OPINION: Let’s restore sanity, revive democracy

NEW DELHI (The Statesman/ANN) –​ Social media is not alone – TV news media in India has been reduced to slander, outrage and a circus of shouting matches.

Last year, in a poll conducted in America to understand the influence of social media on the health of its users, 84 per cent of the people surveyed said they had become angrier and were more prone to losing their temper, than was the case a decade ago. When asked if they were more likely to express this anger on social media than in person, 9 in 10 people concurred. The data is astounding by every measure and is clearly reflective of the times we live in. If a similar survey was conducted in India, it would be no surprise if the findings would be near identical.

As a result, it increasingly appears that Indians are outraged by anything and everything. Refusing to stand-up in a theatre when the national anthem is being played can insult and anger other cinema-goers to an extent that it results in a physical altercation. If the Indian flag is not displayed correctly or if Indian gods are not depicted appropriately, the Foreign Minister can threaten a conglomerate like Amazon on social media to issue an unconditional apology or risk facing the brunt of an angry nation. The army and police are beyond reproach and questioning the excesses committed by them is anti-national. Indians are also incensed with events from the past, going back as far as the Mughal era.

Celebrities have always exercised caution over expression of their political views, but the intensity of anger, emotion and outrage from the public that they are subjected to in the social media age, is also significantly higher than in the past. Most recently, within hours of Deepika Padukone joining the protest at JNU, thousands of rightwing voices on twitter made promises to boycott her latest film Chhapaak. As a result of the ensuing outrage, #boycottchhapaak was one of the most popular trends on Twitter. Unfortunately for her, the outrage was not limited to the right-wing, various members on the left joined debate against Deepika, claiming her attendance at the protest was a publicity stunt.

This is not the first time that a celebrity has faced significant backlash over political statements: Akshay Kumar was subjected to severe criticism after his interview with Prime Minister Modi, and Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt faced similar criticism after they refused to comment on or acknowledge the political message behind one of their songs. If there is one thing that political parties in India have unanimously understood this decade, it is that anger when strategically channelled, can prove to be electorally lucrative.

With dirt-cheap internet and the proliferation of social media platforms, there is no better place to effectively stoke the anger of the public by spreading false information about opponents, inflaming social divisions and creating panic among minority groups. Social media promised a platform for enlightened politics but have instead amplified divisions by creating virtual echo chambers. The millennials and the Gen-Z on Whatsapp and Facebook are especially confused and disturbed by what they see. Uncles and aunts that might have appeared affectionate, patient and progressive while they were growing up, now come across as illogical, intolerant and often Islamophobic. Which explains why millennials and Gen-Z would rather express themselves on Instagram and Twitter, where they are more likely to be in the company of individuals that foster opinions similar to their own liberal upbringing.

The reason the term “OK boomer” exists is because many Gen Z and millennials feel that they are not being heard or acknowledged. Even among the same generation, people are more comfortable ending friendships and relationships, by distancing themselves from those that might harbour political opinions different from theirs. Take the case of the typical Indian family Whatsapp group. Conversations are limited and the group mostly serves as a platform for the older generation to forward posts and videos that they might have come across in another group.

A large percentage of these posts can be best described as either ‘fake news’ and often vitriolic. These posts will usually highlight how Hindus have been historically exploited by other communities, right from the Mughals and how Christian missionaries have been converting Hindus for decades. To incite an emotion of anger in the reader, a typical post may also include gory details of the atrocities committed by Aurangzeb and provide ample justification for why it was right for Hindus to demolish the Babri Masjid. A number of posts will also explain in detail how the Congress party has “done nothing in 60 years” except loot the country and the imposition of the emergency by Indira Gandhi is often used to justify how the current government is far from authoritative.

Social media is not alone – TV news media in India has been reduced to slander, outrage and a circus of shouting matches. Phrases that have been coined in TV debates like ‘tukdetukde gang,’ ‘urban naxals,’ ‘puncture wala’, ‘Khan Market gang’, ‘antinational,’ ‘chaddi wale’, ‘sanghi, ‘bhakts’ etc. ultimately assume real legitimacy on Whatsapp groups and become the norm. Mass and social media platforms are no longer designed for unbiased, nuanced debates – the outrage allows for public performance that appeal to the base instinct of audiences. Unfortunately, the animosity that is generated on prime shows has far reaching negative effects, threatening the fabric of democracy and society. Civilized debate based on accurate information is at the heart of a functional democracy.

Unfortunately, at a time when fake news flourishes, and incendiary slogans win political campaigns, it is naive to expect politicians to pave the way for reasoned debate. Moving forward, it is imperative that public figures who are not restricted by short voting cycles – celebrities, activists, poets, bureaucrats – must display leadership to bring back sanity and debate in our democracy. While creators of social media platforms were unaware of the illeffects of their own technology, in recent times, the role of social media in amplifying divisions, spreading fake news and creating mutual animosity is well-documented.

Social-media companies must adapt their algorithms to allow independent factcheckers to help users differentiate between information shared by unverified sources and verified sources. Social media platforms must also learn from previous mistakes to ensure that manipulation of the information spread using their platforms by foreign and domestic actors is no longer possible. Most importantly, perhaps, democracy needs to leave screens and virtual platforms, and go back to the streets and local forums where citizens across political ideologies have always been able to have open, honest in-person debates with elected officials. Only by creating systems that prioritise patience over performance, nuance over noise, and wisdom over slander will we be able to resurrect democracy to its rightful place as the most powerful political idea of our time.

(The writer is a former IPS office, a member of the 15th Lok Sabha and a member of the Aam Aadmi Party)


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