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The Wilderness of Shadows

We live in a world where opinion is sacred and facts are dispensable.

At the Trump White House they talk about alternative facts. And anyone who watches Indian news channels will see an alternate reality unfold.


The economy, we will learn, is booming. Covid is under control. India’s most powerful neighbours live in terror of us. Muslims are practising a new kind of warfare called love jehad. The Hathras victim was a liar. And the biggest problem facing India is the massive cover-up of the brutal, drug-related murder of Sushant Singh Rajput.


   The rise of the bogus fact has been made possible by the dominance of social media. There is now a huge body of research into the role of social media in distorting our vision of reality, some of which is simplified and clearly presented in the popular Netflix docu-drama The Social Dilemma.


   Because of the way social media algorithms function, bizarre conspiracy theories get as much weightage as real news on such platforms as Facebook. Moreover, if we even glance at the bizarre stuff, because it seems so outrageous that it makes us curious, the algorithm will send more and more dangerous and outlandish nonsense our way, treating it like real news. Finally it will get to the stage where we exist in an echo chamber of the ridiculous.


   And then there is the ability of social media to amplify fake news. Facebook was manipulated by the Russians during the 2016 US Presidential election and it also contributed to the genocide of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. WhatsApp is routinely used in India to spread communal tension by people who forward fake and motivated stories. And such is the nature of Twitter that a lie gets over thirty times as much traction as the truth.


   All over the world --- but probably most significantly in India --- news TV is taking its cues, not from any longstanding journalistic tradition, but from the virality of fake news and conspiracy theories on social media. These days, many anchors are no more than trolls in studios and the scripts of some news broadcasts are no better than fake WhatsApp forwards.


   The cacophony of social media and news television convinces many of us that the basic character of India is undergoing a transformation. Once upon a time, who would have thought it likely that an ad film featuring an inter-faith couple would provoke so much anger? And certainly nobody would have imagined that a business group as respected and admired as the Tatas would give in to this hatred and withdraw the ad.


   But the time has now come to ask: are we overestimating the extent to which India has changed? Is our society really as hate-filled and violently angry as social media and TV would have us believe?


"In a world where facts are in peril, we are often fooled into responding to bogus threats and manufactured controversies."

   We base our view of the transformation of society largely on what we read on social media and what we see on television. But have we considered that just as alternative facts are fabricated and made up, the figures that tell us how far the hatred has spread and how popular it is on TV and social media may also be made up?


   Let’s take the Sushant Singh Rajput case. All of us were sad when he died but most of us have been taken aback and shocked by conspiracy theories that followed his passing.


   Could this be because the outrage was largely manufactured? The cyber cell of the Mumbai police claims that it has traced 70,000 social media accounts that were set up after Sushant died. Most of these accounts were outsourced to professional troll farms in Indonesia, Thailand, Poland, Turkey and other countries. The brief was to post fake news and conspiracy theories about the circumstances of Sushant’s death and to then mercilessly troll and abuse anyone who dared express a contrary point of view.


   You could argue that the Mumbai police, who have faced criticism for their role in investigating the case, have a vested interest in making this claim. But if you look closely at the handles that make hashtags like ≠ArrestRheaNow trend on Twitter, a suspiciously large number of them will be new accounts that exist only to tweet about the case.


   Even if the social media outrage is fake, you might respond, what about the TV channels? Why is it that the most sensationalist, most incendiary channels seem to have the highest ratings?


   Well, some of it, admittedly, has to do with the popularity of any content that caters to the lowest common denominator.


   But ratings success can be misleading and meaningless. Everyone in the TV business has known for years how easy it is to manipulate TRPs if you are willing to be unscrupulous. The recent police case where employees of Hansa, one of the agencies that helps measure the ratings, confessed to corruption and rigging only confirms what many of us already knew. As if to re-emphasise those misgivings, BARC, the body that issues the TRPs has conceded that it needs to revisit its system and has suspended the ratings of news channels for three months while a review is conducted. So perhaps the noisiest channels are not really the most popular. Perhaps they are just better at rigging the ratings.


   The danger of living in a world where there are few facts and millions of opinions is that we can’t even tell what people are really thinking. Has India really become an angry, hate-filled place where reputations are dragged through the mud for no reason, where all attempts at fostering communal harmony are treated as treason and where the real issues count for nothing?


   Or are we just being fooled by bogus TRPs and manufactured social media posts with likes and retweets generated by glove puppets in troll farms?


   The answers to those questions are crucial because, if nothing else, they give us a sense of the mood of our country. And for those like the Tatas who scurry to suppress ads that anger social media-bigots, it might help to find out if those bigots are real or are just keyboard warriors in some anonymous control room.


   In a world where facts are in peril, we are often fooled into responding to bogus threats and manufactured controversies. And because the light is dimmed, we exist in a wilderness of hazy shadows.




  • saikat das 16 Oct 2020

    Agree with Raminder. Many if not most people around us within the upper middle class hold on to the scariest of views. Their world starts with Tv news and ends with whatsapp.

  • Raminder Ahluwalia 16 Oct 2020

    While it is true that a large number of bogus accounts foster hateful messaging on social media but I find a large number of real childhood classmates and "educated" friends forwarding these messages and even defending them when challenged So it is hard for me to say that India has not become a hateful, angry country, since those accounts are real.

Posted On: 15 Oct 2020 05:05 PM
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