One can only watch bemused as the government of India and the Congress party gear up to anoint those on social media and those on English satellite television as the Voice of India.
The Delhi Rage, which followed the brutal Delhi rape in December, was then followed by the TV studio rage over the ceasefire violations on the Line of Control. And the first was factored in at the Congress party’s Jaipur soul searching.
Since the government presumably goes by census statistics to understand the ways in which the country is changing, why does it not contain its panic and look for a moment to see what the Census 2011 figures are showing for Internet access? If you add up all kinds of access, it is 30 million, or less than 3% of the population. Even if you assume that those figures are out of date by the time they come out, and double and triple it, it is still not even 10% of the population. And a skewed access at that.
One good reason why the Delhi Rage erupts on the Internet and spills onto the streets could be that, like Maharashtra, Delhi is one of the three pockets in the country with the highest access to the Internet. The third is Kerala. In Maharashtra, overall access is 18%, in Delhi it’s 7.8%, according to census figures. But in many other states, it is barely 1%.
And then there is the nature of use, even when you have access. Ajit Balakrishnan, founder of Rediff.com and author of a new book that deals with Internet connectivity among other things, says no more than 10% of the population on social media does the postings. If the Twitter-using population is the 12 million being touted by social media analytics companies, then those who post on Twitter are barely 1.2% of the population. As for Facebook, where Jagdish Tytler and others think the Congress party should be doing its criticism-countering, the company itself claims that you can address 45 million Indians or thereabouts through it. Ten per cent of that figure does not give a very impressive segment of the population to present your case to.
It is the equivalent of Arnab Goswami with viewership of less than a sliver, but our intelligentsia scrambling to get on his show. That is the other danger of the rapidly narrowing public sphere that the rulers are targeting. That the male SEC AB 25-50 years demographic that advertisers target on English news channels will drive the government’s response to criticism. Countrywide, this segment is currently represented in audience sampling by less than 500 big city households. But the thought that this segment was watching the belligerent jingoism expressed by retired generals and others in the second week of January, actually led the government to visibly harden its stand on Pakistan, as commentators have noted.
If media reports are accurate, Rahul Gandhi is stunned by the criticism of his mother on Twitter and by implication that is driving the Congress party’s new commitment to using social media to find out what the country thinks. If he has actually seen those largely inane and sometimes abusive comments, does he honestly think winning that sort of popularity contest should be the focus of his party’s media strategy?
The Union ministry of information and broadcasting has formed a team to monitor the social media on critical issues, says the Times of India. Do you want to listen to the anonymous views and opinions of what Firstpost.com indulgently describes as the “fast and furious online community” or those of men and women who give their names and villages, and voice specific suggestions and complaints on the 140-plus community radio stations around the country or on the mobile community radio platforms in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand? Anyone being told to monitor those?
While some voices are being given more attention than they warrant, others are blacked out by a nervous home ministry. Maybe both Gandhi and information minister Manish Tewari need to look at the implications of denying community radio licences to states that are deemed Naxal affected. And perhaps go beyond looking at the Facebook page the ministry has set up for direct communication with “stakeholders of Community Radio”.
Even if the Tewari team wants to do its “listening to the people” mostly on the Internet, there are platforms where they could listen to citizens who are not the Twitterati. There is Goonj, the new platform of Jharkhand Mobile, and there is CGnet Swara focusing on Chhattisgarh, now a few years old, where people are constantly leaving messages about specific instances of corruption or non-delivery of services. On Twitter and Facebook, you are unlikely to encounter those who have stopped participating in the rural jobs programme because payment for work done can take six months or more to come.
So, if someone is telling Mr Gandhi that being on social media will help his party win an election, maybe he should do a reality check.
Sevanti Ninan is a media critic, author and editor of the media watch website thehoot.org. She examines the larger issues related to the media in a fortnightly column.