India is currently at an interesting political standpoint. We finally have a single party forming the central government without needing support from other parties (last this happened was in 1984). The average Indian person seems to be much more aware and concerned about the political situation, and invested in the country’s future, especially young people. All of this is a major shift compared to a few years ago. There have been several contributing factors – dissatisfaction with the UPA govt., anti-corruption activism by AAP, strong leadership in the BJP to name a few. Optimism has been brewing for a while and people are looking forward to progress. Whether the current political setup will deliver on all promises remains to be seen, but as the collective euphoria fades, there’s a different kind of problem surfacing in the country now. It’s difficult to describe precisely, but it includes a deepening chasm between different groups of people, lack of constructive criticism and the ability to handle it, and a seeming absence of nuanced public discourse. Of course, these are my opinions, but the explosion of Indians’ social media presence has made it easy to quickly process a lot of diverse opinions to try and make sense of what people really think.
For example, religious intolerance is a hot topic right now after some unsavory events over the last few weeks. This has led several people to express concern, while many others think of these events as outliers. Going further, some believe in a full fledged international conspiracy to bring the country down. It doesn’t help that opposing political parties readily exploit the situation, the news media is downright sensationalist and often insensitive, and the ruling party remains selectively silent. I will NOT try to pick sides in these debates, because that is futile and painful1. What I do want to talk about is how bigoted propaganda is proliferating in the country right now, aided both by easier access to technology and people’s unwillingness to see eye to eye on complex issues that don’t have straightforward answers. As a result, the answers aren’t coming.
The reason it’s an undercurrent is because it is largely based on viral sharing of propagandist messages across social media and messaging platforms. It consists of hate speech, wrongly attributed quotes, and fabrication of facts to emotionally manipulate people who don’t know what to believe, or will not put in effort to verify what they’re reading. Some central themes keep coming up
The list goes on, and these are all complex points, given how strongly they’re being voiced now. It’s true that people are pretty tired of weak and corrupt governments from the past, and have pinned a lot of hopes on the current one, so it’s natural to be defensive and find other avenues to pin blame. Politics in the country has always been heavily influenced by religion, but maybe this is the first time a prime minister has strongly advertised himself as an ardent Hindu, while also convincing people he can lead the country’s development. The prime minister’s strong persona and lack of leadership among other parties was a prime reason for the overwhelming majority during elections, but the ruling party is a large and eclectic one – in terms of ideology and methods. And even though the prime minister doesn’t endorse any violence or hatred, his silence and occasional hateful statements by fringe party members are seen as endorsement by fanatics who want to push their own agendas. All this might not be an issue given India has a large Hindu majority anyway – except India is a much more complicated country. Even at 80% Hindu, we still have more than 270 million people who don’t identify as Hindu. For context, this is comparable to the population of the entire United States (~320 million). If we’re going to keep building up propaganda that alienates such a large number of people, it could possibly divide society irreparably, because none of these people are going anywhere.
Notwithstanding what public figures say, how are common citizens actually forming opinions? After all, public opinion can hold huge sway in a democracy, and it’s really important that people get their facts right. This is my biggest beef with this whole undercurrent of propaganda – pure BS spreading around virally. As mobile phones and internet access spread quickly, exposing many people to the internet for the first time, we can expect that what they will be fed a lot of new ideas. If seasoned internet users sometimes can’t tell what’s true online, I fear that new users are especially prone to believing everything they read. Especially content that is articulate and sounds legitimate. Consider this WhatsApp message that’s been going around
If you need a translation, click here. This is a great example of a message that sounds so harmless at first, but eventually subtly tries to pass off a positive correlation between not killing cows and a country’s progress. There’s no such correlation obviously, and Uruguay doesn’t hang people if they kill a cow. On the contrary, Uruguay is a leading exporter of premium quality beef, often lauded for its advanced practices. See how this further fuels the controversy around beef, in a country where it’s already a storm? As if it doesn’t matter that Uruguay has an entirely different economy, size, and social structure. This might seem like a trivial example, but innocuous things like these can end up being influential in shaping people’s ideas. Just consider the following tweet
The writer of the Moody's "warning" to Modi is the son in law of #AwardWapsi Irfan Habib?— rati parker (@ratigirl) October 31, 2015
It’s a question, and (surprise surprise!) the answer is NO. But the tweet went viral anyway and people bought it, it was news. The problem is that this isn’t a one-off thing, it happens all the time, and can consolidate opinions based on absolutely false information. It’s a sad state of affairs when people just won’t bother checking facts, and comfortably use (or worse, fabricate) anything that suits their cause. Because when it comes to public discourse, rhetoric rules and facts are for losers.
I’m not saying that this is exclusively India’s problem. Most countries in the world have their own internal clashes and propaganda, and suffer because of it. What IS India’s problem though, is people interested in fueling an atmosphere of hatred and misunderstandings, even though the current government has opportunities and the support to undo several past grievances. This problem includes trolls and haters who spread misinformation, normal people who spread it further without bothering to verify it, the media that likes to put people on the spot to extract juicy quotes, politicians who keep making regressive statements, and also intellectuals who often try to ignore the problem and stay away, instead of trying to educate those who are missing the point.
Yet another issue that I consider unique to India (as far as I’m aware) is sharing propaganda via private messaging services such as WhatsApp. These have exploded in popularity over the last few years. Communities and groups on these services are also ripe grounds for spreading misinformation – but with an additional downer – there is no liability or a way to verify anything. For instance, who knows where the message about Uruguay above came from, how many people read or questioned it. There is no way to know, nor can you call someone out for manufacturing information (like you can with tweets or Facebook posts). What’s commonly shared here are messages that paint a one-sided picture, reinforcing whatever people believe or want to believe. People’s social circles are often largely composed of other people with similar views, and there is little opportunity to see the broader context, or have healthy debates. This leads to them saying things like “I don’t see any religious intolerance around me, it’s all fake” etc. This also makes it easy for them to generalize their views about other groups of people. Here’s another example
Click here for a translation. Notice how this message makes tall claims, and signs off as the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office). It’s not hard to craft messages like these, and there are several people who believe that this is actually coming from the PMO. That can’t be right at all!
You might think that I’m nitpicking. And I really hope so, because after having seen how fake stories and propaganda blew up the debate against vaccines2, or still bogs down progress on climate change, I’m paranoid about how easy it is to create fear among unsuspecting people. The cold war was a grand spectacle of exactly this. Fear is a strong emotion, and can easily lead entire societies to make irrational or emotional decisions that halt progress or prove costly over time.
To be fair, some of the points raised in some other forwarded messages are legitimate questions to ask, but are often buried under loads of generalization and lies. It’s hard to separate the two, and the audience is often gullible. Most people will probably not react to such propaganda, but there are always those who will use these to justify criminal activities. And we’re not even starting to talk about prejudice and subliminal bias. Whether or not you agree with everything I’ve written, the next time you get any sort of message or read something that is leveling accusations or blaming someone, be extra careful, verify facts (Google is your friend!), try to critically analyze and discuss with someone, and only then consider passing it on. It’s easy to hit that forward button, but you never know who you’re sending messages to. You might be very calm and nice yourself, but maybe your recipients aren’t, so be mindful of that and make sure you think twice, especially if you’re in an influential position.
I’m not proposing any solutions or suggesting I have answers, but it’s probably worthwhile to introspect the small actions we perform on a daily basis, because sometimes it’s not a few very bad people who bring the group down, but a large number of “slightly bad” people who are okay with the occasional wrong action. We’ve seen our apathy lead to problems before, let’s not have hatred create more. I can’t tell you what to believe in, because I don’t know the solutions, but I’m pretty sure that hateful propaganda isn’t going to benefit anyone. The reality for a large country like India is very complex, and EVERYTHING YOU READ ON THE INTERNET IS NOT TRUE.