The past 10 years have witnessed the rise of digital ideological warriors. Who are they and what motivates them?
The initial euphoria around social media as enablers of transformative citizen activism has given way to concerns about its propagandistic use
His first foray into the realm of political activism was the middle-class-led Indian Against Corruption (IAC) movement. “Until then, I was a hardcore techie," says a prominent member of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) IT cell in Karnataka, who declined to be identified. “We organized a 16km human chain built entirely by IT people", he proclaims with satisfaction. “Never before had we seen IT people coming out in the open and expressing their interest in political affairs".
Before leading the IAC movement, he was active in “spiritual movements led by Ravishankar Guruji and Baba Ramdev". He was taken in by their impressive leadership. It inspired him to realize that “the country will not develop unless administration and political systems are drastically improved". Ever since this realization dawned, he has been actively managing social media campaigns for the BJP, connecting with users like him who call themselves “proud nationalists".
He vouches for “integral humanism" and says there is no need to “destabilize society based on religious sentiments", but the very next moment adds, “beef killing (sic) is a crime". Handing out “special provisions to Dalits and weaker sections" is no good either. His vision is to go “beyond religion and caste" because “the IT community has no caste and religion".
In the last decade, digital India has seen the rise of a new group of ideological warriors like him who style themselves as proud nationalists. This new generation of e-savvy right-wingers has fired up the drumbeat of national pride and development, and deepened suspicion about organized media and liberal intelligentsia—terming them as pseudo-secular, hypocritical and even blatantly anti-national.
A fortnight ago, a section of these e-savvy online activists found a new target in Twitter. Following strident allegations of suppression of right-wing voices on the web platform and a street protest outside Twitter India’s office, Parliament took notice. On 5 February, India’s parliamentary committee on IT, led by a BJP parliamentarian, summoned Twitter officials to testify on the subject of “safeguarding citizens’ rights" online.
It would be a mistake to dismiss India’s online right-wingers as trolls with empty online energy. Their growing significance in the public discourse prompts a serious analytical effort. How then do we understand them? Globally, why is there a particular affinity between right-wing ideologies and techno-savvy class of users? What is the significance of these educated, middle-class and upper-middle-class actors who are equipped with the knowledge of online networks (at least as end users); fluent in English-friendly online environments; and feel part of the cultural prominence attached to “computer" related professions and tech modernity (even if not limited to IT professions)?
To research whether “nationalist" right-wingers are indeed victims or have, in fact, found new voice in the national discourse, an ongoing ethnographic fieldwork started in 2013 (132 semi-structured long interviews with common social media users and digital campaign strategists of political parties) in Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi. Along with this, large-scale network analysis of Twitter hashtag pools (386,669 tweets and retweets), internet memes shared on sampled Facebook pages, discussions with WhatsApp group members and moderators of BJP and the Congress, offers some pathways into the important emerging realm of India’s digital politics.
In the late 1990s and early years of the new millennium, an influential section of reforms-friendly newspapers and TV channels started to talk about India as an emerging global power. The urban middle class, especially high-tech professionals were crucial to this imagination. They were the agents of an aspirational new India. News media companies, under pressure to become more interactive, started to involve audiences directly in news creation and civic campaigns. The middle class was called upon to take more direct responsibility for what surrounded them—from potholes to governmental corruption.
To be sure, the middle class were not passive citizens even during the pre-reforms era. However, at the turn of the millennium, the urban middle class started to make more direct claims on the state through media-facilitated civic campaigns and a growing use of web-based media. In cities like Bengaluru, techies were at the forefront. Knowledge of online networks and the symbolic capital associated with high-tech professionals were an important factor in shaping their claims to public discourse.
Gleaning from several narratives of techie-political activists, one can see a forceful pull towards a horizon called the nation, where problems of everyday nature would find a solution at last, with clean air, clear roads and efficient systems. One techie put it bluntly: “All I want is a good life for myself and my children." In such an imagination, practical existential problems and an abstract formulation called the nation have come intertwined.
The BJP spotted this aspirational middle class (fuelled by and fuelling techie activism) early on. In some cases, pre-existing associations of the educated middle class with the RSS Parivar played a critical role. It is this energy that the BJP’s digital campaign machinery has tapped astutely for electoral gains, from its early years of scattered, decentralized efforts to the current structure of systematic appeal.
Globally, the initial euphoria around social media as enablers of transformative citizen activism has given way to concerns about propagandistic use of social media by vested interests. In India, the run- up to the parliamentary elections in 2014 witnessed a flurry of intense mobilization tactics on social media, spearheaded primarily by the BJP and its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. It was matched only partially by the efforts of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) volunteers. There were significant overlaps between AAP and BJP volunteers around poll time.
Social media continued to be at the centre of the BJP’s public face after the electoral victory in 2014. The “IT cell" evolved into a significant wing of the party, drawing support from fully-paid workers to manage the party’s “digital assets" and (unpaid) volunteers whose number was as large as 100,000 across India in 2017, according to Amit Malviya, head of the BJP national IT cell.
One part of the BJP’s digital communication strategy is a conventional top-down campaigning. This has made the spectacle of leadership a focal point while feeding online channels with a regular supply of content. Content itself is of various degrees of verifiability. A member of the Karnataka state IT cell estimated that 60% of “dictated stuff from Delhi" concerns national interests and the rest 40% “are customized for the state". Without a blink, he listed “national sentiments" to comprise “corruption as a generic issue, jobs, startups, women’s empowerment, safety, terrorism, integrity, Kashmir, Naxalism, and eco-friendly campaigns".
There’s also a repertoire of “national interest" themes related to concerns for security, terrorism, the sacrifice of the Indian Army, and Hindu civilizational glory. These themes do not represent a binary between development and Hindutva, as is sometimes assumed, but a combination of concerns that allows actors to enter the ideological space from various vantage points.
Among social media users, especially techie right-wingers, such issues occupy a spectrum—some would oppose conservative positions on homosexuality but would add in the same breath that Muslims are a menace to independent India. Others would condemn targeting Muslim minorities but would vouch for Hindu civilizational glory as the essence of Indian nationhood. They participate in discussions on the grander points of the Hindutva ideology, gliding around a set corpus of themes, and by commenting, tagging, tweeting, retweeting and posting, reproduce the ideological formation from various points of entry and exit.
It is here that the BJP’s second modality of digital communication comes into full view. The party combines its top-down content and paid online workers with strategic distance from ongoing online discussions. By distancing themselves from active control over disagreements and maintaining an ambiguous position on online rudeness, the Hindutva organizational authority is thus able to guarantee a sense of autonomy among online voluntary workers. Combined with the “fun" element, this makes unpaid volunteer work worth it.
Fun and the right-WING
While carrying out interviews with online supporters of the far-right Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) political party in Germany, I was struck by the common grievance against mainstream media shared by these young online users and Hindutva volunteers in India. Sometimes, even the language is similar. AfD supporters blame the organized media as “lügenpresse" (lying press). Hindutva volunteers call them “biased media".
For these and several far-right groups in North America and Europe, social media channels have opened up the possibility to circumvent mainstream media and collectively criticize them for “liberal bias". In India, there is a contradiction between the accusation of “biased" media and the very media-driven structure that has energized middle-class activism. What is common in this criticism is a new form of fun culture that has emerged with right-wing digital activism globally.
Studies show that irreverent humour cultures (like on Reditt) have become a breeding ground for alt-right sentiments in North America. No longer are users burdened by the constraints of polite (at times elite) norms of civility. In India, vitriol and irreverent prose has spiced up online discussions and lowered the entry barriers to political debates. Moreover, they have ensured a sense of autonomy among online users who believe they are not parroting the lines handed over by political parties. This form of extreme speech in India is best seen in online abuse culture. Online abuse is a slippery slope between comedy, insult, shame and abuse, sometimes plummeting to outright intimidation.
A confluence of these different influences has shaped a distinct entrepreneurial spirit among middle class and wealthy Hindu nationalist activists online, who take up much of the voluntary work on their own. This voluntary work by techie-turned-ideologues is a significant supplement to the top-down digital influence strategies of the BJP. It is an important strand of what can be termed as “enterprise Hindutva", a form of nationalism shaped largely by the affordances and cultures of social media use. It is argumentative, experientially voluntary, and fun.
There is a vast diversity of claims in the online sphere, including disillusionment with formal politics that has begun to surface among early enthusiasts of online Hindutva. The Karnataka BJP IT cell member quoted above, for instance, is now disenchanted with the local leadership and contemplates leaving the party altogether and starting a new social voluntary organization. “I have led several successful campaigns," he says confidently, “I can have something under my own banner." His disappointment with the party leadership shouldn’t be read as withering away of ideology. On the contrary, his vision for a new organization is firmly within the RSS Parivar. He stays principled to the mission he believes to be right.
While electoral prospects will fluctuate, and a few enthusiasts will get disappointed along the way, online political discussions ramped up by rebuttals, abuse, and “fact building" are too pervasive to disappear in the near future. It is through the repetition of simplified summaries on social media that Hindu nationalism has begun to settle as a familiar ideological vision for a new generation of supporters.
To be sure, the use of terms like the “libtards" (liberal retards) has kept techie nationalism from gaining a more rounded view. No doubt, a deeper introspection would help the liberal intelligentsia targeted by techie Hindutva to shed away its elitism and blinkered leftism. Also, techie concerns about a corruption-free society and efficient governance are not to be undermined. Within the Indian techie community too, there are variations in perspectives. Yet, the nation-first logic of a significant part of techie activism, gaining strength precisely by little differences and arguments, is framing the norm for divergences. They are drawing the line where one has to mark out one’s difference. This online discursive work has become a key ideological resource for the regime to legitimize policies targeting Muslim minorities and practices such as revisionist history writing.
As the BJP panders to Hindutva online and the Congress too reaches out for electoral prospects, a concerted counter-speech effort is direly needed to balance the perspectives, and recognize the threats to critical thought on the ground and in the virtual worlds.
Sahana Udupa is a professor of media anthropology at the University of Munich (LMU), Germany, where she leads the ERC project on digital politics, fordigitaldignity.com. She is the author of Making News in Global India: Media, Publics, Politics, Cambridge University Press, UK.
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