My Column in Today’s DNA
The last few months have seen social media set the agenda as far as main stream media, and even political parties are concerned. A whole bunch of dedicated cyber gureillas are fighting virtual wars on behalf of the parties that they support. The last week has seen two such cases.
Sachin Tendulkar, the man called the God, got nominated to the Rajya Sabha. In a completely polarised world, it was an act that was welcomed by all sides and all Political Parties. After all, the biggest lament about the Houses of Parliament is that there isn’t enough representation from the young, aspirational, non dynastic, self made achievers. There were a few jokes, on the lines of God being called in to save the UPA, but much of this was in good humour. But, for a small vocal minority of self styled patriots on twitter Sachin’s acceptance of the Rajya Sabha seat was abject betrayal. They believed that his entry into Parliament was his entry into politics on the side of the Congress. A shrill fringe tried to hijack the agenda by converting their ignorance into anger, and their anger into a flurry of tweets against Sachin.There was a strong unfollow Sachin campaign. But, this was Sachin. Not a politician. The fight back was instantaneous. Even those who aren’t cricket followers or great Sachin fans went out to bat for Sachin.
Earlier in the week social media had seen another flurry of activity. This time against Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi. He had been allegedly caught in flagrante delicto on camera with a lady lawyer in his chambers in the Delhi High Court.. Mr.Singhvi got an injunction against the main stream media from carrying the contents of the CD. But, social media is not mainstream. It is individuals dispersed across the globe. All you need is one person to upload the video on a file sharing site and pass on the link, which is further shared. This is what happened and the video went viral. A small bunch of motivated opponents of the Congress Party found a way to set the agenda. The Main Stream Media that hitherto had been prevented from reporting about the contents of the video reported the leak of the video. The Public heard about the alleged peccadilloes of Mr. Singhvi, who had no choice but to resign. We can wring our collective hands and say ‘invasion of privacy’, or irresponsible behaviour on part of individuals to release the video, and we wouldn’t be wrong. It is a terrible precedent and is going to have repercussions in the years to come. Every political leader, business leader, opinion leaders are going to face what their western counterparts have been facing for decades. The rise of reporting sexual sleaze aimed at destroying reputations while titillating the audience.
The system is coming to terms with the repercussions of the democratisation of communication. The fact that everyone not only has a view, but the medium to express that view is just sinking in to those who hitherto had controlled the agenda. In an interconnected world, everyone has an agenda that they can put forth with equal ease. Expertise and Opinion are no longer hierarchical, flowing from the top to the bottom. Instead it is multiple strands of peer to peer communication. One of the things about social media in general and twitter in particular is how quickly an idea or a link can get picked up and go viral. More than any other social network, Twitter can work towards building up support or destroying reputations possibly because engagement is quick and fast. There is also another reason, and that is most on twitter are engaged in more than conversations. It is made up of narrowcasters – people of all hues and persuasion putting out links and opinions that are aimed at furthering an agenda in a free flowing, unmoderated space. Often it is a whole bunch of Chinese whispers in an echo chamber. False is true, if it suits the ultimate agenda.
The question then is how do you prevent a small bunch of dedicated zealots from setting the agenda? How do you prevent the poisoning of discourse and spreading of hate? Do you need to control the net ? The answer is that the net cannot be controlled and any attempt to control it will back fire. Ideas and opinions can only be countered by other ideas & opinions and the way to prevent zealots from taking over and setting the agenda is by ensuring that more people have access to the net. The more agendas that are set, the more the extreme agenda will be diluted.