During its Jaipur Chintan Shivir, the Congress made headlines about investing Rs 100 crore in social media. The idea was to turn the usually hostile facebook users and Twitterati more Congress-friendly. And the usual talking heads, Kapil Sibal and Digvijay Singh were reported to be the main proponents of this investment.
Unlike most prime-time experts and generalist anchors who’ve refrained from sticking their necks out postulating as to how such a foray may fare, we could be a bit braver and examine the case.
Given that these two Congressmen have been the butt of most online jokes (second perhaps to Rahul Gandhi) and are often seen as Enemy Number One for the anti-Congress netizens, there is some personal vengeance at play in bringing in such a motion. But the timing of the investment plan clearly is in sync with the 2014 Lok Sabha election timeline.
While there are many flaws with the investment approach of the Congress, this very premise of winning elections makes it a wrong decision from the word go.
The RSS/BJP is undoubtedly the oldest of the mainstream parties which have used online media. When the Congress had no website worth its name and the CPI (M) had a very ugly under-developed one, the BJP had an animated website – before Vajpayee’s second term as PM. The IT cells of RSS/BJP or small collectives that were sympathetic to them were formed way back in 1996 when the first dotcom boom took place. While the Congress, always dismissive of new ideas and young people, was looking the other way, the Left too had little in terms of concrete plans when it came to using computers let alone taking to the internet. In fact, the CPI (M) website’s first significant revamp came only when the 2009 elections were round the corner.
Clearly, the Right has a huge headway when it comes to leveraging the internet. And the headway is not only related to an election or two, but one that has seen a continuous process of development and evolution. The Right has used the internet for connecting with supporters who live abroad, fund collection, coordinating events and movements and a wide range of organisational activity. Electoral benefits of online presence, if any, to the Right is one of the many political benefits and not the only one. Besides, whether a student who’s facing exams after having studied well all through his semester will do well or the last minute crammer will, is anybody’s guess.
Moreover, if winning elections is the sole agenda of the Congress then one can reasonably doubt the need to spend so much on social media in India. A study by Yogendra Yadav and others in Democracy and diversity: India and the American experience, throws up many interesting statistics.
• The lowest 20% income group in India has 57% voter turnout as opposed to 47% in the highest 20% income group.
• The illiterate people of India vote at 57% of their strength and those with only mid-school education vote at 83%. This as opposed to the highly ‘educated’ post-graduates who vote at just 41% of their numerical strength.
• The religious minorities belonging to the Muslim and Sikh religion vote at an astoundingly high 70% and 80% respectively. Followed by the SCs at 75%. This as opposed to the Upper Caste Hindus who vote at 60% of their strength
The anti-corruption campaign which enlightened the Congress about the effective use of the internet, had the city of Pune as one of the focal points. The same city saw half its voters do nothing on election day even though the elections were right on the heels of the Anna Hazare fast and jail. The BJP of India Shining campaign-fame will attest how rural voters who were out of its radar did it in in 2004.
Clearly the ones who are the deciding factor in elections are not the ones who are tweeting or posting – at least not in India as yet. So if winning elections is the sole motive, why bother? On the other hand, if the reason is being worried about the secondary effects Twitter/FB based campaigns may have on mainstream media and hence on voters’ mind, then it’s too late.
Reality Vs Bytes
One could well argue that the exams-facing example above is wrong and the logic of the meritorious having the lead over crammers doesn’t matter, since the Congress’ plan is more about giving a cut to the examiner and fixing the exams. Such an argument would be fine if we were dealing with lifeless regimented activities like Indian exams (or mainstream media). Much to the dismay of the Congress what can very well play spoilsport to match-fixing plans are:
1) The fluid, organic and hyper-democratic nature of social media, and
2) The realpolitik and material phenomenon like caste and class basis.
Social media is hyper-democratic. The Congress being a party that doesn’t is unwilling to understand acknowledge democracy, there is little chance it will understand or respect the power of such a massively open, chaotic, non-hierarchical phenomenon called the internet. Recalling the manner in which Kapil Sibal asked Facebook to be banned and took Google, Yahoo etc to court, made it amply clear that he was trying to do what the Congress is very good at – banning traditional books. When later faced with the fundamental incompatibility of blanket bans and the basic architecture of open media, did he have to eat some serious quantities of humble pie?
While giving advertisements to newspapers or bailing out tanking TV channels may still be a reliable way of winning loyal compliance, it is – as of today – impossible to bribe the social media en masse. Matters are worsened by the presence of militant atypical formations like Annonymous and Wikileaks who also have enough firepower to rock the biggest of names. While trends can be spotted and traced, as of today they can only be partially influenced (for eg Times Now doing it for the Delhi gang rape). The absence of a regulated hierarchy means trends and alignments can be cleaved unpredictably. Example, Anonymous attacked PayPal for blocking donations to Wikileaks but opposed Wikileaks when they put up a pay wall in a desperate bid to raise funds.
A party that can barely understand or control the dynamics of its own electoral coalition, trying to or claiming to be in a position to handle this degree of chaos, is far-overestimating itself.
Next problem is the realpolitik.
The sections of the net-savvy urban India which stands in support of the BJP (or trolls people who oppose Hindutva) are not merely doing it because they are paid to do so. Their caste and class makes them RSS/BJP supporters and activists.
It is the historical reality of India that it was the privilege of the upper castes and classes to receive education. That they will populate the corridors of IT companies and be the first to be able to adopt higher forms of communication is a natural outcome. Since the Right traditionally represents the upper caste, majority religion and the well-heeled urban, it is but natural that they will find support in the said crowd.
Narendra Modi may or may not have had 50,000 fake followers on Twitter, but if the Congress thinks that all those who post, like, tweet and troll on his behalf are paid or can be bought over, they are wrong.
The Maoists present another good example to study in this connection.
Blogs, mailing lists, Orkut groups etc had been used by Maoists and their urban fronts for a long time. Partly because they were deprived of supportive mainstream media space, they extended their guerrilla tactics online and used new media quite well. Blogs for disseminating news and views, mailing lists for communicating, groups and pages for getting new members/supporters, VoIP for calling – they used them all. Even as late as Kishenji’s killer pre-election campaign in favour of Mamata Banerjee, he made phone calls over Skype – which unlike mobiles is pivoted outside the country and is relatively messier for Indian law enforcers to trace. It won’t be very wrong to say that since the initial days of increased online communication, after the RSS/BJP it was (perhaps still is) the Left extremists who were the best equipped with new media.
Question is, why doesn’t all this connectivity translate into support for them? Why aren’t thousands of Twitter accounts tweeting their revolution? Surely, among other reasons, it is their sheer unpopularity among people. No matter what they posit as the rationale of their killer ways, there are few takers for their brand of violent politics.
Likewise, unless the Congress is willing to look at and address the underlying realities and reasons of its unpopularity, there is little good that such investments are going to do.
On the one hand, making draconian anti-freedom laws like Sec 66A; using it book 111 people in one go for not supporting the Suryanelli rape case accused PJ Kurien; brutally cracking down on anti-Delhi-gangrape protesters and persecuting those who tweet and report it. And on the other, embarking on a mission to win over the young netizens of the country is a stupid joke.
While the RSS/BJP has done great for itself online, it is far from true that they are the only ones using social networks for political activism – especially today. It’s a myth that anti-Congress amounts to being pro-BJP or vice versa. It’s an even bigger lie that the corrupt and the communal, or Rahul Gandhi and Modi are the only two alternatives available to Indians – both in terms of elections and in terms of political figureheads around whom to rally their slogans.
First, during the anti-corruption upsurge then during the rape protests, there was a huge section of youngsters belonging to the Left and of non-partisan origin who took to real and cyber streets to register their protests. What about those who stand in support of new formations like the Aam Aadmi Party? Or the Anonymous group, which is largely anarchist by philosophy and while attacking the Congress calls Narendra Modi racist?
The binary may be a convenient political tool for both the BJP and the Congress to keep the people busy with the primetime circus, but the lie repeated multiple times is becoming such a dangerous truth that even the Congress’ investment scheme does not take cognisance of the significant others.
Learning from history
Trying to co-opt and confuse social media is not really an original idea. Organisations like the CIA and FBI which have been waging their wars on social media far longer have dedicated sock puppet teams. Sock puppets are multiple fake profiles run by one person or non-human algorithms and used to be part of chat rooms, facebook groups, Twitter handles etc. They not only tweet and post propaganda or counter-propaganda but some algorithms are able to identify discussion patterns and identify potential leaders and radicals and track and also counteract them.
Ever since Iran’s green revolution, the US establishment has put these measures on a higher drive and no less than former US Army General David Petraeus had confirmed that Farsi-speaking sock puppets were being used to influence online discourse. While he denied any of that technology was being used inside their country, given the damage the Occupy Wall Street campaign is doing and the superb use of social media which they manage, it is difficult to accept the denial.
The point here is, did the sock puppets prove useful enough to even forewarn, leave alone suppress, the Tahrir square-uprising against Washington-loyalist Hosni Mubarak? Under the ever-sniffing noses of the US spook establishment, Tahrir changed the face of social media for ever. It is no more the place to share jokes and dinner photographs and show off vacations to friends. It is graphic testimony to bloody revolutions.
The powers that are busy trying to break the back of Wikileaks, Anonymous, OWS etc. will testify how the fight they’ve been put up to is a seriously tough one. How the State’s online skull-duggery faced with large collaborative community efforts is repeatedly biting the dust.
To think what the cash-stuffed American powers can’t do with ease, the Congress can with a mere 100 crore rupees, is, politely put, optimistic.
Congress’ problem is not social media it’s the uncontrolled democracy that’s in it. And I’m willing to bet my hundred rupees that the 100 crore investment won’t work. And I’m not even factoring in a scam where the money siphoned off even before it’s used to bribe netizens!
Image Source: [http://www.flickr.com/photos/isaacmao/9753846/]