Social media and political polarization in India
TABEREZ AHMED NEYAZI
WHAT we traditionally understand as political polarization in the form of tough and negative rhetoric on the campaign trail that we assume is exacerbated by social media, is common during election campaigns by political parties. However, this polarization continues to thrive outside of election campaign periods among certain groups and is becoming much more evident in daily conversation on social media. The earlier promise that the internet and social media would offer space to marginalized groups and expand democratic deliberations seems to be giving way to more toxic debates. Similarly, research from the US and Europe suggests that the actors who were empowered in the mass media era remain the same in the digital media era, and hence, the same advantages and disadvantages that exist politically offline are being reproduced online.1
The case of India is more nuanced and complex because of three unique characteristics of the Indian media system: (i) unlike advanced western democracies in which declines in newspaper readership and challenges to business models remain the norm, India has been witnessing simultaneous growth of traditional media such as the newspapers and television along with the rise of the internet; (ii) the Indian media system continues to be informed by the existence of a diverse and robust regional media in vernacular Indian languages in addition to supposedly national media in English language; and (iii) the digital space, which was initially dominated by the English language, now has more content in vernacular languages, not only replacing English as the primary medium in the internet but bringing new users in the vernacular languages. While these characteristics of the Indian media system ostensibly give an impression of the existence of a dynamic media environment in the country, it is the established political actors, particularly the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been able to ascertain its ascendancy on both traditional media platforms and the digital space.
This ascendancy of the BJP is evidenced from its viewpoint being promoted on most of the news channels and leading dailies. The rise of the BJP since 2014 has also witnessed a parallel trend of political polarization. This trend of political polarization occurs when political discourse on important national and policy issues is reduced to two extreme opposing viewpoints. The idea of the news media as a provider of impartial information for individual citizens has been marginalized with the growth of polarized politics on television and social media. This trend of political polarization was already present in the U.S. since the roll-out of popular opinionated cable news channels such as Fox and MSNBC that represent conservative and liberal positions, respectively. In Europe the growth of commercial television impacted the predominant position of public service broadcasting in the 1980s and 1990s and news as ‘infotainment’ became fashionable.2 India has entered a similar stage in which we are witnessing the American model of polarization in addition to the decline of public service broadcasting and the rise of infotainment in the news media, which is evident from the rapid transformation in media-politics relationship, which is discussed below.
While the issue of political polarization has been debated in Indian politics before, the polarization that we are witnessing today is unprecedented and sharper for two important reasons.3 First, the division between the idea of secular democracy, where diversity and democracy are celebrated, and Hindutva nationalism, which is promoting monolithic identity and cultural nationalism, is more pronounced. Second, political polarization in the current context has been abetted by digital media where reactionary voices are using the tactics of intimidation to silence and marginalize the moderate voices.
The storytelling techniques used by media to grab people’s attention often include polarization, simplification, intensification, sensationalization and personalization.4 In order to capture media attention, political actors invariably adapt themselves to media logic or the format and style suitable to attain media coverage. There has been a shift in the way Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP had dealt with media before the 2014 general election and after capturing power at the Centre. Before 2014, Modi adapted to media logic to gain media attention. While Modi used social media extensively as an act of disintermediation to bypass the mainstream media in order to reach his followers directly, he was curating the messages in the way that could be adapted in various media types and reach audiences and journalists simultaneously. After 2014, the Modi-led BJP government has made efforts to control media both directly and indirectly to shape public perception about government policies, while continuing the tactics of adapting to media logic.
The direct method of control has been evident with the rise of Zee TV and Republic TV, which only promote BJP’s viewpoints in the channels, and many anchors who are BJP sympathizers in various news channels, while the indirect method of control through intimidation by using the state’s machinery has seen many media groups toeing the government line on many national and policy issues. For example, the home of Prannoy Roy, the owner of NDTV, a supposedly anti-BJP channel, was raided by CBI on 5 June 2017 for cheating the banks. The case raised eyebrows as the deal was between two private entities and one could not understand the interest of the CBI in the deal.5 At the same time, equally suspicious is the timing of the CBI raid, which took place two days after Sambit Patra, BJP’s national spokesperson was asked to leave the show by NDTV’s anchor Nidhi Razdan, after his comment that NDTV has ‘an agenda’ perhaps suggesting that the channel supports the Congress party.
Through its interest and ability to fully utilize what technology can provide, the BJP has been able to unleash its dominance on digital media space by allowing armies of trolls to suppress dissent and counter voices. The tactics used in the digital space by the BJP and its followers include circulating doctored images and fake news in order to spread their propaganda, and hurling online abuse to counter criticism. The troll armies of BJP are encouraged under the premise that they would be appreciated by the government for their online activism and may secure state patronage. Thus, in July 2015, Prime Minister Modi invited 150 social media supporters, which included Twitter users who used sexual slurs and advocated violence against opposition, to his residence. While the move was widely criticized, it demonstrates the emergence of a new kind of politics in which the state patronage has been used strategically to garner people’s support and create dedicated followers.6
Not only ordinary supporters, even political leaders have been using social media strategically to gain attention from the government and secure a national political role. For instance, in the early July 2017 Baduria riots in West Bengal, which began because of a derogatory image posted on Facebook against the Muslim community, a concerted effort was made by the BJP local leaders and IT cells to fuel the conflict further by circulating doctored images that showed the persecution and killings of Hindus. These leaders included Vijeta Malik, state executive member of BJP Haryana, Amit Malviya, in charge of BJP’s national Information and Technology (IT) cell, Nupur Sharma, BJP’s spokesperson, Tarun Sengupta, BJP IT cell Secretary, Asansol, among others. While the police arrested Tarun Sengupta, others deleted their posts after being exposed. While this false propaganda aimed at gaining political mileage by fuelling conflicts among religious communities is highly condemnable, no apologies were offered by the BJP.
Another disturbing trend emerging in online space is the deployment of bots by political actors to influence public opinion. Bots are software apps that run automated tasks and conduct interactions with users over the internet. Bots can perform both the benign function of sending automated news feeds or messages on Twitter in bulk, as well as act maliciously by sending spam. These bots accounts are useful in the early stage of spreading false propaganda by rapidly sending messages and targeting influential users. All major parties, especially the BJP, appear to have deployed automation/bots in digital messaging strategies to boost the following of their leaders on social media to widely disseminate party messages, troll opponents on Twitter, and make hashtags trend. For example, it was reported that Narendra Modi got 280,000 followers in one single day, which is nothing short of spectacular.7 Political bots in other national contexts have been found to manipulate public opinion,8 and there is no dearth of news about efforts to influence public opinion via traditional media in India. For instance, the problem of paid news in the country’s mainstream media has been the focus of much concern and numerous legal actions in recent years (Standing Committee on Information Technology, 2013).
To spread misinformation, BJP has been using a combination of trolls and bots armies. Take for example, the exercise of demonetization through which the Narendra Modi government on the evening of 8 November 2016 declared 86 per cent of currency in circulation to no longer be legal tender from midnight. The whole exercise which resulted not only in the loss of over 100 lives, but affected informal economies and agricultural sector was, according to official accounts, aimed against black money and terrorism funding. However, the official narrative of demonetization changed midway to one that would facilitate the development of cashless economy and expand the tax net.
After the release of Reserve Bank of India (RBI) data on 31 August 2017 about demonetization, which showed that nearly 99 per cent of old notes had returned to the bank, the BJP began using online armies that included real and fake accounts to present the whole exercise of demonetization as a success. Thus, the hashtag #demonetization success soon began trending on Twitter, which included tweets from cabinet ministers including Suresh Prabhu and Kiren Rijiju besides Smriti Irani and Maneka Gandhi.9 These tweets were framed around the success of demonetization in making India a less cash-driven economy, a false claim since digital transactions, according to the Central Bank’s data, have dropped to pre-demonetization levels.10
The problem of the use of bots on social media is becoming a concern in India.11 In an article published in India’s leading English newspaper, The Times of India, the author discussed ten ways bots can change politics in India.12 Interestingly, all features listed were positive without even making any reference to manipulative political bots. However, legislation to address the problem of malicious political bots has yet to reach any party’s agenda in India’s houses of Parliament and it is unlikely that it will do so in advance of the next national election in 2019.
At the same time, the BJP, like political parties commonly do in democracies, has been hiring dedicated professional political public relations executives for strategic planning and using experts to design political strategies, frame issues and set the media agenda.13 One of the first changes that was introduced after the BJP entered office was the discontinuation of the earlier practice of bringing along journalists on the prime minister’s foreign trips, with the exception of one, the public service broadcaster, Doordarshan, that has been allowed to accompany the government in foreign diplomatic trips. Similarly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been using social media, particularly Twitter, to communicate the government’s stance on various issues directly to the public. The shift in the government’s communication policy is to ensure strategic communication planning to influence public opinion by controlling the flow of information.
In order to manage public perception by winning public trust for government policies, the BJP has a very well established public relations machine. The management of public perception could benefit the political actor notwithstanding contrary empirical realities. This is evident from the fact that despite the decline in public spending in social sectors such as health and education, rising unemployment, and distress in the agricultural sector, the BJP has been continuously winning elections. Similarly, despite the complete failure of demonetization to achieve its initially stated objectives, it has been presented as a mammoth success.
Many modest achievements of the Modi government have been amplified to the extent of presenting them as a rupture from the past. India has entered an era of the permanent campaign, where political actors no longer make any distinction between governance and the election campaign. Governance through publicity has been used as a strategy to compensate for declining trust of the public in the government. Such a development is not good for democracy since evaluations of issues, policies and programmes would primarily be judged by their newsworthiness than their implementation and performance.14
The launch of special project campaigns by Prime Minister Modi such as Make in India, Swachch Bharat Abhiyan or ‘clean India’ in full glare of media need to be understood in this context of professionalized political public relations. It is another matter that if the campaign is successful, and one wishes that it is so, the very idea will stay in the public mind beyond the next general election because of the broad scope of the campaigns that can be moulded and repackaged according to the need of the time. This is an era of permanent campaigns and voters need to be constantly fed with various messages to make them feel that there has been transformation going on, real or imaginary.
The idea of ‘New India’ propounded by the Narendra Modi’s regime, for some political commentators, is an idea essentially built on polarization and marginalization of minorities. Nationalistic rhetoric is gaining increasing legitimacy among the citizens. Nationalistic rhetoric is often used as a trump to suppress opposing viewpoints and minority voices. The privileging of national identity is invoked even during a national tragedy by private news channel anchors. Take for example, TV anchor, Navika Kumar of Times Now. In one of her shows she openly slammed a panellist for diverting from a discussion on a ‘real issue’ (patriotism in madrasas and the singing of Vande Mataram) and instead talking about the death of children in a Gorakhpur hospital.15 It must be noted that in one of the worst tragedies of medical negligence more than 60 children lost their lives in a government hospital in Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh where the Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government is in power. Yet the entire discourse on social media was polarized along ideological lines instead of sympathizing with the victims by arguing that similar tragedies had taken place under non-BJP governments.16
The division along ideological lines in the country is getting sharper in recent times. Similarly, the murder on 6 September 2017 of courageous journalist Gauri Lankesh at her residential compound in Bengaluru is one example of where further stoking of this rising hostility can lead. What was even more repulsive is the way BJP supporters on social media reacted to the death of Gauri Lankesh, not merely celebrating it through their Twitter posts, but warning other opponents of a similar fate. Interestingly, four of the Twitter accounts that trolled #GauriLankesh and justified the murder are followed by Prime Minister Modi.17
One can only hope that we have entered a phase in which political polarization is reaching a tipping point before disintegrating with a call for more civic online space. While the internet has been utilized more effectively by established political actors, particularly the BJP, other political groups too have begun to use the medium strategically in order to place their demands in the public arena. The accentuation of online propaganda by BJP is increasingly being contested. There are many civil society and advocacy groups simultaneously exposing and busting such propaganda.18
Looking beyond India, we have seen how the changed tactics of democratization movements in the post-broadcast digital era, where the internet and mobile phones have been used extensively by activists and protesters ‘to realize shared grievances and nurture transportable strategies for mobilizing against dictators’,19 has altered the state and society relations. However, the reason for optimism about the democratization movements being able to challenge authority with the help of digital media is increasingly under threat. This threat is coming from the very feature of digital media, which has restricted the exchange of opinions among ideologically diverse groups.
The internet also allows maximum control on news consumption as people can filter and choose content according to their tastes and predispositions and live in an ‘echo chamber’. Under these circumstances, it is highly unlikely that citizens would be exposed to other viewpoints and diverse ideas – essential ingredients of democracy. While the virtue of inclusion of marginalized groups is still available in the digital space, these marginalized groups may not be particularly successful in reaching out to diverse groups because of restricted access and filter bubble. Moreover, the feature of the internet that allows instant communication with speed also negates the very idea of democracy, which requires contemplation, reflection and patience.
The evidence for increasing polarization of Indian politics is getting more compelling despite the fact that there are still large numbers of Indians who hold moderate views. Is the country reaching a tipping point where its well known demographic dividend will become a deadly disruption? What we are witnessing, in fact, is increasing space being offered to divisive voices to express themselves on digital media with tacit endorsement by the state. The BJP seems to be winning the battle of perception because of the strategic use of both traditional and digital media in addition to professionalized political public relation.
This is not to ignore the fact that other political parties, including the Congress, have hired professionalized public relation firms to promote their viewpoints and counter the BJP’s campaign. With ever increasing numbers of internet users in India, now over 450 million, and growing availability of vernacular content on the internet, the contestation among political actors for online mobilization and to control public opinion is only going to further accentuate.
1. Jennifer Stromer-Galley, Presidential Campaigning in the Internet Age. Oxford University Press, New York, 2014. Michael Margolis and David Resnick, Politics as Usual: The Cyberspace ‘Revolution’. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, 2000.
2. Kees Brants and Peter Neijens, ‘The Infotainment of Politics’, Political Communication 15(2), 1998, pp. 149-164.
3. Hampton Davey, ‘Polarization and Consensus in Indian Party Politics’, Asian Survey 12(8), 1972, pp. 701-716.
4. Jasper Stromback, ‘Four Phases of Mediatization: An Analysis of the Mediatization of Politics’, The International Journal of Press/Politics 13(3), 2008, pp. 228-46. John Downey and Taberez A. Neyazi, ‘Complementary and Competitive Logics of Mediatization: Political, Commercial and Professional Logics in Indian Media’, International Journal of Press/Politics 19(4), 2014, pp. 476-95.
5. N. Sundaresha Subramanian and Archis Mohan, ‘CBI Raids NDTV’s Prannoy Roy for 2008 Deal with ICICI Bank’, Business Standard, 6 June 2017, available at http://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/cbi-raids-ndtv-s-prannoy-roy-for-2008-deals-with-icici-bank-117060500900_1.html
6. Michael Safi, ‘India’s Ruling Party Ordered Online Abuse of Opponents, Claims Book’, The Guardian, 27 December 2016, available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/27/india-bjp-party-ordering-online-abuse-opponents-actors-modi-claims-book
7. C. Assisi, ‘How to Buy Friends and Influence People’, Live Mint, 10 May 2015. Available at: http://mintonsunday.livemint.com/news/how-to-buy-friends-and-influence-people/2.3.2289548004.html
8. M.C. Forelle, Philip Howard, A. Monroy-Hernandez and S. Savage, ‘Political Bots and the Manipulation of Public Opinion in Venezuela’, 25 July 2015. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2635800
9. Karnika Kohli, ‘Templated Tweets, Trolls Deployed to Proclaim Success of Demonetisation on Social Media’, The Wire, 31 August 2017. Available at https://thewire.in/172759/narendra-modi-demonetisation-failure-paid-social-media-campaign/
10. Sonal Matharu, ‘Did Demonetisation Help? Digital Payments Back to Pre-Notes Ban Levels’, NDTV, 01 September 2017. Available at http://www.ndtv.com/india-news/did-demonetisation-help-digital-payments-back-to-pre-notes-ban-levels-1744688
11. Tushar Kanwar, ‘Twitter Troubles: A Look at the Problems and Challenges Plaguing the Social Network’, Business Today, 28 February 2016. Available at: http://www. businesstoday.in/features/problems-and-challenges-plaguing-the-social-network-twitter/story/228921.html
12. Debashis Sarkar, ‘10 Ways Robots Can Change Politics in India’, The Times of India, 27 April 2016. Available at http://timesofindia. indiatimes.com/tech/10-ways-robots-can-change-politics-in-India/itslideshow/51996486.cms
13. This development might appear new in the context of India, but has been going on in developed countries. For a study of Europe on government strategies of news management, see Barbara Pfetsch, ‘Government News Management: Institutional Approaches and Strategies in Three Western Democracies’, in Doris A. Graber and Denis McQuail (eds.), The Politics of News: the News of Politics. Congressional Quarterly Press, Washington, 2007, pp. 71-97.
14. Taberez A. Neyazi, Political Communication and Mobilisation: The Hindi Media in India. Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2018 (forthcoming).
15. Karnika Kohli, #TruthOfGorakhpur: The Right-Wing Really Wants You to Believe Adityanath is Innocent7, The Wire, 14 August 2017. Available at https://thewire.in/167598/gorakhpur-paid-tweets-adityanath-uttar-pradesh-twitter/
17. Alt News, ‘PM Modi Followed 4 Twitter Accounts that Trolled #GauriLankesh’, 6 September 2017. Available at https://www.newslaundry.com/2017/09/06/modi-trolls-gauri-lankesh
18. Ayeshea Perera, ‘The People Trying to Fight Fake News in India’, BBC, 24 July 2017. Available at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-40657074?utm_content= buffer5f1c4&utm_ medium=social&utm_ source=facebook. com&utm_campaign= buffer
19. Philip N. Howard and Muzammil M. Hussain, Democracy’s Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab Spring. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2013.