn had told his ‘grassroots supporters’ early this year that, as a measure to overcome censorship, it was necessary for them to use social media to communicate with the public. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau got extremely active on Twitter by posting videos and photographs in an effort to make citizens feel they can regularly interact with him.

Arvind Kejriwal knows the potential of the alternative media only too well. The Delhi Chief Minister's recent speech against demonetisation went viral

What hogs headlines are usually the most uncharitable utterances, especially fusillades by politicians against the media. The BJP minister and former Army Chief VK Singh has earned notoriety by terming journalists critical of his party as ‘presstitutes’, just one among other slurs. Varun Gandhi of the BJP is much milder when he pokes fun at mainstream media for running ‘unverified’ stories. ‘What a laughably fictitious story. Please don’t invent your own narrative,’ went one such barb from his Twitter handle.

Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is another leader who, like Modi, has understood the scope of social media well. Way back in 2011, when he was with the Anna Hazare movement, he had begun putting up posts on networking sites. The movement led by Hazare was generously helped by, an organisation that supports pro-democracy movements and promotes activism on a range of issues from climate change and religious conflicts to human rights. While Hazare was fasting, this advocacy group founded by Ricken Patel worked with Team Anna to campaign online for the cause and to attract world sympathy. In recent days, Keriwal, now Delhi Chief Minister, has also got around conventional media by posting a video on Facebook that attacks the Modi Government on its decision to demonetise Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes. Kejriwal’s speech went viral, making him the toast of online political point-scoring, notwithstanding a flurry of comments against him from political rivals for allegedly helping black money. The AAP leader’s speech got more than 5 million views, a measure of online popularity, within the first two days. As a result, his party’s Facebook page saw ‘organic growth’ of about 640 per cent within a week of demonetisation and Arvind Kejriwal’s response to it, according to an AAP statement.

One of the Prime Minister’s 10 questions on his NM app was this: ‘Do you believe some anti-corruption activists are now actually fighting in support of black money, corruption & terrorism? a. Yes b. No’ Here’s another: ‘Did you mind the inconvenience faced in our fight to curb corruption, black money, terrorism and counterfeiting of currency? a. Not at all b. Somewhat, but it was worth it c. Yes.’

Shashi Tharoor finds the influx of phoney stories deeply alarming. He is worried that people cite fake news reports as the basis for their strongly held beliefs

Chitra Subramaniam-Duella, noted commentator, writes on the website, Newsminute: ‘You can be an NGO who opposes the government, you can be an anti-corruption activist who disagrees with demonetisation (that ‘some’ is a fig leaf) and you can fight black money without necessarily endorsing the government’s methods for taking on terrorists.’ Sociologist Shiv Viswanathan sees a vindictive edge in the question on anti-corruption activists, an apparent slip for a politician as skilful as Modi. “He is, in fact, banking on his popularity with whom I call ‘policy patriots’ for whom others are all untrustworthy,” he says.

Such instances are proof of how useful social media may be for politicians to assert their importance by appealing directly to millions. The Prime Minister claims tremendous popular support for his policy against black money: his app’s ‘poll’ reports that 90 per cent of respondents are in favour of his latest move. Indeed, there’s a flip side to politics on social media: practitioners could engage in spin at a faster clip than ever before. It helps their cause that social media lacks the checks, balances and other filters of traditional media, and so individuals can drive home arguments without such restraints as verifiable facts. 

Indeed, these platforms offer vast potential for gross misuse and manipulation. Lately, any comment that is not in line with purveyors of the so-called nationalist spirit is pounced upon and targeted by large battalions of online trolls. It was not long ago that actor and former Congress MP Ramya was under sharp attack on social media for saying that “Pakistan is not hell, people there are like us”. She made this remark in mid-2016 after returning from Pakistan, where she had gone for the SAARC Young Parliamentarians Conference. Some politicians saw it as a retort to Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s comment, who around the time had said that “going to Pakistan was the same as going to hell”. In an act that mirrored the outrage online, a lawyer in Karnataka went to the extent of filing sedition charges against her.

RJD chief Lalu Prasad, not known to be social media savvy until recently, has been active on Twitter, launching a tirade against Bihar’s BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi

In contrast to their anodyne presence in conventional media and in the political sphere, some politicians tend to outdo each other in reopening old wounds. After VHP leader Praveen Togadia’s reported comments about two years ago exhorting Hindus not to sell property to Muslims in their neighbourhood had gone viral, Prime Minister Modi—under criticism that the VHP leader was emboldened to make such statements because of his ascendance—himself had to step in to contain the damage. ‘Petty statements by those claiming to be BJP’s well wishers are deviating the campaign from the issues of development and good governance,’ Modi tweeted.

Twitter comments mildly critical of Islam also land people in a soup; in West Bengal, for example, one Tarak Biswas was arrested by the police for his alleged ‘blasphemy’ against the faith. Kolkata-based human rights group Association for Protection of Democratic Rights condemned the arrest and questioned the manner in which he was picked up by the police in a state ruled by a party which tends to acts with the motive of pulling in the minority vote. However, there are serious cases of Muslim-bashing that have lately gained appeal on social networking sites. A senior police officer in Assam posted anti-Muslim comments on Facebook earlier this year, resulting in his suspension. This officer, Anjan Bora, posted, ‘Jai Sri Ram, Jai Hindustan, Jai jai sri Ram jai hindubhumi. We should join a Muslim-free Hindustan.’

Posting such objectionable comments and then sparring over it has become par for the course in India, with even the likes of Parrikar blurting out against Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan who had late last year said that he was worried about a growing sense of insecurity on account of rising intolerance in the country. Parrikar said in a speech that anyone speaking against the country must be “taught a lesson”, mentioning the “actor” and the “online trading company” (he was referring to Khan and Snapdeal, which, following a decline in sales, had to replace the actor as its brand ambassador). Parrikar’s comment went viral, as it would at a time when, as sociologist Ashis Nandy put it, being unhappy could land you in jail. Anthropologist and journalist Alessandro Cisilin, who has done extensive studies on social media patterns in India, sounds a word of caution: “Social media can represent useful tools for setting agendas, but it’s largely about party politics and media, not about people’s agendas. Social media can strongly influence what politicians and journalists discuss, but people’s needs largely stand out of it.”

Anna Hazare’s movement was hugely helped by This advocacy group worked with Team Anna to campaign online for the cause and attract world sympathy

Besides the nationalist fervour that’s going online and wreaking havoc, what is of major concern is the massive proliferation of fake news around the world. Armed with social media handles, each individual is his own publisher, and often that freedom is abused. Not long ago, Russians in Germany instigated attacks on migrants from trouble-torn Middle Eastern countries, including war-ravaged Syria, by faking a story of a 13-year-old German-Russian girl being raped by Syrian migrants. The story, which attracted millions of views on Facebook, claimed that the girl was snatched from a train station and that Germany was trying to cover it up. Hundreds of migrants had been assaulted by the time it was confirmed that the story was fabricated.

Last week, a report said that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was dead and also stated that the incidence of fake news on the social networking site he built was exaggerated. It was untrue. Soon, Zuckerberg shared his plan of attack against phoney news stories on his social-media platform. But battling fake news on texting apps and social media sites is easier said than done, and Congress lawmaker Shashi Tharoor, himself an avid social media user, points out that fake news is deeply worrying because there is no way for people to tell reality from falsehood. “I have myself received forwards and posts on WhatsApp and Facebook attributed to me that I have never written! Very often such fake stories profess the opposite of what I actually believe. It goes to the heart of the most important dilemma of the Information Age, the question of the reliability of information,” he says, emphasising, “If you don’t know what to believe, truth itself becomes a fungible commodity and society gets fragmented into bubbles of people who each inhabit their own perceived reality.” The danger is stark. “People authoritatively cite fake news stories as the basis for their sincerely held and totally wrong-headed beliefs. It’s deeply alarming,” says Tharoor.

In addition, there are new media trends championed by the alt-right, led in the US by Trump favourite Steve Bannon and his team that includes the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos of the Breitbart website (who has been permanently banned from Twitter for his outbursts). In an interview, Yiannopoulos justified misogynistic, racist and Islamophobic editorials on his website. The controversial alt-right movement claims that the world had too much political correctness and it was time to focus on what it considers ‘facts’ regardless of who gets offended. It is in this context that trying to compartmentalise people and isolating non-conformists has to be viewed. In India, Modi has been accused by his detractors of being a polarising figure, now perhaps all more evident in his phone app questions that tend to point fingers at anyone critical of his latest plan. The Modi phenomenon has also spawned regional leaders who are trying to position themselves as strong-willing, hard-nosed leaders. Like Hiren Joshi and a team of two who manage the Prime Minister’s social media interactions, regional satraps in India have also put in place groups of men and women to run their social-media sites.

In a world where the political narrative is being squeezed to fit smartphone screens, agendas that don’t suit social media often get swept under the carpet. Well-known economist Jean Dreze says that poverty is the least important subject in such a political discourse. Whoever talks for the poor suffers in his political career, he claims. Tharoor, however, feels that that may be far-fetched. “I can’t speak for others,” he says, “but I try to balance between political and (especially) constituency concerns—which may not be of much interest to general social media users—and issues, memes and shares that emerge from the world of social media. So I am not convinced that social media ignores important issues. Yes, there are more entrepreneurs than poverty-stricken people on social media, but that doesn’t mean social media doesn’t discuss issues of poverty that have arisen in mainstream media, public reports, etcetera.”

The networked population in India is rising rapidly. According to a 2016 report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India, nearly 60 per cent of India’s 462 million internet users access it through smartphones, which are far more affordable than computers and tablets. This figure is expected to rise exponentially in coming years as mobile phones become cheaper and commonplace even in rural areas. This is why political parties of all hues want their cadres to be online with an ear to the ground. Meanwhile, charges fly that various leaders are buying up bots and using other technical tricks to exaggerate their followings; the same tweets being posted by multiple accounts is proof of that. They also use trolls to launch often-vicious campaigns against rivals as soon as they post a comment. AAP has accused the BJP of using bots to settle political scores.

For a new form of media that takes pride in mobilising people for a cause and bringing strangers together, it is an unfortunate reflection of its power that it also divides people and alienates those who are not willing to go along with what’s ‘trending’ on popularity charts. In the run-up to the polls in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Manipur and Goa, we might see even more aggressive posturing online. As the writer Nicholas Carr said, “Social media favours the bitty over the meaty.” Unless the rational minds of the world unite in self-policing, history will remember the trolls and narcissists as the victors.