Politics in the age of digital technology

Every ordinary mortal is a potential giant killer
In the last week of 2016 when the world was busy making New Year resolutions or was out celebrating on the beaches or in the hills, a low ranking Indian para-military officer stirred the proverbial hornet’s nest. He uploaded a small video clip on Youtube and on Facebook citing pathetic conditions in which he was being kept thanks to the alleged negligence and corrupt practices of immediate seniors. As if on cue two more such videos surfaced, followed by rant through video streaming by a very high ranking military officer who was superseded for the post of chief of Indian army.
The central government panicked. It resorted to quick and clumsy denial. Casting aspersion on the character and mental state of the soldiers and swiftly acted against them. Simultaneously soldiers and their seniors were transferred from their posts and an inquiry was ordered into the allegations levelled by the soldiers that raised a storm in the virtual world. It also openly threatened the senior officer of dire consequences.
The sudden information ambush by “lowly” and lonely soldiers elicited a predictable and interesting government response. Initially it was baffled and confused, then irritated and embarrassed and finally it regained its poise.
The initial confusion was due to the fact that the extremely hierarchy conscious security apparatus was suddenly, simply but brilliantly out manoeuvred by a single soldier. Thanks to Facebook a foot soldier who would have thought twice to even knock on the doors of his immediate superior was effortlessly connecting with a large audience. He made his misery a talking point among the people. The minister of internal security, belonging to a party that rode to power at the centre on their patriotic plank, balked under intense public gaze. David had humbled Goliath.
Tsunami of sensory stimulus
This is not the first time when social media has helped under-privileged or “weak” to take up cudgels with the high and mighty and come out trumps. And it won’t be the last.
Since the beginning of the 21st century and especially after 2006 with the spread of internet and digital technologies the political landscape has witnessed a quiet but decisive shift.
Politicians are realising for the first time that the digital technologies are breaking down hierarchies and making it difficult to control information flow. The proliferation of digital technologies, particularly in the field of communication like social media platforms and Youtube have created a situation where it is both very easy to create an image as well as call the bluff.
As politics is in most parts but the art of managing perceptions, to that degree conducting their affairs seem like a tough ask these days for the practitioners of this art.
Historically the channels of information were limited. Information dissemination was through the word of mouth or through king’s decree. During these times a politician could invest time in building their image by withholding inconvenient truths about themselves and accentuating their positive aspects or successes. As access to the tools and sources of information flow to the people could be easily controlled, most of the politicians kept a distance from the people and this gave rise to myths about a person. Dedicated team of story tellers would fan out in rural heartland or in city squares and narrated stories glorifying the person and his achievements.
Folklores would be created around a person and his or her ideas would be presented as revolutionary. Perceptions would take time to build and then grew and endured. People would be slowly worked upon and around an idea where it became an article of faith for a huge majority or a committed minority with enough power to change the tide of time.
In the 20th century the first wave of mass media – newspapers, radio and television – offered politicians a very powerful tool. The first generation mass media was a misnomer in a sense that masses had no control over it. It was under strict control of either governments or powerful business elites. However, they were deemed mass media as they could connect with a large number of people at the same time. This form of mass media was a one-way-traffic. Especially tailored information could be dished out to everyone in the society.
There was no way the public could participate in it. Newspapers had their letters to editor columns, radio and television too had their people’s comment programmes but they were heavily edited and controlled. Anything that didn’t fit the neat narrative of the ruling elite, seldom found voice on these mediums.
At times there were attempts by people to raise their voice by starting community radio, or small television channel or small scale newspapers but they were no match to the over arching power of the organised mass media. It was very efficient at muzzling the alternative voice.
The one-size-fits-all information packets that these mass media organisations were adapt at churning out were a terrific tool in the hands of the politicians to perpetuate a carefully crafted mono-focal perception among the masses.
For example during the Cold War both the US and Soviet Union employed mass media, first the radio and then the television, very successfully to vilify each other and project each other as villains in their respective societies.
However, during the last decade of the 20th century the rise of internet brought about a subtle change in the way things were being run around the world. During the last 15 years the spread of internet and the digital technologies it brought in general and three instances in particular have given the world a glimpse of what lay in store for the future.
The new mass media
In the early years of the 21st century the war in Iraq witnessed for the first time the power of digital technology called the blog. While the mass media was reporting a sanitised version of the war the soldiers on the ground who were given access to internet and were allowed to maintain their own blogs to remain in touch with their family members started using the platform to air their doubts, anger, frustration, dejection and general state of degeneration that accompanies any war. They started questioning the rationale of the war and brought the firsthand accounts of its horrors to the general public. It shattered the dominant narrative peddled by the “embedded” traditional mass media in the US and the West European nations.
Four years later during the presidential elections in the US a rank outsider called Barak Obama first upset the apple cart within his own party to win the presidential nomination and then out smarted much well heeled Republicans by marshalling the power of the social media and digital technologies. His Twitter, Facebook and web-based outreach programme gave him an edge in both reaching out to people as well as collecting donations. The small donations from a wide base of the society added up to make a big difference to his campaign kitty.
As the first decade of the 21st century drew to a close the regions of Middle East or West Asia witnessed people’s uprising against their autocratic governments in what is now know as Arab Spring. The people’s movement was spearheaded by young who were using social media, especially Facebook, extensively to connect with each other, informing people about impending government crack downs and deciding upon a venue. It was also used for impromptu meeting on a spur-of-the-moment decided venue.
These three examples have been replicated since in many societies and in different circumstances with varying degrees of success. These events also teach us lessons in the emerging social and political realities.
They tell us that the new wave of digital media technologies is actually the “mass media”. Here the masses fully participate in generating information and accepting it. They are no more just passive consumers of information which is handed to them in top-down approach. They actively generate it and also reserve the right to listen, read or view it. In that sense they also have the power to be either a part of or the orchestrator of genuine or false information. They can be a tool or source of information, mis-information or dis-information.
Spectacles and echo chambers
This democratisation of levers of control in information generation and dissemination has hit the perception building mechanism created by traditional media. The oligarchy of control of traditional mass media made it easier for the politician to perpetuate themselves, black out others’ views and project their ideas as the ultimate truth. As crowding out the uncomfortable truth, a personal flaw or a group’s misdeeds was easier it helped the politicians in enduring their favourite perceptions for generations.
However, in the digital age and the social media perception management is becoming difficult.
Politics is a game of creating, managing and enduring perceptions. It makes personality cults and enduring ideas.
In mass media that was controlled by the few it was easy to maintain it for long but in digital real time technologies it has become difficult. It was visible during the recently concluded US presidential election where both the Democrat and Republican candidates faced extreme scrutiny and public opprobrium for even their slightest slips.
Republican candidate and now the 45th President of the US, Donald Trump, was specially targeted on Twitter and social media for his blunders. Even after his inauguration ceremony the controversy surrounding the number of people attending the event painted him in a poor light. His team tried to counter the claims of the media by putting forward bogus facts and when they were caught they said they were presenting “alternate facts”. The euphemism for lies was quickly denounced by Twitter and social media trolls.
As has been visible in the US elections as well as in other full, quazi or faux democracies around the world keeping people’s outburst under control in the age of digital technologies in general and social media in particular is becoming increasingly difficult. Similarly maintaining a perception for long is also turning out to be far more challenging than any other time in history.
To the curious onlooker it may seem that the age of politicians and politics is over. For the politicians and their spin doctors it may be trying times as they try to grapple with altered realities of their playing turf. But that’s just a part of the entire reality. The other side of the coin holds lot more promise than we think.
The idea that politics is nothing but management of perception has gained currency during the last few centuries. However, if we look at the classical meaning of the word politics it says, “The activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties having power. Or it means activities aimed at improving someone’s status or increasing power within an organization”.
This definition emphasises the role of action in the form of debates, positions taken in a debate and the follow up action taken on it. During the last two hundred years politicians have mistaken the call to action as just creating and managing perceptions. Too much emphasis has been laid on only one aspect of the political action. This has led to employment of subterfuge, double speak and deception.
Integrity the new currency
But the digital technologies are making this kind of politics of difficult. Now the space of saying something and doing something exactly opposite is shrinking.
Take the case of India politician, Lal Krishna Advani. Belonging to the right wing Hindu Nationalist Party, Bharatiya Janata Party, he cultivated a hard-line Hindu image. He projected himself as someone who was opposed to alleged Muslim appeasement practices of the more liberal Congress Party. After investing 50 years in that persona he tried to change it when he realised that strident positions will not earn him the coveted post of the prime minister. On a visit to Pakistan he praised Jinnah the father of Pakistan and a much reviled figure in India among Hindus. Within moments his comments went viral and people’s reactions came equally fast and thick. Fifty years of assiduous efforts in cultivation of an image went down the drain. In a matter of few hours he lost the plot and his core constituency deserted him. He became a pariah and his political career was gutted.
It served as a reminder to the rest of his ilk and when his protégé and current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, was nominated as the prime ministerial candidate he didn’t make any mistake of being too many things to too many people. He stuck to a definite agenda and won. Later he tried to move away from his development plank and indulge in communal politics with disastrous consequences in regional elections.
These examples may make a person wonder that the space for politicians is shrinking as they are inherently unabashed liars and masters of subterfuge. But there is another aspect that reflects an equally interesting fact. The digital technologies are rewriting the rules of the political game and fundamentally altering the political landscape.
As the gap between the perception and the person is now easily visible and even easily exploitable it is creating a space for more honest and open politics. The new rules of politics are more upfront and the leader has to walk the talk. In that sense it is now demanding more accountability.
But people must not confuse accountability with morality or goodness of purpose but it means delivering and being what you promised.
In this game the right wingers are first off the block. They have understood the power of the medium earlier than the liberals. It helps as their in-your-face style connects easily with the person on the street. This is the reason we are witnessing the rise of the obnoxious and intemperate voices around the world. It’s always easy and spectacular to rouse people’s anger and base emotions than to convince them of cerebral ideas. Yet they will not be in the positions of power forever. Like the principles of yin and yang the liberals will return using the same medium.
However, the digital politics will demand a lot more involvement and responsibility from the people too. They will have to exercise care in choosing their representatives as what they see is what they will get. In a way it would be a fare game. When you choose a villain you will get a villain and will not have the luxury to blame anyone. The people in general will have to understand that those liberals who will work towards inclusive politics will by definition be called upon to find middle ground while managing disparate and at times divergent demands of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and economically stratified societies. In managing these contradictory demands to find a golden mean, at times, they would be seen eschewing populism, cherry picking from a bouquet of demands. People will also need to evolve to offer them that space for the greatest good of the greatest number.
In that sense the digital politics would be more active and evolved politics in which every section of the whole society would participate. Each segment (politician and the public) will have to bring their commitments to the table.
It would usher in an era of politics based on managing reality for a change rather than just perceptions.

About indiadynamic

mediaperson worked for TWI, TVI, Dainik Bhaskar, UTV and Hindustan Times in all the divisions print, TV, radio and internet
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