In a classic case of shooting the messenger, the Indian Right has taken up cudgels against the BBC for its reporting from the ground during the 'siege of Kashmir'. At first, the troll armies tried to delegitimise a video depicting tear gas shelling by resorting to all sorts of claims: That it was old footage, that it was filmed elsewhere and so on. When each of these charges was roundly disproved, they resorted to whataboutery: calling out the BBC's biases and past lapses. Meanwhile, the government has accused the BBC and other international news outlets of 'fabricating' the reporting.
Optimists will say that the truth is out, and tactics of distraction or denial will ultimately fail, but in the modern landscape of media warfare, one just has to fight the battle in the moment. For media strategists, counter-propaganda of this sort need not even be about regaining control over the narrative; it is sufficient to control the damage a video like this can cause in the ranks of the faithful. The BJP and its functionaries are ensuring that their followers do not doubt the party for a second.
It feels like another lifetime, but it has been less than six months since the strikes at Balakot. Do we really know what happened that day? It was during that time that I realised how, when it came to times of active conflict, there was absolutely no option for citizens other than to rely on what the government said. But if the government is not being completely transparent about Kashmir, it raises a question on other topics too.
Some of us are happy to go to any lengths to invent logic and fantasies that defend a viewpoint we want to support. Some of us believe Kashmiris were waiting for this day, that Ajit Doval’s stage-managed videos accurately reflect the goings-on there, and that the BBC and Reuters and a host of India's own senior journalists are lying. But others, surely, are concerned. They know that trust is built through checks and balances.
Exploiting psychological vulnerabilities
This assault on the BBC’s credibility also has the advantage of preparing the ground for more such attacks in the future. The endgame, that we are already seeing in sections of our population, as well as in other countries, is that anything the media says is automatically suspect. It is into this soft underbelly of a lack of credibility that the government can insert the knife of its propaganda and eviscerate any truth that may lie in media reports.
If the BBC were a person, this tactic would be called a logical fallacy, argumentum ad hominem: An attack against the messenger in an attempt to discredit the message itself. But what propagandists and marketers have known for a long time is that a logical fallacy is not a problem when one is seeking to manipulate. It is an opportunity. Logical fallacies have been identified because they are native to our thinking. They are psychological vulnerabilities waiting to be hacked by unscrupulous players.
Political marketers and propagandists also know that we love to simplify. The reason that a statement like "either you are with us, or you’re against us" has such enduring appeal is because it is so deceptively simple. Once this orientation is established, one can rely on psychology to do the rest. Once people believe a government is their friend, the government can get away with most anything. Once people believe the BBC is their enemy, everything it says is automatically discredited.
What master propagandists also know is to play on our fantasies. I cannot forget a conversation I had with a member of my family after the Balakot air strikes. At some point during the frenzied aftermath, this person shared the false report that Masood Azhar had been killed in the strike. When I said that the news was unlikely to be true, I was told, "I don’t need to know if the news is true or not. I want to share it because it makes me feel proud and happy."
Today, large chunks of our population want to share the news that Kashmiris are fine with the abrogation of Article 370, and that its citizens are looking forward to the wonderful future the Indian State will provide them. When Kashmiris outside the state speak of the anxiety they are feeling at not being able to contact their ailing parents, these people cover their ears. When asked what it would be like to not be in touch with your loved ones in a state overrun with security forces, they refuse to exercise their imaginations. To do so would threaten their fantasy.
The way psychology works, of course, is that even if this fantasy turns into a nightmare — and there are many reasons to believe it will — our minds will invent excuses for it. Oh, it wasn’t demonetisation at fault, but its implementation. It isn't the present government that failed to deliver on economic promises, it was the Congress' legacy. And on and on.
Shakti ka santulan
The present crisis of confidence in media is driven by technology. Earlier, the only way to reach the people was through costly and complicated processes: Gather the news, write and edit it, publish it, and reach physical newspapers to the people. Subscriptions had to be painfully collected. The government relied upon the media, and therefore had to somewhat respect it.
Today, anybody with a cellphone can write a news report. And if you have millions of citizens waiting to lap up your propaganda on WhatsApp groups, then it is very easy to control the narrative. As Amit Shah famously said, the BJP can send any message it likes to the people, whether sweet or sour, true or false, and they will believe it and disseminate it.
Given this situation, who can verify the facts? Who can keep an eye on the government? Earlier, we needed media organisations just to access the news. Now access is ridiculously simple. What is hard, and getting harder, is verification. Ironically, just when we have stopped needing media houses to get the news, we need them more than ever to cross check it.
The only way citizens can find out what is true is if one group in power exposes the actions of another group in power. As powerless citizens, we have very little in our own hands — we have to rely on healthy and vigorous competition at the top. If we continue to disparage news organisations and buy wholesale into party lines, we will weaken one of the key players of this competition at the top. As the famous dialogue in Maqbool went: Shakti ka santulan bahut zaroori hai sansaar mein. Aag ke liye paani ka darr hona chahiye (Society needs a balance of power. Fire must continue to fear water).
None of these competitors are particularly our friends — certainly not the politicians, nor even prestigious media houses. But in their ability to check each other rests some hope for us.
Today, a political party may need you to neutralise its competitors, but a day will come when there will be no meaningful competition. At that point, the ruling elites will need no fans. For those celebrating and joining in the destruction of key institutions like the media, a day may come when a government will be free to lie about the things that you care about. Then you will have no choice but to mutely pretend that what it says is the truth.
Updated Date: Aug 14, 2019 10:27:41 IST