Recently, a Wall Street Journal article claimed that Facebook India, under the stewardship of Ankhi Das, had demonstrated a clear bias towards the ruling BJP. Subsequently, news emerged that Das’ sister had been a member of the student wing of the Sang parivar affiliated ABVP while she was at JNU.
The role of individuals should and must be investigated, but just focusing on a few key players will prevent us from engaging with the broader political and indeed philosophical implications of social media as an inextricable part of what was earlier called the public sphere.
It is worth reflecting on the broad similarities between populist politicians and social media companies that make them such natural bedfellows. The former’s politics thrive on catalysing feelings of unfounded fear, anger, resentment and victimhood. The amplification of these emotions, amongst others, is precisely what social media thrives on.
The Internet has fundamentally reshaped the manner in which people engage with the world around them. In most parts of the world, a large percentage of the population enters the virtual world of the Internet without any tools to understand the nature of the beast. We quite literally ‘hold infinity in the palm of our hand’ but do we have the means to discern what is true from what is false or differentiate between what is beneficial and what is harmful?
The first and most important question that arises is whether people’s virtual identities can ever be a true reflection of who they really are. Rarely do we have the freedom, let alone the chance to build ‒ or to use that heavily overused term, ‘curate’ ‒ our own characters and personalities. Do we privilege certain aspects of our online identity to make us more popular? Public figures have always relied on moulding public perceptions of themselves but the means for mass dissemination are hitherto unprecedented. Perhaps the leading example of a person who harnessed the power of the image was Mahatma Gandhi. In one sense, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is just the latest in a long line of public figures who use the latest technology to carefully and painstakingly fashion a public profile of themselves.
Secondly, although social media is celebrated as connecting people in a hitherto unprecedented way, does this necessarily mean that the average person is becoming more broad-minded or cosmopolitan? Sadly, it seems that most social media actually thrives on entrenching ethnic, religious, nationalist, sectarian or other tribal identities. The people or organisations that define the measure of this tribalism ‒ what it means to “authentically” be Muslim, American or Indian ‒ are those with the means and money to influence social media. Thus, many people instinctively end up inhabiting echo chambers of their primary online identity. Clicks, likes, shares or retweets translate into little dopamine hits which inevitably, albeit unconsciously, push people towards holding views for which they will know they will receive appreciation.
Similarly, anger, fear and resentment give us an adrenalin rush as we leap to conclusions, lap up conspiracy theories and get furious about social, cultural, political or religious issues that we feel are under threat. Social media induces us into feeling we are permanently in a state of crisis.
Across the world, populist politicians, particularly those from the ‘right-wing’, seek to use this sense of victimhood amongst their voters in order to consolidate their vote bank. In one sense, victimhood is the glue that binds these constituencies to their political leaders. The politics of Benjamin Netanyahu and Alexsandar Vucic rest on portraying Israel and Serbia as perennial victims of unresolved conflicts. Donald Trump and Viktor Orban use anti-elite and anti-immigrant sentiment to amplify feelings of victimhood amongst their voters in the US and Hungary. Aside from anti-elite rhetoric, Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsanaro and Reçep Erdogan use religious nationalism to consolidate their vote base in India, Brazil and Turkey respectively. Vladimir Putin paints Russia as the world’s underdog.
Since social media is driven by individual personalities, all these leaders also portray themselves as victims, thus conflating ideology with their own persona. This is then used to instigate fear and anger amongst supporters. Fear and anger are neither good nor bad emotions. Anger against injustice has often led to deep social and political changes. However, this very anger can be weaponised when it stems from the fear of manufactured threats ‒ immigrants, minorities, elites, religious communities, political opponents, take your pick.
One instance of the weaponisation of anger is trolling. Trolling makes people even more intractable as battle lines are drawn without knowing whether the instigator is a bot, a paid operative or a normal person. What would be basic social etiquette in the real world breaks down. People parade their prejudice, abuse and issue threats without a second thought. As algorithms bombard us with information that reinforces our views, our tribal identities harden. Whether you believe in the racial or religious supremacy of a certain community or indeed believe Kermit the Frog controls that world, the ads on your profile will bring you news that will entrench this view.
We now live in times where we face “industrial levels of advertising, distraction and persuasion”, as James Wilson wrote in his book Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in The Attention Economy. An illustration of just how powerful these forces are is evident from the hundreds of billions of dollars that companies and indeed political parties have been spending on digital advertising. At the end of 2019, the global digital advertising industry was reported to be worth half a trillion dollars. That money is being spent to capture and hold our attention, the most valuable commodity in the world today.
The entire social media eco-system depends and indeed thrives on monetising attention. Every day, most people hand out a few hours of their time for free, little realising that our attention is the oxygen that social media companies need to survive. Albeit unconsciously, people spend time on social media in order to seek out those little dopamine hits or adrenalin rushes and this partly explains why Facebook and its subsidiaries Instagram and WhatsApp can become and have become such potent weapons for populist politicians. It is not without reason that Amit Shah gloated a few years ago that he had the ability to spread any news, real or fake, negative or positive.
On the other hand, nuance, context, deep reflection and complexity are not rewarded online. This is precisely the reason why populist politicians, with their menacing and almost apocalyptic ‘black and white’ view of the world thrive on social media. With Facebook and Google acquiring a stake in Reliance’s communication business, Jio, this unholy partnership will also now include big business in India. Power and capital have always gone hand in hand, but now there is the added means of setting narratives and controlling or deflecting attention on a mass scale.
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Just recently, the social media handles of Vikas Phatak aka Hindustani Bhau were removed for hate speech and instigation of violence. Saket Gokhale, an online activist, then claimed that Phatak, a former Big Boss contestant, was helped in building his online presence by Xovak Digital, a Gujarati company with deep links to the BJP. Of course, most people have no way of differentiating between the online profiles of someone who works independently as opposed to those who are supported by vast networks of power and capital.
For some time, across the world, we have been seeing what has been called ‘the gamification of politics.’ The distinction between reality and virtual reality is getting blurred. Recall the #MainBhiChowkidar campaign in the 2019 national elections which went from online to offline with #MainBhiChowkidar merchandise being sold at rallies. Remember when people could win a meeting with PM Modi if more than 100 people used their referral code to join BJP WhatsApp groups?
Likes, shares and the number of followers become measures of popularity. Clickbait, powered by persuasive design, lures people into watching endless videos or buying into conspiracies. Truth and facts are manipulated in the name of freedom of opinion and free speech and fake news and hate speech reward people with 15 minutes of instant celebrity. It is, therefore, more important than ever to catalyse a public conversation about how our sense of self is undergoing a fundamental transformation and how political ideas are also being radically redefined.
Autonomy and choice can no longer be understood without taking into account the manner in which invisible algorithms bombard us with what they think we want or what they predict we should think and even feel. Citizenship and democracy have assumed more complex dimensions as the public sphere is now complemented by a virtual world in which targeted Facebook ads can shift a neutral person’s political views without them even being aware of it. New sets of laws and new institutions are now needed in order to redress the entirely unique challenges thrown up by social media. Indeed, a digital commons is needed in order to navigate a world where truth and fact have become contingent on one’s political leaning.
As James Williams argues, ‘the liberation of human attention may be the defining moral and political struggle of our time.’
Ali Khan Mahmudabad teaches at Ashoka University and regularly writes for the Urdu and English press. He is the author of Poetry of Belonging: Muslim imaginings of India 1850-1950 (OUP). He is a member of the Samajwadi Party. Twitter @mahmudabad