Last updated on Nov 24, 2017.
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Social media platforms have been vaunted for their role in overthrowing authoritarian governments and giving citizens the tools to organise and fight for their rights. However, in the last few years, a disturbing trend has started to unravel, in which these same tools are being used to undermine the democratic process by larger forces in the global context. Looming large is Russian interference in the 2016 US elections and Brexit. Thus, social media platforms have emerged as crucial spaces for both political dialogue as well as manipulation, information as well as misinformation, and deliberation as well as propaganda.
In India, the BJP IT Cell, since the months leading up to the 2014 elections has been using social media machinery to influence voters by spreading misinformation about opponents, directly attacking critics on Twitter and Facebook with slander and serious threats and crucially, influencing the political discourse of the region. On the level of interaction, political propaganda has invaded family WhatsApp groups in the forms of text as well as audio-visual based forwards, and users of social media - whether in rural or urban India - are bound to feel the impact. Many political parties in the country have dedicated social media managers to propagate their agendas on social media and invest a large amount of time and money on this. Social media platforms have become sites where political discourse is shaped, with serious - often violent - consequences for political engagement in the offline. This is alarming since penetration of social media use in the country stands at 12 per cent. Thereby effectively excluding most of the population from political discourse which affects them.
We aim to investigate the interplay of this this growing online political discourse - of both information as well as misinformation - with citizens’ political participation, and the ways in which notions of political participation, inclusion and exclusion are shaped for differently located people. We will be conducting ethnographic interviews with residents of three localities in South Delhi, which are geographically adjacent to each other but segregated along socio-economic lines. We aim to gather data regarding the ways in which people belonging to different strata interact with political mis-/information received via social media in terms of the platforms from where they receive it, whether it provides fodder for further public discussion, and the reasons underlying people’s trust or mistrust in the authenticity of this information. We aim to induce insights from this data regarding the interplay of the online and offline in political discourse, and to identify and compare the offline spaces which are impacted by this information for different strata of people. For instance, we will see the ways in which older sites of political interaction such as tea stalls are enriched by information received via social media. Finally, we will also provide qualitatively grounded insights on how online political discourse, and its interaction with offline spaces, plays out in actual political behaviour in terms of citizen engagement with government whether in the electoral process or otherwise.
We will also attempt to provide preliminary theoretical insights into the new economy of online political interference - operating through investments, deliberate production of misinformation and attempts to manufacture influence through political marketing, and labour - which may not be illegal, but still have a negative impact on the quality of democratic life. We will engage with the offline conditions under which this new economy of online political propaganda and mediated democracy is emerging, and the implications it has for offline political life. In the context of the growing online misinformation ecosystem, does offline political engagement offer greater potential for enhancing the quality of political discourse?
This is how we plan to conduct the session:
Zothan Mawii is a researcher at Digital Empowerment Foundation with an interest in digital labour, internet rights and online social movements.
Gulshan Banas is a Masters student at Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, JNU, and a consultant with the research team at Digital Empowerment Foundation.