US President Donald Trump’s open incitement to his followers to lay siege to Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021 – the day Congress was to put its final stamp of approval on Joe Biden’s victory as the 46th President-Elect of the United States – was widely condemned as an act of treason and sedition.
This act, however, was seen as a ‘failed revolution’ by those who besieged the Capitol to wrest control of a ‘stolen election’. The more than 70 million Americans who voted for Trump probably believed the ‘alternative fact’ that Trump actually won the election.
The origins of this belief system go back to the day Trump was sworn in as the 45th president on January 20, 2017. When media persons questioned the ‘photoshopped images’ of massive crowds attending the swearing-in ceremony, his senior adviser Kellyanne Conway famously declared that the administration had presented “alternative facts“. Though a New York Times reporter tried to reason with her and maintain that facts are independent of individual predilections, Trump and his team stuck to projecting their own facts as an ‘alternative reality’ for his followers. With Trump leading the attack on CNN and others as ‘fake news’, his followers quickly understood which TV channels to avoid. Fox News became the only media outlet to trust.
A similar exercise was underway in India in 2014 when the then president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Amit Shah, selected ex-banker Amit Malviya to head the party’s IT cell and sanctioned a huge budget to influence and control the minds of millions of Modi’s followers. Malviya has a team of about 150 well-paid employees who are then helped by over 20,000 party workers whose job is to merely transmit on all digital platforms any message or meme created by the IT cell to ensure that it goes viral. The ruling party also has several TV channels to propagate its messages, whether lies, half-truths or factoids.
With the help of new digital apps, the creation of an ‘alternative reality’ became the common tool of mind-control in both democracies. It is not merely the availability of such apps that made the difference – Facebook launched in 2004, Twitter in 2006, WhatsApp released in August 2010 – but it is their exploitation by certain ruthless leaders for control over their followers that has led to a disruption of the social and political order that we witness in Trump’s America today.
To understand the new phenomenon better, we have to go back to the state of democracy in both countries prior to the present leaders, while these tools were all available. For instance, the tenure of President Barack Obama and of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did not witness any such cult following of either leader in their countries. Both countries exhibited an unquestioned multi-party consensus on the nature of the state and its political system.
No Republican in the US nor any opposition leader in India pushed the boundaries of democracy nor expressed any fundamental discontent with it. Constitutional bodies such as the legislature, judiciary and the Election Commission of India enjoyed the implicit trust of the people, despite their drawbacks. The election process and the sanctity of vote still remained intact.
With the coming of Trump and Modi, there was a new definition and narrative of power. Democracy to them was a means to an end – their self-aggrandisement. Both asserted themselves over and above their constitutional roles. They projected themselves as the embodiment of the ‘General Will’, though their victory margins hardly justified such claims. Trump actually lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton and won only because of Electoral College votes, while Modi secured 37% of the total votes polled in 2019.
Today, the ‘alternative reality’ that envelopes millions of followers of Trump and Modi has led to a breakdown of the constitutional consensus that shaped the politics of the two countries. Citizens no longer regard the ‘other’ as equal citizens with a right to participate and demand an equal share of the resources of the state. The notion of the ‘other’ differs in the two countries; while in the US it refers to African-Americans, Mexicans and other migrants, in India, it refers to the Muslims, Dalits and migrant workers or landless labourers.
The physical reality of their presence itself has become hazy and problematic. So much so that our lordships in the highest court ask incredulously from the government counsel, ‘Have any migrant workers died due to hunger and thirst during the lockdown?’ And further, they ask the government, ‘Are there any ‘Khalistanis’ among the protesting farmers?’ Couldn’t they simply ask the registrar of the court to do a fact-check from all state governments in the first case?
In the second instance, can’t the state arrest the so-called ‘Khalistanis’ and bring them to justice if they had enough evidence? Just labelling some people as ‘terrorists’, ‘Khalistanis’, ‘Maoists’, ‘Urban Naxals’, ‘tukde-tukde gang’, ‘Gupkar gang’ and anti-national’ seems a sufficient and adequate ground for arrest and penalty, with or without trial. And, sadly, judges seem to go along with it. Are they under the same influence of the pervasive alternative reality that envelopes the followers of a cult leader?
Both Trump and Modi project the image of an alpha male. Both treat their political opponents as enemies of the state and attack them using all the agencies of government. Both promote ethnic-nationalism, one, of the White-supremacist kind, the other of the majoritarian Hindutva brand. Both target minorities and immigrants for the ills of their country. Both play on the fears of the majority that they would be overtaken by minorities and migrants. Both rely on lies and misrepresentation of facts or ignore them if they are inconvenient.
It must, however, be said to the credit of Modi that he is not as crude as Trump and has not yet shown any open impatience with electoral democracy. But the unquestioned obedience of millions striking their plates with spoons and lighting lamps at his instruction during the lockdown has clearly demonstrated the mystique of his power over ordinary Indians. Indira Gandhi at the height of her power never tested the loyalty of citizens like this. After all, she never had the technology that is available to the rulers now.
Whatever their individual traits, Modi and Trump’s huge success in mobilising a massive follower base is entirely due to the sophisticated use of digital tools such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter by a team of dedicated staff. While Trump tweeted more regularly (37 times a day in the last few months in office), Modi confines himself to an occasional tweet and conforms to the official protocol. The heavy lifting is done by the BJP’s IT cell.
Truth be said, our reality has changed with the creation of ‘alternative realities’ – a bubble in which we live that may have nothing to do with the physical reality, the immediate here and now. Never before did we have technological platforms and apps that provide such a personalised menu of likes or dislikes, preferences, hopes and aspirations, fears and concerns, as we have today. Technology now offers an individual universe that may be at variance or contrary to existing reality. This customised universe is at once fragmenting as well as unifying for it links one up with millions of others in an online world who share one’s belief system. With this, you actually cohabit a different universe shared only with your online friends.
It is also fragmenting in the sense that it isolates you from your immediate physical space and society. This disrupts your public and physical commons – such as your specific geography, history, heritage, culture and shared past and present. In short, fragmentation highlights differences and minimises the effect of commonalities and an agreed view of the world. And democracy is all about an agreed and shared view of the social and political world.
The critical value of democracy is that it celebrates differences and diversity of thought, belief and action. It enables people to live together with all their varied belief systems. Democracies permit multiple parties offering promises of hope with diverse programs of action. Some even offer a different vision of society based on an ancient golden past, seeking voters’ trust. Will that kind of democracy survive?
How does ‘alternative reality’ affect democracy? Or how do democracies cope with citizens living in an ‘alternative reality’, stuck in an echo chamber believing in their own truth guided by a cult leader? Democracy has often been threatened by demagogues believing in their own lies. And now we have millions of followers who believe their lies, ready to carry out their bidding.
An obverse question is whether the events in the real world affect those living in an alternative reality. The answer is no. A case in point is the protest sit-in by lakhs of farmers on the Delhi-Haryana border that has simply failed to puncture the balloon of ‘alternative reality’.
Such issues add urgency and intensity to repair a broken world with multiple realities polarised by unbridgeable fault lines. Whatever happened to empirical evidence, objective reality and a clear sense of right and wrong? Are they all mirages of the mind that need verification and affirmation from Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp messages? Is reality such an impermanent bubble that one can no longer hold on to it on the bedrock of conviction? If lies and nonsense are dressed up as statistics, do they gain credibility? How many falsehoods can a fact-check check? And fact-checking could soon become an act of treason.
Compared to the dictators of the past, today’s democratically elected leaders have far more dangerous sinews at their disposal than ever before. George Orwell never anticipated Mark Zuckerberg and the latter has enabled the creation of a totalitarian monster beyond the wildest imagination of the former.
Ravi Joshi, formerly in the Cabinet Secretariat of the Government of India, is a Visiting Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.