A few days back, I received this text message on my phone: “Video of brutal killings of two boys is of Pakistan, and not related to the Muzaffarnagar incident. Refrain from sharing or else criminal action will be taken.”
The sign off on the message said it was from the office of the DGP, UP Police (the highest-ranking police officer in the state of Uttar Pradesh). Muzaffarnagar, a town in the northern Indian state, recently witnessed communal violence in which 45 people died (according to the official death toll). A YouTube video, which officials sources are saying was either shot in Pakistan or Afghanistan, and uploaded on YouTube two years ago was circulated online, with some saying it was shot during the violence in Muzaffarnagar. Police claim the video incited greater violence, and are probing how it went viral.
The incident is another key demonstration of the role of social media in shaping events, politics and opinion in India – sometimes unwittingly. But even more, there is a sense in India that social media can positively shape politics, reform mindsets, and bring about change.
For example, a few months back a photograph of two young men making lewd gestures to female commuters in Bangalore were photographed by a male friend who was with the women. The young man uploaded the picture on the Facebook page of the Bangalore Police, and within days the post attracted thousands of likes and comments. It certainly got the attention of the Bangalore Police, who arrested the two men, and brought them in for interrogation.
That might seem like an isolated incident, but over the past few months mainstream, prime-time broadcast news programs seem to be heavily influenced by the conversations taking place on social media. Maybe this particular trend points to lazy journalism, but it also brings an issue into the mainstream. Namely, can a growing number of educated people who are getting online and lighting up the Twittersphere herald more passionate debates? Can this growing collective voice force issues of development and social change into the national gaze?
In March 2013, a report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and Indian Market Research Bureau (IMRB) found that the number of social media users in urban India would reach 66 million by this June. The report also said that 74 percent of all active internet users in India use social media. According to a comScore study, 2013 India Digital Future, 73.9 million Indians use the internet (as of March 31, 2013). This figure – which grew more than 30 percent from 56.3 million users in the previous year – makes India the world’s third-largest internet population.
Santosh Desai, a well-known columnist and social commentator, talked about the “individual” in these growing millions in a recent piece he wrote for the print-only magazine, Innowin. Desai writes: “One of the primary barriers to change, particularly in a context like India’s, is the difficulty of ushering in change, one individual at a time. The individual feels lonely and the opposition seems too overwhelming to merit a real effort. What makes social media such a powerful instrument for creating a sense of mass movement is the fact that it aggregates sentiment effortlessly, making the organisation of collectives out of scattered individuals that much more effective.”
But, Preeti Singh, editor of Igovernment.in, a website focussed on governance issues, doesn’t share this optimism. She tells The Diplomat, “How many people in India are on social media, in any case? Not enough people are on it to have reached inflexion, even now. Worse, I strongly believe that most people on social media don’t really want to make a difference, they just want to sound smart.”
She admits it’s a good medium to sensitize people to issues they otherwise might now be aware of. And of course, this can help trigger reform. But it’s important not to expect more from the medium than is reasonable. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The New Yorker a few years back, “The revolution will not be tweeted.”