New York: A month ago, on 9 February, what happened in JNU? What did JNU student union leader Kanhaiya Kumar say, why was he arrested, why the sedition tag, why has he been let off with a lesson on thoughts that corrupt, what’s the sanctity to a six month bail?
All we have are question marks, the whole ruckus is now “sub judice.”
Here’s what we know for sure: BJP’s self styled hard hats have announced "prize money" of Rs 5 lakh to anyone who cuts off Kanhaiya Kumar’s tongue” and double that - Rs 11 lakh to kill him.
Reporting on how the “Narendra Modi government seeks to define patriotism and then own it”, Economist says “ the damage to India’s image is painful.”
“Faith in the police and other institutions has been undermined. Vigilante violence has seemed to win official backing. …This is not the outward-looking, investor-friendly image India hopes to project. And it threatens its liberal traditions of free speech.”
Meanwhile, Kanhaiya Kumar has been propelled into speedy stardom, delivering fiery speeches fuelled by the gall of persecution. The “fake tweet” that provoked the Indian government into saying “anti-national” and the doctored video which trapped Kanhaiya Kumar were swept away in a twister. Echo chambers parroting spittle spattered rhetoric took over, Kanhaiya Kumar got beaten up, thrown behind bars.
The sequence of events remains shadowy at best.
In 30 days Kanhaiya Kumar has made it to the edit page of New York Times and a full pager in The Economist - all this began with a few minutes of doctored visuals broadcast on a private TV channel of Kumar shouting “anti-India slogans.”
Digital wildfires in a hyperconnected world
In a hyperconnected world, one piece of un-vetted, unchecked news sparked a digital forest fire on social media - free, urgent and typically polarising. The etymology and imagery of the wildfire finds its roots in mathematical models of how forest fires erupt, made famous by the Erdos Renyi random graph models.
It is well accepted across social media that the first sign of crisis is when any misinformation makes it into the news - print or TV. So, by the time it gets to Twitter and Facebook, it’s already late. For Kanhaiya Kumar, was it a crisis? At a personal level, certainly. But by then, he was a disempowered citizen against a twister. Nothing says it better than this searing headline of the Delhi Police status report on his bail plea: Kanhaiya Kumar versus State.
Massive digital misinformation a global risk
The #KanhaiyaKumar story is the sort of prototype that informs a remarkable essay by the World Economic Forum on the global risk of “massive digital misinformation that sits at the centre of a constellation of technological and geopolitical risks ranging from terrorism to cyber attacks and the failure of global governance.”
The Kanhaiya Kumar case offers a striking parallel narrative to the examples in the WEF report that speaks of “misuse of an open and easily accessible system and the greater danger of misguided attempts to prevent such outcomes.”
Polarised “echo chambers” and “confirmation bias” are two terms that repeat through the study - the result of a many-to-many ecosystem where “everyone can produce or find information consistent with their own belief system.”
Walter Quattrociocchi, Head of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science, IMT Lucca who wrote the WEF report, explains an echo chamber and its many dangers:
Echo chambers confirm bias, polarise
“An echo chamber is an isolated space on the web, where the ideas being exchanged essentially just confirm one another. It can be a space of likeminded people sharing similar political views, or a page about a specific conspiracy theory. Once inside one of these spaces, users are sharing information that is all very similar, basically "echoing" each other.”
Once engaged in a conspiracy corpus, a user tends to join the overall conversation, and begins to "jump" from one topic to another. The probability increases with user engagement (number of likes on a single specific topic). Each new like on the same conspiracy topic increases the probability to pass to a new one by 12%.
Highlights in the WEF report include:
-- What kind of rumours are spreading?
-- What is an echo chamber?
-- Methodology in studying global misinformation
-- How people react on social regardless of information source detailing or bonafide.
-- What can be done to fight misinformation?
Trolls "most fascinating" social dynamic
Calling the sewage pit that is trolling on social by an elegant name - alternative narratives, WEF says it’s a “most fascinating” social dynamic.
There was a time when trolls would just work up a crowd and get happy, now they have “evolved.”
Trolls’ activities range from controversial and satirical content to the fabrication of purely fictitious statements, heavily unrealistic and sarcastic.
“These jokes often end up as evidence in online debates from political activists.”
Over six months of poring over 50 Facebook pages, here’s what the WEF team found, among other patterns: Posts containing unsubstantiated claims, or about political activism, as well as regular news, all had very similar engagement patterns.
An even more detailed report published by the highly regarded National Academy of Sciences of United States and authored by 8 heavyweights inlcuding Walter Quattrociocchi says that algorithmic solutions are not good enough to break the troll and conspiracy mafia creating mistrust and paranoia.
Back from jail, Kanhaiya Kumar fires back
After 23 days in jail, Kanhaiya Kumar stepped out of Tihar to a hero’s welcome and belted out a rock star speech tailor made for social watched by millions - brimming with humour, sarcasm and anger, delivered in a white tee and black jacket, scruffy and honest. This was his echo chamber, the joke was on ‘them’.
Like trolls pump conspiracy theories by reducing the complexity of reality, Kanhaiya Kumar paid it back: “Azaadi, not from India but inside India”, “Har Har Modi”, “Thanks to ‘their’ police”…
This too finds mention in the WEF report - “homophily" - where a user’s engagement in a specific narrative goes hand in hand with the number of network connections having a similar profile.
Considering India’s young population is the world’s largest and smartphone uptake even in Tier 3 cities has been phenomenal, an angry young man’s speech after 23 days in jail was bound to rock it.
As for Kanhaiya’s future in the Left and plans for a "revolution", Manu Joseph writes in Hindustan Times: “May I suggest a more popular and contemporary word to comrade Kanhaiya — ‘disruption’.”