Remember the early UPA-2 years? Those were the days when nobody in the media dared to open his/her mouth against Sonia Gandhi and the Opposition was numb. The arrogant Chidambarams of the world would condescendingly tell the BJP that it would not come to power for at least another 10 years.
It is around that time that dissent began to surface sporadically on the internet. Without any organization, coordination or planning, people began to take to whatever medium they could lay their hands upon … Blogger, Facebook, Twitter, etc to express their dissent. The use of the internet as a platform for political expression in India was still new.
Narendra Modi was the first to understand its potential and harness it effectively. The liberal media was too fond of itself to notice the sea change happening around it. The Congress was too busy counting its booty.
By the time the liberals realized what was happening, it was already too late. They had been reduced to 44 seats in the Lok Sabha, not even enough for an official opposition.
The Right Wing still has a decisive edge when it comes to the online space. But the worst mistake that the right can make is to fall for the same sense of complacency and self-satisfaction that proved to be the undoing of the left.
Because the sands are shifting in the online playground.
Taking lessons from its bitter 2014 defeat, the Left has invested lots of time and energy into building a string of online fortresses. We can easily reel off the names : Scroll, Wire, Catch, Quint, Newslaundry, the India edition of HuffPost and so on. One should really add Firstpost and DailyO to the same list because of the overwhelming majority of pro-left articles on both of these websites.
Unlike the right with its humble beginnings on social media around 2009-10, these left wing websites are no amateur operations. The typical person who writes for these websites is a professional journalist with a fat pay package. In contrast, the right wing on the internet still has not moved too far from its origins with common folk spending their spare time after work to indulge their hobby of political writing.
And there are signs that the leftist “string of pearls” is beginning to come together in a concerted effort to choke the right. Today, a sundry JNU student making yet another anti-Modi speech to a handful of comrades at JNU can get a national audience, thanks to Newslaundry broadcasting them live.
(Side question to JNUSU : How come your General Secretary is talking about Najeeb’s killers at 4:08? How do you know that Najeeb is dead? Do you folks know something that you are hiding from Delhi police?)
The left’s propaganda team is scouring the length and breadth of this country in the search for “talent”. One forgotten news anchor, who made most of his name working with Doordarshan in the old days, has been recently been dredged up and rehabilitated on the internet. He now has his own (almost daily) show on the YouTube channel of The Wire, from where he launches bitter diatribes against Modi and calls for “honest, fearless reporting”. You know … perhaps the kind they would do at Doordarshan during the Congress years.
A leftist comedian in some corner of the country starts something of a “talk show” to further anti-Modi propaganda. Merely two or three YoutTube episodes later, the “show” gets featured on Scroll.in for a massive publicity boost.
And so do these left wing sites go on, aiding and abetting each other. A piece that appears on Altnews (a propaganda website that has morphed into media-criticism and fact-check website) one day is carried by Newslaundry (a media-criticism and fact-check website that has morphed into propaganda website) the next day. Purely on the basis of WhatsApp forwards and social media posts by people they refuse to name, The Wire puts up a piece that claims the BJP is trying to insult Rabindranath Thakur and to push Bengalis to give up their tradition of fish eating.
Not a single shred of evidence is provided that the WhatsApp forwards even existed, or that they have been endorsed by the BJP. But the “story” catches the attention of the Huffington Post (HuffPost) and its contributing editor Sandip Roy now writes another article demanding that the BJP steer clear of “anti-fish propaganda”!
By the way, the original Wire piece went on to get 26000 shares on Facebook! Feel the power …
Oh and the reason I am using the internet archive for the above screenshot is to show the original headline of the article. Someone at The Wire must have realized later that the piece is embarrassingly devoid of credible references and slyly changed the headline to “Hindutva goes after two icons… ” in place of “BJP goes after two icons …” (the URL betrays it).
Yes … and I say this with considerable joy … those on the right still enjoy an edge on the internet. It says something truly remarkable about the amateurs who have managed to hold off a vicious coordinated all round propaganda of left wing websites.
It also says something truly embarrassing about the professional abilities of the keyboard journalists of the left. Despite their 24×7 efforts, their fat pay packages and well heeled media startups, they are still losing to a clutch of amateurs, part-timers and hobbyists. How pathetic is that!
But this does not mean that the current state of affairs is going to last forever. There is bound to be an inflexion point. At some point in the future, a well fed professional army of news propagandists is bound to turn the tide against its ragtag adversaries.
The Left’s so called dissent may be “astroturf” and the online right wing may take pride in being closer to “grassroots”, but the right’s edge is bound to erode. The left’s propaganda team is well equipped and professional. And growing in resources, organization and experience every single day.
To add to that, they target individuals on the right who are trying to counter them. They indulge in character assassination, they write to employers, they cheerfully clap when someone uses legal means to harass, and they make sure their own cheerleaders are presented as ‘neutral’ commentators, fact-checkers, comedians, and activists.
So what is the right supposed to do? The onus here is naturally on the BJP to create its own professional ecosystem. So far, the progress made in this direction in the online space appears to be minimal.
The election of 2019 is drawing near. The one thing that we know for sure is that the number of people using the internet as their source of news is increasing exponentially.
And we can never underestimate how much bigger the paradigm shift could get in the mere 20 months left for the election.
Of late, the BJP has made conspicuous progress in building its ecosystem — if it can be called so — within the cable news, especially English language cable news. This has come as much needed balm to the online right wing, which at one time used to see English language media as Enemy No. 1.
But has the BJP limited itself to neutralizing only the threats of yesteryear, long after the old medium has lost its sting? Online is where the action is and the right wing could pay dearly for being “missing in action”.
Abhishek Banerjee is a math lover who may or not be an Assistant Professor at IISc Bangalore.