New York: On 10 February, I had just logged in and was scouring the wires when this news agency report came in: “Anti India slogans in JNU, disciplinary enquiry ordered.” It was half past 11 in the morning in New York where I work, 10 pm in India.
“Do we have this?” I asked my colleague in Mumbai. “Nahin, le lo,” he said. We picked it up. The name Kanhaiya Kumar meant nothing.
Barely 10 days later, this young man, who has gone from JNU student to top hashtag, is the emblem of a withering 500 word editorial in The New York Times on who might be responsible for India’s “lynch-mob mentality”.
The same social media tools that powered the Modi government to a historic election win in 2014 are snapping back. With elections coming up in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal, Assam and Uttar Pradesh this summer, the Indian government has just elbowed young Indians to march on from campuses to polling stations.
In the US, Donald Trump has mastered Twitter's power to settle scores, attack and promote his White House run like no one ever has, turning his 'good, bad, stupid' brand of social media into his campaign's mainstay, backing it with money and a ground game that is yet unmatched. Early on in the race, he called his rival - the ultimate establishment candidate Jeb Bush, a guy with no energy. Bush did not hit back, the label stuck, Bush is out of the White House race this week.
What sticks on social is not always true, ditto for the converse. Many 'false' messages have stuck. Wharton school professor Jonah Berger uses the KFC example to explain: "Especially in the US, a lot of people believe that Kentucky Fried Chicken changed its name to KFC because it's not chicken, many believe that wearing seat belts leads to death...none of this is true but the messages have stuck."
In India, Kanhaiya Kumar came to be the #Sedition poster boy because someone, maybe even unwittingly, got the messaging right on the free, urgent and visceral platforms of television and Twitter. ‘They’ said Kanhaiya chanted “Pakistan Zindabad”. This sits well with at least three of the six accepted rules of “stickiness” on social - simple, unexpected, and emotional. #KanhaiyaKumar has trended beyond India at least 3 times in the last week, with cities like Delhi spending more than 40 minutes on Twitter at a time on this hashtag. Over the last two weeks, Kanhaiya's name has popped up in the sedition and/or JNU context once every 40-50 seconds on social and there are more positive than negative mentions. While Kanhaiya is in Tihar, his ground game is the grassroots revolt that has spilled out on the streets.
Within days, retired DU professor SAR Geelani was behind bars, again for sedition, lawyers beat up journalists before Kanhaiya Kumar’s court hearing, then they beat up Kanhaiya too. But when the time came for Kanhaiya to be transported to Tihar, perfect law and order prevailed, with Kumar dressed in riot gear and protected by shields - this Indian Express Page One picture nailed it.
Stuff that goes viral on social media is chaotic and not, it’s algorithmic and not, and to get on top of it, it helps to accept both versions and proceed. Trigger communities are different from 'passion' communities. From last September on, many such trigger communities and hashtags have boiled over, starting with #DadriLynching and now on to #RohithVemula, #KanhaiyaKumar and #Sedition. Many of the same rules that work in the real world work on social — consistency is one such. Posting regularly and going underground when a crisis is brewing just makes it worse for the government. Many PR disasters have been avoided by just showing up, speaking up as the storm gathers momentum.
Like every word has more than one meaning, every tweet does many things at once, and every such ‘engagement’ powers either a forest fire or a damp squib. Kanhaiya Kumar is a ‘trigger’ event, the national tricolour is a ‘passion’ topic. Announcing a 207 ft tall and 135 kg heavy mast in all varsities during the raging #JNURow will not silence trigger communities which are discrete and unstoppable.
The #JNURow is a trigger event that has come to embody the network dynamics behind what a young man said after the Arab Spring which he sparked off turned on him: “If we want to liberate our society, we must first liberate the internet.”
By 13 February, Kanhaiya Kumar went from regular guy in JNU to “anti-national”, and thrown behind bars for sedition.
By 16 February, when Firstpost put out this video of Kanhaiya Kumar with a full transcript, a lot of folks asked us the simple question - fair enough too - “Why now? What’s this video, what about the other one?”
Which other one?
The answer came yesterday, on 22 February, when a news producer with a private TV channel sent a stinging resignation letter and quit over the way the company handled the “original” video.
In his letter, Vishwa Deepak writes: “Are we the BJP or RSS mouthpieces, for us to do whatever they say? A video which did not even have the slogan of ‘Pakistan zindabad’ was still aired continuously. How did we blindly believe that these voices which came in the dark were of Kanhaiya or his friends? Instead of ‘Bhartiya Court zindabad’, they heard 'Pakistan zindabad' and spoilt some peoples career, hopes and led their families to destruction. It would have been good if we would have let the investigating agencies conduct a probe and then waited for the results.”
When the Firstpost video of Kanhaiya Kumar caught fire, the questions “why this video, why now” is a good indication of how chaotic social media conversations are. The video we put out may turn out to be the only video that matters, because the 'other one - the earlier one' has reportedly been fixed, from what Vishwa Deepak says.
News is no longer breaking on traditional media, the pyramid has upturned and news often breaks on social and then percolates. News aggregators are somewhere in the middle between social on top and community influencers populating the bottom of the pyramid. But governments and those in power cannot be seen to be taking decisions based on how social media informs them or how television may report the #JNURow. Social media is not an arbiter of truth. After the Paris Attacks and San Bernardino shootings in California, the New York police got a social media message that schools will be attacked. NYPD analyzed the message and decided it was an empty threat, all schools stayed open.
“I once said that if you want to liberate a society, all you need is the internet. I was wrong," says Wael Ghonim, who, back in 2011, started an anonymous Facebook page that sparked the Arab revolution. "The same tool that united us to topple dictators eventially tore us apart,” Ghonim says in a TED talk that is appended on this page.
Ghonim’s caveat is not just for Egypt, it informs the network effects that have kicked in for every hashtag that’s ever gone viral. #DadriLynching? #JNURow? Of course.
“If I write a one-sided, angry post, I am certain to get more readers,” says Ghonim who talks about how conforming to biases rewards social media users with more follows and readers. Just like this story may get trolled because it does not sing pro-establishment praise. Online henchmen, paid or not, are an almost primitive strategy - not very different people who spill out from state transport buses into stadiums for political rallies. These hordes don't make a rock star, great content does.
Ghonim argues that this eco-system must be changed to reward and analyse how many people are “changing their minds” after reading a post rather than how many are thrilled about their own biases being mirrored in a tidal wave.
Ted Talks’ introduction of Wael Ghonim resonates with so much of what’s going on in India, and indeed polarised societies everywhere: “…Ghonim helped touch off the Arab Spring in his home of Egypt ... by setting up a simple Facebook page. As he reveals, once the revolution spilled onto the streets, it turned from hopeful to messy, then ugly and heartbreaking. And social media followed suit. What was once a place for crowdsourcing, engaging and sharing became a polarized battleground. Ghonim asks: What can we do about online behavior now? How can we use the Internet and social media to create civility and reasoned argument?”
Swedish author and journalist Andreas Ekström takes the same, powerful thread forward and provides the counterweight that society must factor in— that an unbiased search result is an algorithmic and philosophical impossibility.
If an elected government of the world’s largest democracy which is home to the youngest population worldwide informs arrest/s based on social media chatter, a fake tweet or worse, a grainy video with poisoned astons, well, what do you say?
The Farce Awakens?