Saturday 28 May 2022
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Social media cuts everybody to size

There have been some shocking revelations in the social media towards the end of the 9-phase-long Lok Sabha elections of 2014; now the Facebook and Twitter users have brought the mainstream media in the line of fire as well.

It began with exposing rank incompetence of the Election Commission in preventing election rigging and ensuring every adult citizen is able to vote. The furore forced the Bharataiya Janata Party (BJP) and some other parties in Opposition to make the charges official.

Before the last round, Varanasi district magistrate Pranjal Yadav’s relation with Samajwadi Party (SP) head Mulayam Singh Yadav was dug out. Social media users alleged the bureaucrat was a son of the SP honcho’s cousin. The party denied the charge, but no one on Twitter or Facebook was convinced.Pranjal
And the actions of the official, who is also the returning officer of the EC for the Lok Sabha constituency of Varanasi, reflected such a bias against only one party in the fray that reconsidering the issue of conflict of interest was out of question. He found the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate alone as a contender who posed as well as faced security threats while rallies and rituals were permitted for his competitors with impunity.

For reasons known best to trained journalists, otherwise known to excel in details, no television channel or newspaper thought it fit that the truth of the specific relation be ascertained. They only said a relation was attributed to the officer, which was denied by the SP.

Before this, social media users had unearthed the past postings of Chief Election Commissioner VS Sampath. From his rise through the ranks of bureaucracy in Andhra Pradesh to his entry into the commission at an opportune time when Navin Chawla, whose appointment as the CEC had led to howls of protest by the BJP due to his past dealings with the Indian National Congress (INC), every nugget of information was laid bare. The BJP did not elaborate on such details in its media briefs, perhaps trying to be decent in its approach towards a constitutional chair. The INC and CEC did not deem it fit to respond to the allegation as it was not an official accusation from any party.

SampathMaharashtra had first erupted with complaints of up to 6 lakh adult citizens not being able to exercise their franchise as the names of these regular voters suddenly went missing from the electoral rolls. When voters in Delhi, who have been known for their alacrity for the past one year, tried to snub their Maharashtrian counterparts, telling them that in the national capital everybody had checked the rolls well in advance, they were told a similar effort was made in Mumbai, Pune and Tier II cities of Maharashtra, too, but the commission’s officials did not pay heed to their complaints. Laidback parties, more amazingly those that are in the Opposition, wishing to replace the government at the Centre, did not take up the matter. The mainstream media was not impressed either. This is sad, given that India seeks pride in its democracy. Who would know how different the final outcome of the polls in the State would have been, had all legitimate voters been allowed to express their will through the electronic voting machines?

Then there was West Bengal. The Trinamool Congress (TC) has emerged as the villain of the play called Election 2014, facing the maximum number of allegations of electoral malpractices. If the Twitter and Facebook accounts of supporters and workers of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] and BJP are to be believed, up to 300 polling stations witnessed booth capturing and other forms of rigging, preceded by weeks of intimidation. Some regional papers of the State were vocal in protest, and so was this website. The television news channels and newspapers based in Delhi-NCR couldn’t care less. Now the EC has order re-polling in 52 polling stations across this State, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh, which covers a fraction of those alleged to have witnessed unfair polling. Some credit must still go to the social media for exerting the pressure.

The most shocking complaint, casting aspersions on the EC, surfaced this morning. Now that all exit polls have predicted a change in government, with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) said to be reclaiming power after 2004, social media users who supported Modi for more than a year out of free will fear that the commission, headed by an alleged confederate of the ruling INC, may take recourse to foul play! ECs dubious gameThe screenshot that appears to the right of this text has gone viral in the social media. Via direct messages, they say this is from a note of an EC official.

Lending credence to the conspiracy theory is a recent article in The Sunday Guardian where a quote from a source in the INC is reported to have congratulated the EC for having conducted the elections in 9 phases, which let the “Modi Wave” subside, affecting the results of up to 20 seats that could have gone to the BJP or one of its allies in the last two phases of polling. “Had the polls been held within a two-week interval, the BJP would have gained an extra 20 seats, so we should thank the EC for their decision,” a very senior Congress strategist told Prof MD Nalapat. The said paper is run by professional journalists but, being a weekly and for the fact that it is difficult to penetrate the newspaper market, few would have known of this possible mischief if not social media users had the modus operandi of sharing links of news of their interest.

The piece implicates the BJP top brass as well, who might “hasten to validate the integrity of the announced result and counsel acceptance”. It will be in the fitness of things to recall here that, since the day Modi was annointed the chief of the BJP’s campaign committee, journalists on the party beat have talked of a so-termed Club 160 that wishes to keep the party’s tally modest so that more allies come with the precondition that they would accept anybody but Modi as the country’s prime minister, paving the way for other leaders of the BJP to fancy their chances of being chosen through consensus as the top political executive. But Modi’s fans are not going to settle for anything less than him. His ascension to national politics saw an unprecedented surge in volunteer enthusiasm not witnessed at the end of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s in 2004 tenure and totally absent when Lal Krishna Advani was the prime ministerial candidate in 2009. Based on whatever the people could learn from the much-debated Gujarat model, they want it to be replicated across the whole country. People who shared the screenshot addressed Narendra Modi’s Twitter handle directly, betraying their lack of trust in the D4 (Delhi 4, a pejorative reference to the former coterie of Advani comprising Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Ananth Kumar and Venkaiah Naidu) as well as party president Rajnath Singh who had to eat a humble pie after tweeting “अब की बार, भाजपा सरकार” about a month ago. Within minutes, he had to tweet “अब की बार, मोदी सरकार”, the war-cry of the BJP this election season.

It is no wonder that Modi expressed his gratitude to this selfless brigade right after the last round of polling was over. He wrote, “Due to social media, lies & false promises of several leaders could not go beyond the podiums of their rallies! More power to social media.” Elaborating on it in his blog, the leader wrote, “This is the first election where social media has assumed an important role and the importance of this medium will only increase in the years to come. Our party, our campaign and me personally have gained tremendously from social media. It became a direct means of information and gave us the much-needed local pulse on several issues without any bias. It is said that the success of an organisation depends on the accuracy and promptness with which there is an upward flow of information from the grass root level workers and well-wishers to the top that is complimented by clear and timely guidance from the top rung to those working on the ground. With the advent of social media this principle of organisational working stands further strengthened.”

PramodIt is to be noted that Modi took a hell lot of ideas from this medium. Beginning with his rise, the BJP responded positively to one demand of the supporters after another. Even the attack on the EC was first launched by the supporters. Before that, Dr Harsh Vardhan made donations from the Ford Foundation to NGO-running heads of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) an official issue of the BJP following pressure from the cadre. Then, Modi’s speech dated 19 January, addressed to the BJP’s national council members, mostly reflected the suggestions people gave him via the web page of “My idea of India”. He used to refuse to speak about caste till December last. Supporters said he must do so on a few occasions. He obliged them. There are several other instances: reliance on technology, dependence on a fresh team of campaigners comprising young professionals, a departure from Sangh-style Hindi to a mix of colloquialism and a bit of English, disowning the idea of transaction tax as the only form of tax, communicating to Muslims without using the term “Muslim” (he mentioned weavers of Benaras, for example), keeping KJ Alphons ahead for communication with Christians, attacking Mamata Banerjee’s policies after going soft on her initially… Most importantly, the party’s central leadership kicked out a fringe element like Pramod Muthalik, whose outfit Sri Rama Sene is infamous for assaulting women who wish to lead a free life, after social media raised a hue and cry over his inclusion by the Karnataka State unit of the BJP. Similarly, when Twitter and Facebook protested Bihar BJP unit’s act of welcoming Sabir Ali, who was likened to gangster Dawood Ibrahim by party spokesman Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, the turncoat from the Janata Dal (United) [JD(U)] was asked to leave.

The age of the social media has finally arrived. It had failed in 2004, as dependence on this medium and telephone messages by the late Pramod Mahajan was premature. The AAP took it to new levels, hiring half-a-dozen odd young people to head its cyber team with salaries paid from Arvind Kejriwal’s non-governmental organisation called Public Cause Research Foundation (PCRF). Those on the PCRF payroll were Rajan Prakash, formerly running a Sanghi magazine, whose job profile involved making press releases, tweets and Facebook updates in Hindi; Ankit Lal, who managed Facebook updates in English, and Dilip Kumar Pandey who tweeted in English. The party had got a headstart as India against Corruption’s (IaC’s) website, Facebook page and Twitter handle, managed by an unpaid Shivendra Singh Chauhan, had been quite popular. When the AAP’s launch was proposed, Anna Hazare reportedly turned down Team Kejriwal’s request of letting the new party use its website. Nevertheless, Lal, who used to assist Chauhan during the IaC days, made the page “Final War against Corruption” and could successfully draw a big portion of the crowd from the IaC page owing to his own familiarity with the cheering people. After Ashwini Upadhyay, head the party’s legal cell, revolted, he alleged that about 25,000 cyber ‘volunteers’ were paid through various channels by industrialist Naveen Jindal.

The new media proved a formidable force-multiplier in the Delhi Assembly elections as all 70 of the city-State’s Vidhan Sabha constituencies could be reached using it. Thereafter, the BJP, which was thwarted on its way to forming the Delhi Government, got its act together for the Lok Sabha campaign and reclaimed the territory with a vengeance.

Young professionals from across the globe were roped in. Many volunteered because they wanted to hear a positive narrative after 10 years of a depression-inducing government, which Modi readily dispensed unlike Kejriwal who turned whining into his leitmotif. Slum dwellers of Delhi could be swayed by constant cribbing of Adani and Ambani allegedly dictating terms to every political party except the AAP because they could see the riches of a few juxtaposed with the abject poverty of many like them. The strategy failed to move remote villagers where the inhabitants would rather have round-the-clock electric supply 365 days a year than make the whole region live in darkness and worry about how much a government functionary made in the deal, accruing how much profit on the industrialist. Besides, the villages and neglected towns of India were not as well connected via social media as Delhi was. Yet, utterly foolhardy, the paid cyber army of the AAP kept blabbering on Twitter and Facebook, questioning the integrity of the very media that was the prime reason for its rise, and branding every rival and his supporter as corrupt even as the messages could neither reach the intended recipients nor were they interested in such a discourse.

By then, a different platform of the new media has arrived. Early this year, Arvind Gupta, head of the BJP’s information cell, had convened a meeting of young supporters and sympathisers of the party at the BJP headquarters located on 11 Ashoka Road and urged them to use free messaging application WhatsApp for coordination between activists working in the field. Smartphones had reached the country’s towns and villages while laptops and desktops hadn’t. Evocative messages, both textual and illustrated, bucked up existing and potential votaries of the BJP alike. Event management became easy with organisers exchanging messages about logistics, people and timing among themselves. A newspaper reported that the whole exercise was being managed from 1 Lodi Estate, New Delhi, just like the AAP first managed it from A 119 Kaushambi, Ghaziabad, and then from 41 Hanuman Road, New Delhi. That was a stretch of imagination.

Most people who visited the address were greeted by a deserted look, with a few boys fiddling with their desktops using material that was hardly electoral. It’s the bungalow allotted officially to BJP MP from Goa Sripad Naik alright, and a request to get a compact disc burnt or a quick email sent is entertained. But there is no frenzy as observed in the AAP office, neither is there a streamlined system of work in place in this house opposite Khan Market. Some BJP workers visit the place for their electronic needs so to speak, and leave immediately thereafter. There is no boss around, unlike the sight of Prakash, Lal and Pandey zealously guarding their territories in the AAP.

The BJP realised what the AAP should have, going by the latter’s experience through 2013. Success in social media is directly proportional to your reach in the physical world. The other way round, it works tediously and ineffectively slow. Millions of Modi and Kejriwal fans on Twitter and Facebook did not make Modi and Kejriwal. They got the millions because they first succeeded in the real world. Let’s not discuss the bots here and needlessly branch off. In time, the BJP moved from big to small computers (aka smartphones) and thus entered the world of Indians in flesh and blood. On the other hand, most WhatsApp groups that the AAP had, in some of which they had added me by mistake as I used to be part of the party once, were used as chit-chat hangouts. Some groups of BJP supporters did that too, but they were not workers of the party. It did not affect the organisation’s performance.arvind 1400

Second, the BJP made allegations that sounded credible. Take the allegation about the Yadav clan of Uttar Pradesh as an example. One can verify it. Now contrast it with Kejriwal’s allegation that the media was paid Rs 1,400 crore to malign his party. Where did he get that from? Where was the evidence in support of the outrageous claim? The media is hostile to Modi, but it does not laugh at him. Journalists started laughing off Kejriwal and his fanboys after such charges were levelled on them. Compare Modi’s vague term “news traders”, which may apply to any journalist or media house, with Kejriwal’s mention of a specific amount, to prove which he is bound to have both his feet placed firmly in the mouth.

Not only on Twitter, the media took its sweet revenge on camera as well. Headlines Today/Aaj Tak‘s Rahul Kanwal accused Kejriwal of lying when the latter complained that his party was not getting enough coverage during an episode of सीधी बात. When the AAP convenor alleged that the last episode of the programme interviewing him was telecast a year before that one, the interviewer told him one such episode was shown just a week before that day!

This was over and above the lies that Kejriwal dished out that were countered in short notice by the BJP’s cyber army. One such example was the picture of an abandoned, dilapidated building that the party tried to pass off as the primary health centre, village Badi Pipli, Patan, Gujarat. Some BJP men immediately showed him where the real health centre was. Soon, few were ready to believe anything that the AAP claimed.arvind health

There are indeed several instances of corruption in the mainstream media. Visit the Press Club, and you can hear every journalist bitching about a peer of his or hers over mugs of beer or cups of coffee. But one needs to be a part of the industry to identify correctly its black sheep. Since there is a good number of honest scribes, too, you cannot tar the entire media with one brush.

Team Kejriwal perhaps realised its mistake for a while and attempted to differentiate between “paid” and “honest” media. Here again it was not as suave as Modi who never explained whom he called “news traders”. The AAP named India News with which it had had a tumultuous equation since a press conference was disturbed by the channel editor Deepak Chaurasia early 2013 Zee News, India TV and among a few other channels. Senior journalists heading these channels found it such a terrible insult that Rajat Sharma of the third channel went out of his way to defend Arnab Goswami of the fourth on his show, much as the two channels are mutually not sister concerns. Making the AAP come across as even funnier, Sharma said that when he challenged the party to prove he was corrupt, they said they mistook his channel for India News!

In the meantime, far from the maddening crowd, a listless INC looks on. Its self-styled spokesman Sanjay Jha, who elbowed in using his, is today the Twitterati’s pet object of ridicule. It also does not bode well for the party that almost all Muslim and Christian supporters it has in the social media, including some senior journalists, rant against Modi. Observing this for a long while, many moderate Hindus turned against the party as a backlash to the seemingly communal INC gang, thereby consolidating Modi’s position even further.

This is as far as today’s story goes. The BJP, as noticed in 2013, still has chinks in its armour as the AAP had exposed last year. The cyber army of the latter is the most organised, but the temperamental follies of its leaders as well as supporters spill over to the social media a bit too often. One does not know when the INC will catch up despite an announcement of some crore rupees the party wanted to invest in the sector to rev up its fortunes on this platform. For some unknown reason, unpaid supporters of the INC lost interest in the new medium since people lost interest in Orkut and switched to Facebook followed by Twitter. Orkut’s political communities used to have some brilliant debaters backing the UPA I regime. Regional parties have not even started.

Finally, what prevails in this medium is citation-backed argument. Number of followers may dazzle one’s eyes, but the mainstream media, which still has a much larger reach, is not impressed by this count. Its panellists and columnists, some of whom are considered experts in their respective fields, are today taking a cue from the social media to talk on television and write in their columns after their own works of research. There, if a view prevails, its links circulated on Twitter and Facebook set the final agenda. While democracy is largely a game of numbers, it is the motley group of thought leaders who tell the right from the wrong. The rest of the population follows the most persuasive commentator as a herd.

How does one dominate in such debates? Your data must be official, authoritative and up-to-date. First, a court verdict or report of a commission of inquiry containing examination of thousands of witnesses and pieces of evidence will annul an opinionated article with four or five quotes from cherry-picked people. Second, you cannot get away with tarnishing the image of a leader based on a report dated, say, 2013 when he has been exonerated in 2014. Third, you cannot lose your cool, shooting the messenger who is debating with you; address the message instead. If you do not abide by such standards, you will be cut to size the way you relish cutting others to size.

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Surajit Dasgupta
Surajit Dasgupta
Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Sirf News Surajit Dasgupta has been a science correspondent in The Statesman, senior editor in The Pioneer, special correspondent in Money Life, the first national affairs editor of Swarajya, executive editor of Hindusthan Samachar and desk head of MyNation

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