My blog for Tehelka
When Rahul Gandhi addressed the CII conference, those who oppose him and his party, got #PappuCII (stupid) to trend on Twitter. A few days later when Narendra Modi addressed the FICCI conference, Congress supporters on Twitter got #Feku (someone who makes tall claims) to trend. (Hashtags are a useful way of classifying and searching for data on the internet. Twitter’s hashtags are explained here) You would think that this little tu tu mein mein would be the end of the matter. A bit of playground fun and humour by over-enthusiastic supporters on both sides, who are willing to rain on the other party. But no, this was just the beginning. The mainstream media –TV and print – jumped onto the bandwagon, at first by the use of the hashtags – either deliberately or inadvertently – and then by devoting space and time to the so called “Twitter wars”. Which is all fine in itself, after all it is their space and their time and they can fill it with anything they want. But for one problem – they make the issue seem bigger than it is, and more important that it should be.
Everyone on Twitter does not have the humour of a 13-year-old on the playground, busy dreaming up names for authority figures. What you have is a small, vocal, motivated, active and dedicated minority on both sides, who thrive on polarising the issue. The type for whom the dictum ‘if you aren’t for us, you are against us’ holds true. The real life equivalent of people on the streets taking out a morcha and shouting hai hai. The only reason it is interesting is because you see this on your screens wherever you are, it is in English, and journalists and influencers of the mainstream media are on the same platform.
While the mainstream media is a closed clique, Twitter can be an echo chamber – and it is this echo that makes events seem more important than they are. However, to give it its due, Twitter also allows more diverse voices to echo, more diverse opinion to gain shape. The echo can become noise, all sides screaming simultaneously, or agitating against the other, but it is by no means the only expression on the medium. The noise is possibly a fraction of the conversations that take place across the spectrum on a daily basis. But the mainstream media tends to reduce issues to a yes or no, oppose or support. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that instead of looking at diversity and plurality of views – even within the so called left or right online – the focus is on those who choose to polarise. This is also pretty much the way the real world is covered.
Despite the fractious last four years in politics, legislations have been passed, committees have met, work has taken place, and representatives across parties in Parliament and in state legislatures, have contributed to this. Yet, all that is seen is the dissent, the walk-outs, the screaming at each other in TV studios, the grandstanding, the nautanki– essentially sound byte politics. In a broadcast world where sound bytes rule, it is hardly surprising that Twitter is the chosen medium. Everything is reduced to 140 characters – that is great for headlines, great for fuelling more conflict, and great for projecting a world that is intrinsically polarised. That polarised world does not exist outside the TV studios and those who get hashtags to trend. News channels are happy because they get instant conflict ridden content; those who trend hashtags are happy because their view is presented as the only world view. And as always, the middle ground is left out. Most of the world is rather fuzzy in its choices, with neither committed party members nor haters.
The fact that Mr Gandhi & Mr Modi are talking to the people on vision and issues, and how they see the world is a great start. After a long time we are hearing content beyond caste, community and magic wands. What ought to be discussed is not the antics of activist supporters on social media, but the policy and vision of the two individuals. In focusing on the trivial and the banal, the really important is left out. Messrs Gandhi and Modi, whether we like them or not, are two individuals whose vision is going to shape public policy and the direction India takes both internally and on the world stage, depending on whose alliance comes to power in 2014. It is time that that vision is discussed beyond Twitter.