The political split on social media

The political split on social media

Since the Lok Sabha 2014 poll campaign, social media has been used to denigrate all rival opinions.

Trolling has long been the bane of social media. Perfect strangers, anonymous profiles and paid or motivated trolls are forever stalking the net, ready to attack, incite, mock, threaten and harass just about any net user for opinions expressed.

Abuse, insults, obscenities, vile and violent language is so rampant that one sometimes wonders if social media has become a place where humanity unloads its deepest frustrations in the crudest possible form. In India, nothing quite arouses poisonous passions on internet, like politics. Simply put, expressing an opinion or fact that is even mildly anti-BJP and interpreted particularly as critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, invites immediate retaliation and furious trolling.

It does not matter who or what the stature of the person expressing such an opinion is. They are mercilessly flayed or mocked. Whether it’s M S Dhoni’s wife Sakshi, who got trolled merely for complaining about the leak of his Aadhaar card details or Gurmehar Kaur, the daughter of a Kargil martyr, who posted a protest against ABVP – a vicious social media backlash is guaranteed, whenever the current regime or its illiberal ideology is opposed.

It was the BJP and the AAP, which first harnessed the effective use of social media for the purpose of moulding and building public opinion through brilliant political messaging and outreach. Since the Lok Sabha 2014 election campaign, social media has been used ruthlessly to manufacture consent and denigrate all rival opinions, ideologies and personalities.

However, in the process, these political parties have brought the culture of coarse street-level thuggishness into political clashes on social media rather than nurturing civilised democratic discourse. This no-holds barred approach of targeted trolling seems to have infected everyone on social media by its sheer crudity quotient – the freedom to abuse without fear of consequences.

In effect, the ruling regime seems to have politicised, contaminated and recruited to their cause, a huge number of social media foot soldiers, who have no idea how politics can be debated, except through heaping vituperative on others.

Their reactionary aggressiveness has created an atmosphere where people who voice contrary opinions are led into a pointless spiral of escalating arguments, with unrestrained provocation from the trolls or have to learn to simply ignore them. Worse still, many have imposed self-censorship and have stopped voicing political opinions for fear of unpleasant encounters with trolls.

It is understandable that anyone can access, troll or abuse you on open forums like Twitter or online Readers Comments columns on media platforms or blogs. As an author and columnist, I am used to it. But what is  irritating is that a personal forum like Facebook, where one can choose one’s friends, acquaintances and hence expect at least a better, decent level of engagement, has also seen a steady increase in acrimony.

Indeed, this is far more disturbing because of the damage and bad blood it is capable of causing at interpersonal and societal levels. A trend is developing where friends and acquaintances, friends of friends and acquaintances now get into bitter, heated arguments over political views and perspectives, which sometimes reach venomous proportions.

No healthy exchange
Recently, a personal experience made me realise that there seems to be almost no forum left for a healthy exchange of viewpoints. In reply to a question from a European writer friend, I explained that right-wing forces had gained formidable political power in India through democratic elections but some of their leaders had a history of baiting minorities, which has given rise to legitimate concerns.

Even before my European friend saw my post, an Indian Facebook acquaintance commented that I should be patriotic and stop maligning India. I wrote back cautioning him to avoid making baseless insinuations and narrowing everything down to national/anti-national. Since he had ranted on my views earlier too, I reiterated that he was welcome to express his viewpoints and criticise mine, but to keep the debate civilised, observe basic etiquette and not reduce arguments to petty, personal barbs.

Incensed with me for not backing down, he promptly unfriended me but probably also lodged a false, spiteful complaint against me with Facebook. Because, exactly half an hour later I found my account temporarily disabled for spurious reasons.

Since, I am always responsible about what I post, including my language, and ensure that I don’t violate any guidelines, the issue was resolved and my account re-activated by Facebook.

But the question is what kind of politics is this that has instilled so much spite and hatred and divided us so bitterly? What good will it do if it makes it impossible for even friends and acquaintances to exchange differing views, without trading insults and generating rage?

There was a time not so long ago, when you could freely criticise and condemn any government, political party or personality. Amusement rather than aggravation was how people around responded. Why then has social media turned us into toxic political hecklers rather than lively online debaters?

(Desai is a Pune-based author and film-maker)

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