Can a Rs 100 Crore Campaign Change the Writing on the (Facebook) Wall?
Of late, a certain kind of seemingly sophisticated critique of social media is becoming a recurring theme in “mainstream” media. A gist of it is as below.
The rightwing (being clever and cunning) knew that social media was someday going to come into prominence. It positioned its activists strategically in places like Twitter right from the beginning. Soon enough, as social media matured, these lackeys of rightwing organizations are all over the place running their propaganda. They strut about as a dominant force on these media, with the larger aim of creating an illusion of being a dominant voice in society itself. (Which they are not, as we all know, because the Idea of India is solidly socialist and stubbornly secular). Moreover, these activists are abusive. Driving away neutral voices with abuse is part of their strategy.
And now the Congress is also wising up and getting into the game. (Poor, naive, dumb-in-a-cute-sort-of-way Congress! It allowed itself to be beaten by the rightwing in putting technology to devious use!). Realization has dawned upon it that it has been outmaneuvered by the wily rightwing. So it is also injecting its activists into social media, who are successfully out-shouting the entrenched Right. If you have seen the Feku-Vs-Pappu stand-off, you sure understand what I mean.
The conclusion therefore is that social media is at best a battlefield of partisan and funded activists, and at worst a generator of random noise and abuse. (By the way, to contain this abuse, we need to start thinking about regulating social media). If you rely on social media for information, you’d only know what activists want you know, not what really is going on in our society. In contrast the mainstream media, whatever be its faults (and being reasonable I agree it has some), will always remain the bona fide barometer of public opinion.
Those who advance the aforementioned critique clearly believe that the apparent dominance of the rightwing on social media is the result of a conspiracy. I argue below that they believe so partly out of ignorance, and largely out of the need to live a comforting denial.
The conspiracy theorists are unaware that the rightwing had a strong presence in the Indian quarters of cyberspace from quite early on, from the time when the internet was almost unknown in India. Networks resembling social media existed even before World Wide Web came on the scene, except that the terms “social media” and “social networks” were not coined yet. One such pre-historic social network is Usenet, popular in the ’80s through early 90’s. It perhaps originated the “user-level publish-subscribe” messaging model that is at the heart of modern social networks like Twitter. This model meant that a user could publish content addressing no one in particular, and any number of subscribers could consume it.
The India-centric parts of Usenet buzzed with rightwing activity. Kashmir, Ram Janmabhoomi, Common Civil Code, secularism, communalism etc were the raging topics of the day. No prizes for guessing which viewpoints had the most backers: right-wingers trumped opposition, of course. (I believe journalist Chidanand Rajghatta, then reporting to Indian Express from Washington DC, observed and commented in Indian press on this phenomenon). Note that internet in those days, and therefore Usenet itself, was confined largely to universities and research institutions in the developed world. It would stretch credulity to argue that this early dominance of the Right on Usenet was the result of a deep conspiracy. The internet was hardly known in India, and it made no sense to “strategically” “invest” in it. But if one must set aside reason and argue thus nevertheless, then a bigger conspiracy must be proposed: that the rightwing coached and trained its members to infiltrate universities around the world. Obviously, it is an absurd argument.
Our conspiracy theorists, for many of whom internet is still a novelty, are ignorant of this history. Conspiracy does not account for this rightwing skew on Usenet, but relating it to the demographic that used it does. This demographic is the creme de la creme of urban Indian middle-class, for Indian students in foreign universities came from the aspirational section of this segment. By late 80’s, in the pre-economic-liberalization era, this class was disillusioned with the Congress party, its corruption-soaked socialism and divide-and-rule secularism. The BJP at that point in time was on the ascendant, at least as far as capturing the imagination of the middle-class is concerned.
Following this line of thought further, we must surmise likewise that today’s social media approximates the views of the demographic that patronizes it. This demographic as at the moment still the urban middle to upper middle-class. And evidently, it is disillusioned with UPA government. The question hence to ask is not why the online segment of the middle-class is beholden to rightwing views, but how is that mainstream media of the English language variety has no place for the sentiments of the market segment it sells into.
This leads us to the denial angle of the aforementioned critique. One of the means by which mainstream media tries to derive its legitimacy is by claiming to reflect public opinion. But for MSM to acknowledge that the views prevalent on social media are indicative of any significantly sized segment of population, let alone of public at large, is to contradict decades of its track record, to admit that journalists and social pundits were deceiving us all along. Cognitive dissonance therefore compels the ancien regime of opinion industry to persuade itself that rightwing dominance on social media is the result of conspiratorial activism.
Left-liberals are particularly stricken with this denial disease, because the stark reality of social media busts their long-propagated myths. Indeed, their denial borders on the schizophrenic. For example, they explain away Modi’s popularity on Twitter and Facebook as an optical illusion created by fake followers and (supposedly miracle-working) PR firms like APCO. They insist with great vehemence that the contempt for the UPA regime seen on social media is not the result of UPA’s poor performance, but merely the propaganda of rightwing activists. The Left particularly sets much in store by propaganda. It believes that people’s lived experience can be negated by sustained campaigns constantly blaring out a blatantly untrue message that contradicts that experience. (And, looking at opponents through tinted glasses, the Left also believes that they are on to the same propaganda mischief as it is!) But time and again such a belief was proved wrong. No matter how shrill is the campaign that Modi is “feku” and his development works are a myth, the people who voted him in a third time were not swayed by it because their lived experience told them a different story.
Social media, unfortunately for the propagandists, mirrors and approximates this lived experience. Those who do not have first hand experience develop perceptions on the basis of reports of those who do. Reports and perceptions reinforce each other in a positive feedback loop at the same time that falsehood and error are detected and filtered out. In the context of any piece of information, there is eventually a state of equilibrium, in which that piece of information is as accurate as it can get. This is not to say that crowd-sourcing of information does not have its pitfalls. Sure it does. For example, it is possible to succeed in propagating false or misleading information on social media for a short while. But in the end, the angularities cancel each other out. The net result is no poorer, if not superior, in accuracy and reliability to that MSM can achieve. Wikipedia is a good example of this phenomenon: the system is self-correcting and self-examining to the point of transparently discussing its own performance: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reliability_of_Wikipedia .
All of this also does not mean that social media is not susceptible to manipulation. Networks like Twitter, after all, are commercial entities much the same way as mainstream media outfits are. If Twitter can be bought out, yes, why not, the game can be rigged. But then it may cease to be a credible medium. Moreover, at $10 billion valuation, Twitter is a less cost-effective proposition than buying out, with the same budget, approximately 5 crore swing voters at Rs 1000 apiece.
(Image Courtesy- cartoonistsatish.blogspot.com )