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The controversially withdrawn Tanishq commercial’s message of amity went well with its sub-brand Ekatvam, which means ‘oneness’, and it was arguably no affront to most Twitter users (Photo: Reuters)
The controversially withdrawn Tanishq commercial’s message of amity went well with its sub-brand Ekatvam, which means ‘oneness’, and it was arguably no affront to most Twitter users (Photo: Reuters)

Twitterstorms are rarely as significant as they seem

It is not the small base of users that Twitter has in India which makes it unrepresentative of national sentiment, but the distinctly urban upper-middle-class skew of that group

When I joined Twitter in 2009, I did so to follow a girl in my school. Since I scarcely knew her in real life, or even talked to her, I thought that Twitter would do the trick. Turns out that she was not active here. But I stayed put, fell in love with the platform, and watched it grow. Twitter is my online home. It is where I have met quite a lot of wonderful people and some cool friends. But Twitter is not just a personal interconnection device. For many, it is at the heart of a massive propaganda and narrative building exercise, and vicious politics. We saw an example of the toxic power that users of this platform wield just recently.

#BoycottTanishq has trended multiple times on Twitter ever since the brand’s ‘Ekatvam" advertisement that featured an interfaith union. Soon, the online trolling campaign against Tanishq turned into the targeted harassment of its employees, some of it aimed at Muslims among them.

Tanishq finally pulled the commercial down, “keeping in mind the hurt sentiments and well-being of our employees, partners and store staff". But whose sentiments got hurt here? How many of them were there?

Let us take a closer look at Twitter. Ours is a 17-million large community in India. This pales in comparison with Facebook and Instagram, which have around 290 and 100 million users, respectively, and is a tiny fraction of our 1.3 billion plus population.

Twitter is a popular social media platform for journalists and that of choice for political leaders like Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi, Shashi Tharoor, and others. These factors are among what attract news buffs like myself to the platform. Twitter’s indispensability to media professionals, political leaders and news buffs is no accident. When it began, Twitter saw itself as a free-speech champion and was designed for fast and unhindered conversations. Twitter’s “retweet" button is perhaps the quickest online sharing tool. The capacity of this micro-blogging tool to swiftly amplify posts for a large audience is complemented by its short format (a maximum of 280 characters allowed per tweet), which allows for fast content consumption. This gives it its potency.

Seventeen million is a drop in the bucket. But that in itself doesn’t make it unrepresentative; it is the composition of its user base that does. The typical Twitter user is young, male, urban and upper-middle-class. Conversations on twitter are dominated by the concerns of this class, which is evident from the disproportionate weight given to minor events in metros and other large cities, over life and death situations of our rural and low-income populations. To cite a recent example, a half-hour power cut in Mumbai was sufficient to cause a raging debate on Twitter, while the floods ravaging Bihar hardly received any attention. Also, we all don’t tweet with the same frequency. A study by Pew Research on US Twitter users found that the most prolific top 10% of them accounted for 80% of tweets.

To cut a long story short, the most active are actually a small bunch even here in India. Many of us are closely connected and more or less brainwashed by one another’s propaganda. And still, some media organizations tend to treat us like flagbearers of Indian opinion.

Some of the most important Twitter narratives are shaped by professional social media managers. They engage an army of volunteers and paid members to whip up content on certain topics. Among India’s most influential at this appears to be the so-called “IT Cell" of the country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

When the late BJP leader Sushma Swaraj was India’s foreign minister, her office helped an interfaith couple who had faced harassment at a passport office. This seemed to provoke troll attacks from Twitter users opposed to the idea of an interfaith union.

Recently, Subramaniam Swamy, a senior Member of Parliament and a well-known figure in Indian right-wing circles tweeted, “BJP IT cell has gone rogue" and pointed specifically at its chief Amit Malviya. The said IT cell has frequently demonstrated an ability of running political campaigns on Twitter from scratch. It is observed to do this in conjunction with a vast number of Twitter influencers who are aligned with the party’s agenda. The point, though, is that this has nothing to do with the majority of Indians on this platform.

When social media trends cannot be considered representative of even the sentiments of a particular platform’s user base, how meaningful would it be to consider it a reliable index of national public sentiment?

The Tanishq advertisement, with its message of Hindu-Muslim amity, went well with the sub-brand Ekatvam, which means “oneness". If it was an affront to the sensibilities of Twitter users, it was only so of extremists on this platform. Just because they speak through a blaring megaphone to amp up their message doesn’t mean that theirs is the most common view. Yet, for some reason, trolls get a lot of attention. Maybe this is an issue for Twitter to sort out. Let the platform figure out what to do about it. Mindless tweets should not become such a big bother for any company.

Aaron Nedumparambill is a writer who often writes on current affairs and national events.

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