Imaging by: Jayachandran & Manoj Madhavan/Mint
Imaging by: Jayachandran & Manoj Madhavan/Mint

New Media | #Feku vs #Pappu: The year we subverted social media

We said bye-bye to a medium of happy anarchy. Increasingly popular social media faced the same threat as traditional media

The National Front government of V.P. Singh is remembered for a set of caste-based reforms that set fire to the nation, but one of its great parliamentary successes was the Prasar Bharati (Broadcasting Corporation of India) Act, 1990. Enacted seven years later, it granted, at long last, both Doordarshan and All India Radio a degree of autonomy from the government. You might well ask—why would V.P. Singh’s quickly-cobbled union of (Ram Manohar) Lohia socialists prioritize control over television content as an avenue of legislation? The answer lies in the great power media has, especially a pervasive visual medium like television.

In the 1980s, the Congress had television programming in strict shackles. To watch Doordarshan (DD) was to be presented with a strange admixture: nation-building, pedagogy, manipulated news, some scant offerings of entertainment—a cocktail that aspired vaguely to Nehruvian ideals but never quite got there. It presented a certain vision of India, and, consequently, a certain vision of what it meant to be an Indian.

But while the implementation of the Prasar Bharati Act brought some relief, putting distance between direct political interest and programming, it was with the entrance of private television that the floodgates really opened. Its hunger for programming of all kinds meant we had, for the first time on our screens, competing visions of India, from saas-bahu to Chhota Bheem to MTV Roadies. If DD once ordered us to sing in tune (Mile sur mera tumhara), private television has us competing to be heard, teaching us to draw consonance from cacophony.

Things have improved unsteadily in the decades since. The state has tried to exercise control over a proliferating media, with varying success. The costs and difficulty of putting together a newspaper or television channel make this easier—control is easier in an oligarchic system, where there are fewer parties in a position to influence proceedings. And big media in India has been an oligarchy, with a collusive tendency towards whoever is in power, for as long as the nation has been independent.

This is why when blogs, Twitter and social media came along, when the Internet turned from a network of static pages to an organic entity you could interact with, mould and contribute to, it arrived not so much as a breath of fresh air as a great swinging gale, promising to blow down every carefully constructed fence in its path. One may not agree with all the contentions of the first wave of bloggers and Twitter accounts that attacked the media for being fed by the ruling party, or the vituperative way they made their point, but there is no doubt they were pointing to a political reality that has had serious consequences on our democratic progress.

When I joined Twitter, in 2010, I was surprised by a few things: the quality of debate; the freedom to make fun of anyone, whether Sachin or Sonia or Sri Sri Ravi Shankar; the wonderful, collaborative pinging of thoughts and ideas by concerned Indians from all over the globe; the wilful disdain of all those things traditional media had so long told us were sacred. There was an element of happy anarchy to it, unfettered and unbowed, as tweet after tweet whittled away at the pedestals of those in power. And it had a feedback effect: The raw derision of social media has in turn elevated political commentary in our country, moving us past an era where obfuscation and a pretence towards temperance were used to disguise the compact between big media, big corporate and big politics.

Human cognition seems to need a narrative in order to process a set of events. The media’s role in society is to construct narrative after narrative about everything that takes place around us. It is the first interpreter of our world; trust what it feeds you or not, journalism has a decisive say in how we believe events are connected, and which people and institutions are related to those events. Sometime in the past three years, driven by its immediacy and accessibility, social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, became the first interpreter of the events of the world for a great number of people. And because many of the journalists shaping the debate in television and print were honing their ideas, even getting them, from places like Twitter, social media started to have a spillover effect, beginning to influence how even those Indians who were not on social media saw events.

Much of the enhanced debate that has surrounded the major political events in India in the last few years—think of Jan Lokpal; sexual violence; the National Food Security Bill, 2013; the khap panchayats—was first constructed in social media, on blogs and social networks, and only then transported to the talking heads of television and comment pages of print. In fact, increasingly, the talking heads you see on television are found on Twitter.

Perhaps it was inevitable that it could not last. Not with an election year impending. Perhaps anything that wields this degree of influence, this promise to direct the national consensus, will never remain uncompromized. The edifice upon which traditional media was built was slowly undermined by such disparate routes as backhand loans and munificent government advertorials and quiet threats and silent partnering. Now social media faces the same threat, though it comes in different clothing.

The great strength of social media was its genuine independence: You might have preference, even affiliation, but you did not have an agenda. You came to debate not dictate, and you were there because you wanted to engage with others, to understand differing viewpoints, to refine your own thinking on an issue via someone else’s expertise. But that kind of engagement is much too congenial for our political leaders to accept. And the method they’ve chosen to subvert it—a subversion that stands as one of the grievous aspects of 2013—is through paid shills.

Now it is impossible to tell who is being paid to tweet what. There are people that spend all day, every day, reacting to any bit of news that emerges about the political party and leader they love. This is not a little crush either, as some of them seem to do it for free. This is all-consuming, Fatal Attraction-esque love, love that has them monitoring a Twitter feed every waking hour, waiting to pounce on any slight against their candidate, waiting to retweet any tired, mindless jibe as long as it makes fun of the other guy.

This effort stems from a surging belief that social media will be crucial in the 2014 general election, a canard that only the polls can test. It started with an unusually high number of people attacking you every time you critiqued Narendra Modi. Trolls, we were told—the work of his huge social media team. The Congress, always one to miss a trick, responded in the worst manner possible: They rounded up their own band of sycophants, who now do the same thing, but for Rahul Gandhi and against Modi. If this was a private squabble it would still be tolerable, but it’s the kind of thing anyone with an interest in politics cannot keep off their timelines. Before our eyes, social media turned from a place where you could find substantive debates over policy to a zone of pejoratives and hashtags. #Feku (Modi is a liar!) vs #Pappu (Rahul is a naïf!) is the discourse we deserve, apparently.

Late in November, Cobrapost, an investigative journalism website, released the findings of a “sting" operation concerning social media. It confirmed what many regular users have known for some time, that most of the sad little jokes, unimaginative cartoons and ardent declarations of love or loathing towards politicians that do the rounds are controlled by social media companies. These social media outfits can either be tinpot operations, such as the ones Cobrapost associates with some very serious misdemeanours (up to, even, disenfranchisement of minority communities and spreading disinformation before an election), or much larger companies like Webchutney, which reportedly has the Delhi Congress contract, and runs the “Friends of Delhi" Facebook page, a thinly-disguised Sheila Dikshit fan page which has accrued around 203,000 “likes".

There is of course something singularly stupid about political parties creating fake accounts to post insults and praise—they’re lying to themselves about a metric only they are interested in, i.e. which one of them is “trending" that day, or how many “likes" a page has. More evidence of one of the few perennials in politics: Politicians like to lie to everyone, even themselves, about how many supporters they have.

I first saw the potential of social media during the Jan Lokpal debate. Activists Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan released the document they hoped would give a council-by-appointment authority over our highest legislative and bureaucratic bodies. Television biggies and opinion writers seemed caught up in the heady political moment, portraying this as the saviour of our heinously corrupt democracy. No one, it seemed, had actually read the document itself. Then we started seeing retweets of separate blog posts written by two lawyers, Gautam Patel and Amba Salelkar, who had made the effort to parse it, finding time to do it outside of their day jobs, one presumes.

They pointed out the serious inadequacies in the Bill, and promoted a substantive debate about the clauses “Team Anna" had inserted and what it would mean for democracy in India. It was only after this had already taken place in the social media sphere that the first serious critiques of the movement started being written by our commentariat.

If such a thing were to happen today, would we have seen those blog posts? Would those journalists who took the issue forward have had access to that expertise? Most likely the lawyers’ blog posts would be submerged in a sea of paid tweets in favour of and against the Lokpal, sent by shills in other clothing.

Those who desire control will fight for it in many an insidious way. Unless we do something about it, this free and fearsome space will go, just as the others have.

Prayaag Akbar moved to Mumbai this year, where he ate vada pao for the first time.

Prayaag Akbar is a journalist with The Sunday Guardian.

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