ByÂ Monica Verma:
‘These days everybody is on Facebook and Twitter‘, said a policymaker while counting blessings of social media to me. Such a sweeping generalization of India social media scene! This policymaker belongs to a national party and sitting in Delhi accessing information through the internet on his iPad makes him oblivious to the ground realities. After a hegemonic national media which endorses cosmopolitan truth as the truth of a country as diverse as India, social media is the new tool in their hands.
Here a helpful comparison can be drawn between the Syrian civil war and 2014 Lok Sabha elections in India. Both will come under different categories of political events- while one is a civil war, another is an election campaign but both of them highlight a common attribute of social media- its power to silence!
Syrian civil war has entirely played out on social media. So much so that White House decided to take action against alleged chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian regime on the basis of its assessment of social media reports from more than 12 locations in Syria. Freedom for media in Arab countries is elusive because as political scientists tell us, authoritarian regimes don’t go well with independent media. In Syria, situation is no different and the violent nature of conflict has made it difficult for foreign agencies such as Reuters and Associated Press to maintain presence in the country and relay information first hand.
Social media has come up as a great alternative to the traditional media as social media accounts of the rebels and the regime are keeping us posted on what is up with Syria. Now the question arises that how amenable social media is to non-partisan coverage of ground realities? It is web 2.0 but even here resources are divided on the basis of traditional hierarchies. Social media accounts of someone who has claims to authority from other sources such as political power are more likely to be followed. Also, by 2011 only 22.5% of Syrian people had access to internet. Syria has an astonishing illiteracy rate of 79% but with infrastructure not supporting a deep internet penetration, these numbers don’t help.
Social media is still hailed for its power to disrupt hegemony but attention needs to be paid to instances where it is nothing but an extension of the same hegemony. For example the Syrian rebels which are providing much of the arsenal for social media in the civil war are not a neutral constituency. They are not the ‘victims’ which mainstream media is making them out to be. Rebels are ethnically Arabs and have Saudi Arabia backing them with material support to fight the Assad regime. And this is not it, various analysis of social media in Syria by social media experts have discovered that only 32% of the people who support Syrian opposition are from within the country and rest 78% comprises foreigners of which 12% are from, no prices for guessing- Saudi Arabia!
So who is silenced by the power of social media? The real people of Syria who must have been tired by disruption of their lives by the civil war. And too ba,d they can’t even complain about it on Twitter or Facebook because of low internet penetration.
Now coming back to India, social media is a boon to the rightists and also to people who are not tilted towards the right but still hate the status quoÂ Congress mostly because it is a tall symbol of dynasty politics. What are their options if not Congress? BJP has more than welcomed them by re-tweeting their grievances from handles operated by their social media managers.
The man this expansive machinery is hard selling, is Modi. And trust me it kills to see a secular vs. communal update on your wall or time line all the time. Have we not moved on from the debate with our constitution? A very regressive election it has come to be. Modi stands for development, point taken but will you please include issues such as youth unemployment, skill development, demographic dividend etc. in your campaign everybody? We are yet to know what are the core issues in these elections. Could these ladies and gentlemen who have Modi in their cover picture and Namo Namo in their bio let us know? This is going to be as difficult as the Syrian civil war because social media like everything on this planet of mortals is not a magic wand. Like all other media it is extremely amenable to be used by the traditional constituencies of power and like all other media it has amazing prowess to silence.