Virtual media, real change?

Reflections on organisational hijacking of social media.

The story of movements and uprisings tends to be centred around individuals. Be it a western educated, western garbed lawyer being thrown out of a train, be it a man with shopping bags staring down a column of tanks, a technology guru returning home to lead his country’s social media driven revolution—the idea of the trigger being an individual is powerful. It has the emotive power of David against Goliath. If David has his slingshot, today’s revolutionaries have social media.

Social media

In a networked society, every individual is a node and every node is connected to the other. A vast neural network paired with the motive power of muscles, these individuals can precipitate spontaneous uprisings, challenge fallible institutions, bring authoritarians to their knees and make it the cover of Time magazine. So goes the rest of the story.

This story has been played over and over again in media, finding its way into popular belief and discourse. It is perhaps useful to examine this story at a time that the Arab Spring has been overturned by military action. Are individuals truly the organising forces which lead to change? Or, are individuals being co-opted by organisations to further their agenda? Both these questions are pertinent in an India where social media seems to inspire everything, from television debates to dinner table conversation, where daily battles between acolytes of the two leading aspirants for power end up in allegations of trolling and abuse.

I have written about how the Chinese state censors and controls the social media landscape, creating quasi-freedom to vent online but restrict attempts to organise. Andrew Keller, a researcher at the Ohio State University, has examined how social media affects political participation in authoritarian states, studying China in particular. He raises the question of Twitter & The Arab Spring and asks whether Twitter helped cause these uprisings or whether it simply channeled pre-existing passions. “Do social media and online interaction help derail dictators or do they provide authoritarian leaders with still more transmission belts for their propaganda? In short, do the effects of social media strengthen or weaken the ideological power of an authoritarian system?”

Keller describes the two currently prevalent and ideologically opposite theories on the impact of social media and indeed all-online activity. “The (Google Doctrine) theory that online interactions can decrease group identification, produce new ideas outside the party line, and lead to democratization, and the idea (Enclaves of Extremism) that the internet can be a breeding ground for misinformation that reinforces pre-existing ideas and group identification.” His conclusions, based on his study of China, place the state of play as somewhere in between these theories, with misinformation and tendencies to radicalisation. Given governmental and party suzerainty on the web, Chinese social media discourse tends to reinforce loyalty to the state!

Israel’s social media savvy military, the IDF, is now recruiting college kids to act on its behalf on social media. An article states that “The Israel Defense Forces, no strangers to social media, are trying to coax university students to go on sites like Facebook and Twitter to post positive, pro-government messages, reports the Associated Press. In exchange for their services, the government is willing to hand out scholarships to the students, with a total budget of $778,000 allocated for the project.” The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office goes on to say in a written statement that this is a groundbreaking project aimed at strengthening Israeli national diplomacy and adapting it to changes in information consumption. What could be problematic with this? Brands and businesses recruit community managers for social media all the time for commercial purposes, don’t they? Well, not quite the same. “These students can decide for themselves whether or not to disclose that they’re working for the government.”

This non-declaration of agency has worrying consequences. How does one distinguish between what is official and what is personal? “Rather than just pro-Israel messages, some people fear that the tweets and Facebook posts could veer into anti-Palestine rants. One of the officials rumored to be heading the project is diplomacy official Danny Seaman, who has posted anti-Muslim messages on his personal Facebook page, according to the Associated Press”. Clearly, even the “only popular democracy in the Middle East” Israel, is harnessing the power of social media to make it less spontaneous and more directed.

What about our own chaotic democracy and its outpouring on social media? In one corner, we have those who support #Feku and in the other we have those who support #Pappu. A casual analysis of the trends seems to indicate patterns of coordinated messaging and action by both camps. I would argue that India’s social media landscape is witnessing ideological power being strengthened. Rather than a thousand flowers blooming, it seems to be one or two large trees, which dominate the jungle.

India’s problems are myriad, our economic situation is lurching from bad to worse and the despondency is growing deeper. Are these conditions ripe for a movement like Occupy? For our own Spring, or Autumn, depending on when the elections are announced for? Are the youth, the 60 percent of the nation, ready to seize the moment?

Not so fast. A recent study of digital youth cultures in Gujarat reveals the limited impact of the Net in their lives. “Youth in this study treat new media and technologies as one limited component of otherwise rich lives and social experiences. While new technologies promote individualistic mobility, Indian youth of small towns and rural places still live in collective social structures that shape their orientations. New media are at the periphery of their lives, as these youth have strong interpersonal connections that are rooted in geographic proximity and active school experiences”.

This would suggest that change in India will likely not be tweeted, but will be brought about the way it has always been—on-ground mobilisation and through political processes that leverage real life, not the virtual. It is hormonally rewarding to indulge in a fiery battle of hash-tags, but to expect armchair activism to unleash change and propel progress anytime soon is still the stuff of fantasy. Indian social media is now being hijacked by parties and their informally co-opted volunteers. It is a hardening of previously held beliefs rather than fundamental change that we have to expect.

To reflect on the state of the original home of the Revolution, Russia. Evgeny Morozov cautions, “Russian young people spend countless hours online downloading videos and having a very nice digital entertainment lifestyle, which does not necessarily turn them into the next Che Guevara.”

The Internet is turning out to be the opiate of the masses. Chennai Express, anyone? Or is it Madras Café this week?