There is no escaping social media! Just like the State, social media has acquired a ubiquitous status, considering the reach of digital platforms in even the most remote corners of the planet. The last 7-8 years vouch for the fact that social media has emerged as an all-pervasive force in politics, completely transforming communication dynamics between political leaders, masses and the media. Given the unrestricted and unchecked use of Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp for election campaigns, there is a growing concern about the role these outlets have been playing in fuelling political perceptions, especially misperceptions!
In a fundamentally multi-cultural and multi-ethnic nation such as India, diversity is a fragile equation to maintain. When so many different castes, creeds, religions, languages, and cultures co-exist, chances of a minor misconception or misinformation snowballing into defining moments of terror and hatred become very high, particularly if this misinformation is allowed to spread like wildfire through social media. For instance, in Northeast India, irresponsible social media behavior has, time and again, contributed to incidents of lynching and mob violence in this already volatile region. There what might just be seemingly irksome could blow up into a volatile magnitude owing to social media’s inability to bring check-posts like authentication and source verification.
Streaming graphic acts of violence live on social media and distorting facts with the intent to drive communal tension or to bolster a popular narrative, which could be prejudiced are enough to unleash a domino effect of violence and endless debates. Simple incidents of violence are given communal/casteist angles on social media to incite hatred between communities – spreading malice, anger, and violence- ultimately serving somebody’s purpose!
We are aware of sensitive situations when the government ordered the suspension of internet services for 48 or 72 hours specifically in a region to deter ‘anti-social’ elements from stoking communal riots any further. This blatantly establishes the vulnerability of social media and perceptions formulated by it! Political parties understand this psyche very well- in fact, they manipulate it, helping paid trolls become the norm on social media especially during election campaigns, when emotions run high and chances of fuelling misinformation are at its peak. We were privy to a vicious spread of falsehoods pertaining to candidates and critical campaign issues in the recently concluded General Elections. Each time the miscreants fell short of real issues, they chose to concoct make-believe ones aimed at tarnishing the image of a candidate or for floating a deviant line of thought about a party. Social media platforms with their ready to consume temperament provide opportunities galore to spin tales of deceit, showing the hazardous aspect of technology and human nature.
Repeated consumption of the same message creates bias and leads to pushing belief, however false an idea. If you watched the proceedings of the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections, you’d precisely understand what I mean!
Given the highly ‘social’ nature of these networks, the electorate is least likely to verify a news/claim/fact when they hear it from multiple sources, which they deem to be credible. What’s worse is that people are not even responsive to prudent efforts in the direction of correcting falsehoods. Their belief swings more towards the statements of people they interact with regularly than towards verified information from strangers, even when the facts are 100% accurate, which is deeply problematic.
Citizens shape the social and political environment through their engagement and participation in the electoral process, and the very foundation of democracy stands jeopardised when information devoid of accuracy gets circulated, creating misperceptions which question the very essence of social networking and communication. Voters become easy bait when make-believe claims about candidates and issues are promoted under the sham of evidence.
Spreading falsified information distorts the critical decision-making process and calls for responsible use of social media for political discourses in a nation that also happens to be the world’s largest democracy with billions of voters, who hold the fate of the country in their hands.