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The Weaponization of Social Media against Dissent

As a part of global society, India is not exempt from being influenced by the changes that all major social media platforms are being pressured to undertake by governments, and the users. Political developments anywhere are hard to predict and if I may be allowed the indulgence of exceptionalism, perhaps even harder to predict in India.

Credits: Geopolitica

Following Modi’s win in 2014 and 2019, the online machinery of the Hindu-right swung into action soon, just like the Hindu-right at large. His victory was interpreted by the Hindu-right, including extreme groups like Bajrang Dal, as a mandate to impose their will on the population at large, whether to undertake vigilante action against supposed cow slaughter, extort people in the name of protecting their religion, target minorities, or generally assert an ugly form of majoritarian Hinduism. Every form of social media, be it Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, is used by the right in specific ways, even combinations of these media forms are also deployed in concert with each other. Twitter is primarily used for tactical purposes. It is used both as offence and defence, to divert attention from any issue happening in the state or occurrence of any event that may look down upon the Modi government, to shut down any criticism by the opposition, well-known, or otherwise, and to intimidate or harass the critics of the government. Just like it happened in the case of Umar Khalid and other political prisoners. What we saw in Umar’s case was a strategically laid out plan to put him behind bars because the voice of dissent frightens the fascists. The reason why Umar and activists like him are behind the bars and not miscreants like Kapil Mishra– even though his threats and videos are also out on the internet, is because the voice of dissent threatens the institutionalised violence, it frightens not just the party but the authoritarian Hindutva ideology that the government propagates. Criticism of the government and its policies is met with hatred, communal violence, and false charges. These were the times when protests were spontaneous, not fuelled by political parties but mass consciousness against the communal propaganda and policies of the BJP government because everyone understood how bogus the policies were. Right-wing groups, again misusing social media as a tool to propagate their idea of “anti-nationalism” tried to silence the rising voices. Amit Malviya, the national convenor of the BJP IT Cell, tweeted a doctored video of Umar Khalid’s speech from Amravati, which was telecasted by the Republic news channel and further used as “evidence” by the Delhi Police to file a case against Umar. The nature of “evidence” is an innuendo, a doctored video, and communal ideologies. There was no investigation in the case, but a conspiracy to put innocent voices behind the bars under the garb of investigation, Delhi Police, after all, works directly under the central government.

It is in the backstory to 2014, that the internet plays an important part, including but not limited to social media. The birth of this right-wing Indian Media ecosystem took place in 2014 mainly, after the BJP government was elected into power, the elected authoritarianism not only survived the hard criticism but thrived in it due to its communal polarising of the public, pitting the interests of nationalistic Hindus against an imaginary, anti-national coalition of minorities, pseudo-secularists, and the like. Why Umar Khalid is in jail we ask, the answer to that is as simple as we think it is, although elected authoritarianism, the ideology to do so was set out years ago by the RSS – to propagate communalism and seep into the minds of the masses which derives out of islamophobia. This is what it looks like when democracy turns into authoritarianism via communalism, dissenting voices are demonized and a false sense of pride is fed to the people about their nation. Any criticism of Modi, the symbol of young men and women from dusty small towns with their dreams of making it big, is seen by his admirers as a criticism aimed at themselves, of their desires and hopes and their claims upon the nation. Seemingly paradoxical for a nationalist government, the Modi regime and its supporters are highly touchy about coverage and comments of the foreign media and protests. But maybe it’s not paradoxical at all, for nationalism as pathology is marked by deep insecurity. It needs both ‘others’ and adversaries, and at the same time craves affirmation from these very others. There is also acute sensitivity to satire directed at Modi, across all social media platforms. The satirical parody Facebook page, ‘Humans of Hindutva’ for instance, was forced to temporarily shut down after its founder’s identity was revealed and he started receiving death threats. The extreme reaction of satire on the part of both the Modi government and the Hindu-right, I think, has to do with Modi’s own egotistical and thin-skinned personality, as indicated by his obsession with being in the limelight, his craving for affirmation from celebrities, and his authoritarian style of functioning. It’s not hard to figure out that he is seen as a symbol of patriarchal Hinduism and his image is very closely tied to the sense of masculinity of his male followers. Add that to the cult of personality that surrounds him and the image he has cultivated over the years. Therefore, it is not accidental as both Indian and foreign commentators have noted with puzzlement and often dismay, that many of these Hindu right-wingers with extreme misogyny and records of tweeting threats against women or advocating violence, in general, are followed on Twitter by the prime minister. The rather unconvincing defence of Modi’s peculiar taste in Twitter profiles provided by the BJP IT cell is that the prime minister follows people with various ideologies but does not promote them in any way. Yet, his own acerbic rhetoric as his term progressed, as well as the outright sentiments expressed by BJP leaders such as Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanath in every election, suggests that Modi’s decision to follow Hindu right-wingers is an act of indirect signalling of his political inclinations to his biases and the nation at large.

Credits: GVS

In the Indian context, WhatsApp offers political parties tremendous advantages and the political value of being able to get one’s message across to diverse societal groups. More alarmingly, WhatsApp also offers a combination of two features – deniability and anonymity, that makes it ripe for misuse in societies fraught with social tensions, or in moments of crisis when tensions between different communities are high. People do not hesitate to express their bigoted and biased thoughts on WhatsApp groups of family members, friends, co-religionists, and so on. Not to mention that, for a variety of reasons, they would never express these thoughts in other settings at a personal level. Given the diversity of human thought, it is natural that these groups will have some internal disagreements. What seems to happen then is that some members either leave or become lurkers, who may read messages but do not respond. This has the effect of exacerbating polarization, a feature of the internet at large, as noted by Cass Sunstein, in his book, ( 2.0 [2001]). It is, no doubt theoretically possible that social media platforms, whether Twitter or WhatsApp, could be used for such a purpose and the main problem in our society is that it’s very likely that the government itself is responsible for spreading some of those messages.

The point here is not to demonise social media or to blame it as the sole cause of polarization and violence between communities. For that too is a form of technological determinism that rests on the mystification of the power of media forms. It is sobering to remember that other media forms have also been used to dehumanise the ‘other’ and then enabling violence against them, whether through descriptions of Jews as rats in Nazi Germany, the Hutu Commandments in Rwanda that played on the radio describing Tutsis as traitors and cockroaches, or rumours about Sikhs that circulated through speech networks in Delhi in 1984 in the leadup to the planned genocidal violence against the community.

Credits: Newslaundry

In conclusion, it remains to be seen whether developments within the world of Hindu nationalism and how Hindu nationalists use social media tools will compel the Big Tech platforms to rethink the features of their products or whether changes made independently to their platforms by Big Tech will compel and constrain Hindu nationalism to develop, mutate, and adapt unexpectedly and unpredictably. I will refrain from prognostication, choosing to wait and watch what the possible trajectories of social media development may tell us about the future of Hindu nationalism, in cyberspace and on the streets.

Pearl Sharma is a student pursuing Law from Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies.

Edited by: Diptarka Chatterjee

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Written by Pearl Sharma

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