Snap, Chat and Democracy in India

Apart from understanding what the Tanmay Bhat episode means for political satire in this country, it is pertinent to consider if we have fathomed the power that lies in these fast means of disseminating information.

Credit: Adam P, Flickr, CC By 2.0

It’s nearly impossible to take a snap story seriously; its very nature is ephemeral. Credit: Adam P, Flickr, CC By 2.0

Tanmay Bhat’s spoof on Sachin Tendulkar and Lata Mangeshkar occupied space on prime time debates for far more time than it did as a snapstory on the Snapchat application.

While the Shiv Sena urged the Maharashtra chief minister to take strict action against Bhat, a MNS leader thought it would be right if he was also additionally “caught on the road and beaten up”. Arguably the censor board chief Pahlaj Nihalani wanting Bhat to be arrested under the draconian Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (created to combat organised mafia crime and terror) topped the absurdity chart.

A popular news anchor leaves us with a question whether it is probable that Bhat wanted to set a precedent that our celebrities and icons are not above questioning. Although, he clarifies that manner of “presentation” of the same is liable to be open to condemnation due to the kind of content posted. This could be a rhetorical question, but there is another definite learning that we can take from this episode. Such as how interpretation of the limitations of freedom and speech, and expression this time was left to the mob, disregarding Bhat’s right to speak and a how strong warning of sorts, in a way, was issued to all and sundry regarding the acceptable manner in which individual heroes should be addressed.

But the most glaring revelation of all from this episode is that most of us still do not know how we should deal with information relayed through social media platforms like Snapchat.

Changing nature of social media platforms

That there was a national outrage because of content – that had no political significance or national emergency potential – shared on the ephemeral Snapchat platform is telling of the fact that there is a huge gap, generational or otherwise, in adapting to the changing nature of the emerging social media platforms. The government and Mumbai police, in particular, and large parts of society, in general, who did not shy away from condemning the ‘horror’ Bhat unleashed, revealed their failure in understanding the intended audience of this application and how the content shared here is to be viewed.

The Mumbai police, who have accepted their ability to use technology to catch criminals, asked Google and YouTube to remove the controversial video from Orkut. Not only was Orkut a popular social networking site of Google at least a decade ago, it was retired by the search engine in 2014. And further, there would have been no locus for YouTube (another Google product) to ask Orkut (if it were to exist) take down the video. This conduct of the police speaks volumes of their awareness of understanding of how aware they are of the workings of online and social media communication.

What is more disturbing, however, is the furore created by political parties on this issue, filing FIRs against Bhat for posting the video; which if not downloaded and circulated by the media or the political parties involved, would have ‘disappeared’ within 24 hours, as snap stories always do on Snapchat.  

The ephemeral nature of Snapchat seems to have gone unaccounted for. It is highly unlikely that anybody (including Bhat) who puts up a single snap story is looking to engage in debate regarding the status of Indian icons, or looking to impart knowledge about the legends of Indian cricket and the Bollywood industry, let alone create public disorder.

Taking a step back, we must ask ourselves: Are we making the best of these changing social media platforms? From what we see of the reactions to a snap story, the answer to the above question would be no.

Relatively new sharing platforms like Twitter and Snapchat allow users to have quick opinions and thoughts and share them even quicker. A recent survey found that Snapchat has 150 million daily users, making it more popular than Twitter in that regard. Even though exact number of daily Indian users is not available it is uncontested that the application has gained currency with Indian teens and millennials.

Why then did political parties consider it appropriate to take up this issue? One answer probably lies in the fact that such controversies help political leaders and parties in hitting headlines; especially valuable in this case as municipal elections are around the corner in Maharashtra.

Apart from understanding what it means for the artist himself and the future of comedy or political satire in this country, it is pertinent to consider if we have fathomed the power that lies in these fast means of disseminating information. And if yes, then by whom and how can this power be appropriated.

Snapchat, a political campaigning tool?

It is being widely debated if 2016 will be the year of ‘Snapchat Election’ in the US, which is in the middle of a heated presidential election campaign. The role of Snapchat in the election cycle and the overall social media ecosystem is undeniable, with a substantial chunk of 18-24 year olds following the Republican debate through the app rather than television. While Twitter is fast, with updates every second, Snapchat is fast and ephemeral; allowing only the most attractive bits of information to stay behind.

Snapchat caters perfectly to the new-age short attention span for understanding political debates and news. An incident may garner attention today and will be lost tomorrow as it is pushed aside by another new and interesting event. Politicians who understand how to capitalise on this kind of churning of information and policy updates have the maximum to gain. Specifically designed election filters are being used to troll other political candidates or to advance one’s own campaigning in agenda in the US.

Snapchat is tailor-made for disseminating information to the younger generation of voters, who form a majority of its user base. This can be crucial for turning the outcomes of election, especially in India as was evident from the way 2014 elections panned out banking on the aspirational youth vote.

We have already had Prime Minister Narendra Modi borrow campaign ideas from the US to lead him to election victories in Gujarat; the idea of Modi masks worn by his supporters as he campaigned for the chief ministerial position was borrowed from masks made for Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush as they campaigned in 2007. A strategy, which he perfected in an almost-Presidential-style campaign, in 2014. Thus, it would not be surprising if he capitalises on what Snapchat has to offer for the next national elections in 2019 or even the assembly elections in 2017.

With the love for clicking selfies among people and politicians, desirability of having the youth vote keeping the demographics in mind and the current endeavours of digitising India it wouldn’t be far-fetched to envisage a situation when politicians buy their own custom made filters from Snapchat in order to fight the 2019 elections in India.

What next?

The major take-away from the Bhat spoof episode is far more than him offending the sensibilities of a particular few. It is how volatile information sharing platforms have now become. They lie like open mines, waiting to be utilised by the first person who understands them.

Should we then be focussing on the content of the Snapchat video that has caused this furore? Or should we take our lesson from how it is being used as a campaign tool in the current US elections and be on alert? For whoever captures this space, and uses it to their advantage surely will have a better chance at connecting with young voters.

Will the government be able to control the information that is shared on these social media platforms? The striking down of the controversial Section 66-A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 last year is telling of the fact that society will not accept strait-jacket rules over the Internet.

It would be prudent for political parties and civil society activists to go beyond evaluating and judging what they consider to be offensive content on these new-fangled information-sharing platforms.  It would be better to understand the concerns and advantages these platforms can bring if they are used for important causes. Surely, none bigger than democracy?

Niharika Bapna is a policy research assistant at Rajiv Gandhi institute for Contemporary Studies.