Social media and the civil uprising

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on January 22, 2018

Check republic: Internet messaging on mobile phones was shut down in parts of Gujarat after a spate of violence triggered by the agitation led by Hardik Patel.   -  Vijay Soneji;THE HINDU

Sukumar Muralidharan   -  BUSINESS LINE

“Coalitions of the connected” are redefining the frontiers of human freedom and empowerment

Silicon Valley is an ecosystem in part nourished by technical talent with an Indian stamp of origin. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming visit to Silicon Valley and his planned meetings with a number of persons of Indian origin who have breached glass ceilings and achieved positions of corporate authority is a subtle effort to take ownership of that intangible patrimony. And then there is the more tangible purpose of recruiting talent to the cause of the digital revolution that is an integral part of the government’s developmental plans.

Not everybody, however, seems to share the celebratory spirit. In a letter addressed to prominent Silicon Valley executives, a number of academics of Indian origin urged a degree of scepticism about the plans for a “digital India”. A specific concern flagged was the possible use of new digital technologies for purposes of citizen surveillance. There was also a worry that economic disparities would be aggravated, that digital India would only deepen existing divides.

Dhruva Jaishankar, a young scholar with a US-based think tank, responded with an admonition that the intervention by the academics betrayed group-think and political partisanship. The threat of surveillance, he argued, was overblown and the bogey of widening economic disparities totally irrelevant.

Perhaps the fear of surveillance is not the main reason for scepticism. The issue, rather, is how far the security establishment is willing to tolerate the free and uninhibited use of digital resources. An instinctive tendency to clamp down on digital communications and media has been evident in recent years at various junctures of actual or potential civil unrest in parts of the country.

This matter has been under discussion in policy circles for long. In January 2012, Naresh Chandra, then head of the National Security Advisory Board, delivered a lecture in honour of the founder of India’s overseas intelligence agency. The occasion determined the audience, which was closely attuned to the discourse on “national security” and needed no guidance through its basic premises.

Chandra worried that conventional intelligence-gathering and enforcement were proving inadequate for the brave new world of networking technologies. “A revolution in communication and the tremendous expansion of the internet has created a new situation,” he said. “The utility of monitoring telephonic conversation or intercepting messages on wireless is hardly sufficient any more.” Aside from print and TV, “the social media has now a reach which runs into millions, with extremely fast communication capable of creating a surge of public opinion and movement faster than any government agency can monitor, let alone control.”

Referring to the 2011 protests against corruption in India and the tidal wave of street demonstrations in the Arab world, Chandra observed that “highly centralised governments” had been “taken by surprise (by) movements springing on to the streets in unexpectedly large numbers united with a common intent”. While flagging this “destabilising phenomenon”, he had words of comfort for India. The “impact of such events” would be less “in democracies where the media is free and open”.

Since then it became the commonsense among top police and security officials that the new media were part of the factors to account for in all strategic plans. In an address to the country’s top police officials in 2013, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh alerted them to the need to be vigilant on this count, though without going so far as to demand an abridgement of free speech.

Modi’s arrival in office signalled a change of emphasis, perhaps reflecting the very forceful use he had made of social and indeed all forms of media in his election campaign.

Within weeks of taking charge, the new PM signalled how much store he set by social media as an administrative tool. His early directive that senior administrators should utilise social media but confine themselves to Hindi, had the unintended consequence of generating a frisson of linguistic tensions. A later meeting with a top executive from Facebook on a business visit to India earned wide media coverage.

Instrumental use of the internet and the new media is not an idea original to India. The clearest statement of intent here comes from two top officials of Google — executive chairman Eric Schmidt and Google Ideas director Jared Cohen — in their 2013 work titled ‘The New Digital Age’. Google Ideas very tellingly identifies itself as a “Think/Do Tank” and Cohen is a perfect fit for the generic term “in and outer”, constantly in transit through the revolving doors between the corporate world, policy think-tanks and government. He was famed for having served the US State Department under two bosses — Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton — and for his facility to invent smart-sounding catchphrases such as ‘Public Diplomacy 2.0’.

In 2010, Schmidt and Cohen co-authored a paper which was a celebration of the new frontiers of human freedom that the internet made possible. From the “reading coalition” that Benedict Anderson, in his classic work Imagined Communities, described as a key player in the early days of the nation, here was a prophecy of how “coalitions of the connected” would cement a true global solidarity of enlightenment and freedom.

Time magazine honoured the protester as the “person of the year” for 2011. Four years on, the civil uprisings against the political state have been transformed into chaotic violence in the Arab world and a flood of refugees into an already troubled European continent. The lessons are yet to be learnt but thinking, clearly, has to shift from control and, in the worst instance, repression to a worldview of enabling and empowering, of allowing an enrichment of the public sphere with a diversity of voices.

( Sukumar Muralidharan is an independent writer and researcher based in Gurgaon and Shimla)

Published on September 18, 2015

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