After the extraordinary mandate the BJP won, two ideas have been put forth: that Indians have suddenly adopted Hindutva and that they want the country “saved” by a strong leader. What nobody seems ready to acknowledge yet is the colossal nudge that social media and partisan mainstream television gave to creating this twin narrative in the popular consciousness.
If a fundamentally shrewd and pragmatic electorate was ready to ignore its own problems caused by demonetisation, agrarian distress and a stumbling economy, we must ask if it did this by its own volition or if it was steered into it by a PR blitz fabulously orchestrated by television and social media.
The suppression of data
A report leaked in January showed unemployment at a 45-year high of 6.1%, but the government disowned it then and a Union Minister called it “fake news”. Across channels, this stance was faithfully reiterated. The next month, there was a near total absence of any examination of the security lapses that might have enabled the attack in Pulwama. Instead, only one note was struck hysterically: retaliation. Any attempt to scrutinise the Balakot air strikes was shouted down as ‘anti-national’, and television covered it as one might a war film.
Now, when the government releases the same unemployment figures or confirms that friendly fire brought down an Indian Air Force chopper, there’s barely any protest. The suppression of data and the stalling of reports has already been normalised.
Crores are being spent in propaganda to ceaselessly create urban legends, films, web series, comic books, memes and jingles that incessantly shore up the Modi narrative. For this to work, it must be unchallenged — not only must Prime Minister Narendra Modi be shown as a great leader, he must be shown as a flawless leader. So when he goes off script with an erroneous comment about radar, a stream of quasi-scientific messages are released simultaneously to prove the comment wasn’t wrong. Facts are constantly overtaken by fables fed directly into people’s smartphones.
This disinformation network, running parallel to the hectoring and fawning of television, is the nerve centre of the BJP’s propaganda machine. With dedicated cells of thousands of drone bees, it reaches millions every minute to disseminate its own post-truth version of facts. Eminent economists can point out the failure of demonetisation or the stagnation of exports or the decline in GDP growth, but it makes no difference because each critique is met with a social media forward that says the opposite.
We are guilty of underestimating the incalculable harm that fake news has done to how and what the country thinks. The entire political arena has been turned into a room of mirrors where nothing is as it seems. Phoney ‘government’ documents regularly do the rounds with statistics about terrorism or GDP figures that are dramatically different from the data even on government websites. Photographs of a teenage boy who committed suicide in Belagavi are circulated with captions claiming he was lynched for protecting cattle from cow smugglers. Let’s understand this: Indians did not suddenly adopt militant Hindutva; they have been assiduously conditioned into doing so by a carpet-bombing of disinformation.
The websites that bust fake news are doing a magnificent job, but their reach is just not enough because verification takes far longer than the creation of fake news; and because it’s nearly impossible to compete with an army of bots and keyboard warriors. Even after being exposed, the Belagavi travesty continues to be circulated.
Instead of applauding the BJP’s social media strategy as some disembodied and arcane political craft, we need to worry about the repercussions of such massive manipulation of thought. And we need to worry that television is playing wingman.
Behind the razzle-dazzle of the landslide victory lurk uneasy queries about the reliability of government data and the country’s growing democracy deficit. If the nation is supposed to have become both insecure and intolerant overnight, it would be interesting to know how such a mammoth exercise in manufactured consent has been executed. Because at some point the illusion is going to break and we will have to pick up the pieces.