Every week brings new cases of social media suppression of conservative voices – the shutting down of the popular True Indology account last week by Twitter was the latest. Similarly, the OTT platforms and Bollywood continue what seems to be some kind of sick competition to figure out who can insult Hindus the most. Netflix’s latest nauseating offering masquerading as art shows a Muslim boy and Hindu girl indulging in bedroom activities in a temple instead.
Neither is of course an isolated case. But what’s taking place is more complicated and where it’s heading is a lot more dangerous than even experts currently imagine.
To fully understand the trajectory, it is important to take a quick stock of where things started and where they are. Social media platforms started with the happy idea of connecting people. Facebook was the first truly global social media platform and from a business perspective, the more users there are, the better. Facebook and others like it are in the business of data – collecting lots of it and selling lots of it. The consumer is THE product. While there are legitimate privacy concerns with that business model, there isn’t anything particularly nefarious in the design. I call this Phase I of social media and it lasted roughly until 2016.
It was the US Presidential Election and the Brexit votes that year that signalled the start of Phase II – the weaponization of data. Data analytics techniques were applied in both of these elections to micro-target users with ads designed to persuade. While these techniques were applied in earlier elections, it was their use in these two voting exercises, and more importantly the outcomes to these voting exercises that set the alarm bells off, especially among the liberal intelligentsia and media.
What has happened since 2016 is that left-wing voices have figured out that just like the real world, whoever shouts loudest and claims victimhood wins. While there are too many examples of this to go through, an easy one to understand is the anti-CAA campaign that took place over social media with fatal spillover effects into the real world in the form of the Delhi riots.
In parallel the social media and OTT platforms continue to gain mindshare as traditional forms of media such as TV, radio and books continue to suffer. So do all other forms of leisure activities, e.g. playing sports, board games, or general interests such as painting or playing a musical instrument. Our free time is largely in front of a small screen (Insta, Facebook, Twitter) or large screen (Netflix, Prime). Individuals and companies realize that ‘being on’ social media is not just a marketing strategy, it is THE marketing strategy and the way to reach your audience.
The Walled Garden
Fast forward to today and we are entering the third Phase – the walled garden. Now that most people, especially young people are on one or more of these platforms or consume video content through the streaming services, the platforms can start to dictate terms to the producers (in the case of platforms) and the consumer (individuals or businesses). What goes unseen is the powers that be that pull the puppet strings behind these platforms through direct funding from leftist purses or the ‘useful idiots’ in the form of employees who push for a more ‘progressive’ agenda. It is these two sets of people that can dictate who gets to play in the sandbox and who is kicked out for not conforming. And getting ‘cancelled’ or ostracized on social media may seem harmless, but as these technologies weave themselves tighter into our day to day lives, the impacts of such cancellations can be far-reaching. Think future employers running social media screening for a ‘cultural fit’, or insurance companies charging different premiums or denying coverage based on the same.
We will soon enter a new stage – bubbles of voices and viewpoints. As ‘traditional’ social media continues to restrict voices that don’t match its dictates, alternates that promise a return to social media as it was, unfiltered and non-judgemental will emerge. You will have competing ecosystems come up, for example, the Twitter competitor, Parler is known for largely not censoring content and thus has conservatives flocking to it. These platforms will coalesce into bubbles of sameness and may take away from the original point of social media which is to connect and not necessarily with only those that share your point of view.
What is to be done, especially in the Indian context? While I have focused on social media in this piece, the easier areas to tackle are the OTT platforms. The solution is for government and non-government organizations to support Indic based content and platforms. With the low bar of entry for new artists (anyone with a smartphone and computer can become a film director today), there is a wealth of talent looking to be discovered, and a whole host of (non-Hindu phobic) stories waiting to be told.
What can the government do?
Regarding the social media platforms, a heavy government hand is needed. There are enough reasons to ban or severely curtail Facebook, Instagram and Twitter including data privacy concerns, and the authorities need to bite the bullet and proceed with these bans. The bans should only occur after the Government tips the scales by promoting a select set of swadeshi apps already available or in the works. There can be crowdsourcing efforts sponsored to suggest features and changes to existing apps to address usability or viability options. Once there is a list decided, a carrot and stick approach can be used to get cricketers, actors and actresses, and other prominent citizens to use these platforms. A marketing campaign can be built around being Atmanirbhar in the digital world.
PM Modi recently announced that this is the age of data. We also saw the recent news that the number of internet users doubled to 75 cr in the past 5 years. This is a critical time as millions of Indians continue to come online and it will be harder to make a change once habits have formed. We cannot let digital colonizers take over the virtual Indian landscape.