Why debate about intolerance is about loss of privilege and social media is responsible for it

By Sreemoy Talukdar

In 2003, a Harvard University sophomore wrote a program called Facemash. What started as a hormone-fuelled wet dream of college roommates, would go on to become Facebook, the first-of-its-kind social network which is now a $40 billion behemoth.
And just about 3 years later, in the summer of 2006, a few New York University undergrads led by Jack Dorsey wrote a code for Twitter, the online 140-character messaging service that has since become another Fortune 500 company.

But what's the point of retelling American success stories in the context of what's happening in India right now? What has Facebook or Twitter's impact got to do with the machinations of world's largest democracy which is now allegedly on the throes of an "intolerance" wave?

In short, everything.

 Why debate about intolerance is about loss of privilege and social media is responsible for it

Representational image. AP

For at the heart of the debate which has cleaved India into two lies a power struggle, where traditional power brokers now suddenly find themselves marginalised in favour of a new order, bubbling with anger, disorganised and still ill at ease with the potency that comes with the ability to communicate.

And this churning which has placed India at the crossroads of a political, ideological and societal change wouldn't have been possible without the power of social media.

The amorphous group of authors, filmmakers, activists, thinkers, members of the academia and journalists, people who like to call themselves 'intellectuals' in India are suddenly confronted with a situation where the silent majority, instead of consuming and internalising the narrative handed down as part of a sticky colonial legacy, now stands up and asks questions, calls out the hypocrisy of public figures, challenges them with facts and figures, digs out uncomfortable truths and remains stubbornly unconvinced of hand-me-down wisdom.

So we find those who are used to preaching from the pulpit suddenly being talked back at. Those who believe it is their legal and moral right to show the way to the unwashed millions how they should exercise their franchise are suddenly getting dismayed at the loss of that privilege.

Amid the din of Assembly elections in Bihar and the bogeys raised dutifully about the fragility of secularism and tolerance, it is in this context that we should see the climate of vicious slandering and over-the-top hyperbole in media. The manifestation of deep-lying insecurity of this clique that now despairs at the increasing erosion of influence. Consider the predicament of a journalist who is discovered in social media footage inciting a crowd to get a reaction that may suit a certain narrative.

Or a public intellectual whose vicious, relentless attack on the Indian state is put in perspective when pictures emerge of the individual hobnobbing with a separatist leader.

Or empirical data that belie that there has been a rise in India since May 2014 of incidents communal in nature, busting the myth nurtured and propagated with great care in mainstream media.

What has added to the power-brokers' discomfiture is the Prime Minister's practice of relying on the new media. Narendra Modi is a crafty user of the new medium that enables him to communicate directly with citizens and take instant feedback on a range of issues, almost totally bypassing the traditional media that understandably needs to find a way to battle an increasing irrelevance.

Change, it is said, is the only constant in life. However, it would be foolish to expect those who are long used to laying down the narrative to give up without a fight. The backlash is evident. Only its shrillness belies the lack of merit.

(Extracted with permission from a Facebook post)

Updated Date: Nov 07, 2015 09:06:35 IST