Ram Madhav
May 4, 2024

When Social Media Spares Noone

(The article was originally published in Indian Express on May 4, 2024 as a part of Dr Madhav’s column titled ‘Ram Rajya’. Views expressed are personal.)

Ren Chonghao is a commentator on Chinese geopolitics on social media platforms like Bilibili and Weibo, the Chinese equivalents of YouTube and Twitter. At a recent online conference, Chonghao – known by his pen name Ma Qianzu (foot soldier) or Ma Dugong (foreman) – delivered an interesting speech calling Chinese people clowns. “We are all clowns in different makeup”, he observed.

He argued that as China has become industrialised, the gap between the elites and the ordinary citizens has narrowed and more and more Chinese are able to look at industrialised societies, domestic as well as foreign, on equal footing, and assess the weaknesses and mistakes of others. Secondly, the internet’s omnipresence and the explosion of social media platforms has led to a demystification of the powers of the elite.

It is important to delve into history to understand Chonghao’s profound arguments. Until the middle of the 15th century, in Europe, the clergy and their vassals controlled the centre of power through which all communication happened — the pulpit. It was the spoken word of the religious elite that carried all the power. Efforts to challenge them through handwritten posters could easily be destroyed, along with the dissenters, by the church. In 1440 AD, a German goldsmith, Johannes Gutenberg, invented the printing press and unleashed a revolution in Europe’s religion-centric social order. Initially, its influence was limited. Gutenberg took three years to print the first 200 copies of the Bible, but there were hardly any readers in Mainz who could understand Latin. Gutenberg died penniless, but the instrument he created soon became a powerful tool in the hands of the elites.

Martin Luther, the German reformer, called the printing press “the ultimate gift of God”. When he nailed his 95 theses – questions to the Catholic Church – to the church door in Wittenberg in October 1517, it took just 17 days for it to travel to London and hundreds of copies were printed and distributed, setting off the historic reformation movement in Christianity. Print media became an effective instrument in shaping public opinion. Electronic media followed in the 20th century further strengthening the power of communication of the elites. Media created heroes and villains and this was largely determined by which side of the ideological divide the controlling elites were positioned.

“We think there is more violence in the world than before, but in truth, there are only more newspapers,” historian Will Durant had remarked condescendingly in the last century. He added that “vast and powerful organisations scour the planet for crimes and scandals, and all the villainy and politics of five continents are gathered upon one page for the encouragement of our breakfasts. We conclude that half the world is killing the other half and that a large proportion of the remainder are committing suicide. But in the streets, in our homes, in public assemblies, in a thousand vehicles of transportation, we are astonished to find no murderers and no suicides, but rather a blunt democratic courtesy, and an unpretentious chivalry a hundred times more real than when men mouthed chivalric phrases, enslaved their women, and ensured the fidelity of their wives with irons while they fought for Christ in the Holy Land”.

Still, there were a few who were setting the narrative for the world. Then came the age of democratised media – digital social media. Here, the monopoly of a few over narrative and communication has been shattered by the transfer of tools of communication to the hands of ordinary citizens. Elites and celebrities can no longer control the story and serve it in the way they wish. The smartphone-wielding netizen, empowered by the proliferating digital social media tools, can go behind their story and destroy the omnipotence of the elites. This is what Chonghao described as “downing”. In the end, there are no heroes or villains, all are just clowns.

Elections are one occasion when such “clowning” exercises go on in full swing. In India, as in the US, social media subjects leaders to such scrutiny that in the end every individual’s and organisation’s reputation is held at stake. This downing spares no one, and often the good suffer the most.

Take the debate over the Constitution. As the prime minister pointed out, every time elections come, one lie suddenly occupies centrestage – that the BJP and the RSS are out to destroy the Constitution. No amount of justification helps, because, in the clownish world, there is always something or the other to interpret this way or that. There was a doctored video doing rounds showing Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, telling his cadre that they were opposed to reservations but cannot say so publicly. Referring to that video, Bhagwat recently stated that it was entirely incorrect and misleading. Since the time reservations were incorporated in the Constitution, the Sangh offered full support to all forms of reservations. Sangh reiterates that whoever has been given reservations should continue to have them as long as they feel the need, and as long as societal inequality exists.”

Yet the debate may not end. Nobody will be spared. From Jawaharlal Nehru’s letter to chief ministers in 1961 stating that he disliked “any kind of reservation, more particularly in services. l am strongly against anything which leads to inefficiency and second-rate standards..”, to Indira Gandhi’s suggestion in 1981 that quotas can’t continue perpetually – everything is in the public domain. That the RSS had categorically supported reservations through an official resolution in 1981 too has been highlighted by netizens.

In any case, in this race to prove that “all are clowns in different make-up”, the best way is to be honest and transparent. Where possible, state facts and where necessary, admit mistakes. And learn to laugh unscrupulous criticism off, remembering Mahatma Gandhi’s mantra: “if I had no sense of humour, I would long ago have committed suicide.

Published by Ram Madhav

Member, Board of Governors, India Foundation

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