The art of rumour in the age of digital reproduction

Two days ago a simple and terrifying image flashed across various newspapers in the country. It showed migrants from the northeast in Bangalore showing their phone screens to the photographer as they were departing the city.

On the screen was an ominous message warning of violence in the coming days. What is significant about this image is not the fact that there were threatening messages against another community; these have existed throughout history. What it signposts is the arrival of a new form of authority, the phone screen. The events of the past few days intimate a new uncertain future for our media modernity. We have entered a world where the old techniques of deploying crowd control, managing social unrest and communal disturbance are going to be tested unless we clearly understand the new stakes in our post-media lives.

The Familiar

Rumours, fantastic fabrications like the phone videos of atrocities in Assam circulating in recent days among Muslim youth are a staple of most social conflicts in history. The Great Fear before the French Revolution in 1789 saw peasants rise up against the feudal order as rumours spread about the burning of crops by the aristocracy. In India, not only 1857, but many communal conflicts saw ‘rumour’ being cited as a cause of the violence. In the event, the colonial regime took measures that are common to what the police are doing today in India. Under British rule, rumour-mongers and ‘history sheeters’ were rounded up in the hope that this would quell unrest. If the colonial regime suppressed local newspapers, today the government has banned mass text and multimedia messages.

Many of the above revolts significantly took place after the arrival of print cultures and modern communication. In almost all social unrest and inter community conflicts, print culture produced real and fantastic exaggerations of killings, atrocities and massacres. All modern media technology from print to the digital are the vehicles of sensation — they move, connect and appeal to our feelings of fear, anger, revenge, love, laughter and pleasure. Pamphlets alleging great atrocities were common to popular mobilisations; these were techniques social movements picked up from newspaper headlines and the war jingoism common to the twentieth century. Actual events would mutate into the fantastic and horrific. At all times, the colonial regime would accuse popular protesters to have been duped by propaganda. All these forms have continued after independence in 1947. The terrifying rumours making their way today about migrants from the Northeast are a familiar form to survivors of Partition riots or the 1984 massacres when word spread that Sikhs had poisoned Delhi’s water supply. The Muslims have faced the same before — in 1992-93 in Bombay and 2002 in Gujarat.

The wonderful and dangerous new

However something has changed — radically. In the last decade, the media ecology of India has radically changed. Around 700 million Indians have cellular phones that now receive and produce text, video, audio and digital images. After the advent of the cellular phone, a growing section of the population is now the source of new media output — that in turn links to online social networks, mainstream television (through ‘citizen’ journalism), and peer-to-peer exchanges of text, music and video. Proliferation is fundamental to our time, information has value only if it has some velocity and is exchanged. Information once collected, always moves, at some point. The cellular phone has become a transmitter and media production device: activists capture police brutality and protests, ordinary people enter the world of mass photography and share them with their friends. These massive expansions of the newer media infrastructures have thrown the old control models of the regime into disarray: this is a population of potential media producers, not just an uneducated mass to be nurtured by the government and traditional media for a ‘genuine’ enlightened citizenship.

The mobile phone is the archive of our recent memory - phone numbers, images of loved ones, favourite songs. In countries like India with a young media population, it is the first technological device that many working people encounter — hence its great intimacy and potential power. Witness the images and videos of police atrocities around the country taken by ordinary citizens, the massacre videos from Kashmir and Syria. Add to this everyday scams, bribe takers caught on phone camera — the phone has effectively destabilised classic forms of informational power. Older media like television remain powerful but increasingly fragile — hence the nervous hysterics of television anchors. The TV screen now pleads our attention all the time, through phone polls, ‘citizen’ journalism, and brand media events.

The phone screen more than that of television is what our eyes glance at most of the time. We are proximate to an emerging, expressive media culture which gives us radical strengths of subverting power, and terrifying vulnerabilities too. It is not just private worlds collapsing when information leaks from our phones, but sudden flashes of threat and intimidation that have spread in recent days. This is our present and we have to deal with it. Simply attacking uneducated readers, or fabrications will not do; we have to enter this media ecology and engage with it. Shutting down social media or the mobile phone networks is stupid, and rhetorical, it won’t last a day. Censorship is a nineteenth century technology, it won’t work today. If the government spent less time massaging the egos of large media networks, and came to grips with this changed world we could see quicker interventions, and fewer panics than we have seen recently.

(Ravi Sundaram is a Senior Fellow at the CSDS, Delhi. He is the author of Pirate modernity, Delhi’s Media Urbanism. His next edited book, No Limits: Media Studies from India, will be out this winter from Oxford University Press)

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2020 6:56:51 PM |

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