With China behind its Great Firewall, India is poised to become the world’s largest free internet market. The global web is already affecting the life of the country in a number of positive and negative ways – some of which were described in Ravi Agarwal’s book “India Connected” – and politics is no exception. In one of my past articles for The Diplomat, I showed how the country’s ruling party, the BJP, has become internet-savvy. The virtual performance of BJP members is being reviewed by the leadership in a number of ways, such as whether they have accounts in social media (Twitter, Facebook), how much they interact with netizens, or how often they post information on government programs. Perhaps we could give a twist to how we understand “post-politics” (a term I am not a fan of): let us say it means the politics of posting, the skill of winning over the internet, without which a party will find it much harder to win elections.
Over a longer period, the BJP has undergone the same transformation with regards to traditional media as well. Decades ago, this party of Hindu nationalists was a pariah on the political stage of India and had no mainstream medium on its side. By now, the tables in the newsrooms have turned. An excellent – and apparently little noticed – instance of how the party has evolved in this regard is the 2018 media and social media guidebook for its members. To be sure, it is a nice and clean booklet, politically correct throughout, not revealing any of the dirty moves that nearly all parties try their hands at. Some of the advice offered here is very general and hardly surprising; others are specific and clever. Some solutions are clearly used by the party members, while others are often not (such as the outlined method of holding press conferences – something which the BJP leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, does not do at all). In general, however, the publication shows how the party has become organized and professional in its dealings with the media.
Here I would like to treat these instructions not as a tool of a specific party, and not a political subject per se, but rather a down-to-earth review of the role of the media and social media for politics. This review may as well be treated as universal, rather than India-specific. I therefore took the liberty to cherry-pick from this manual and to extrapolate: to treat it as a summary of how our lives hang between social media and politics. In the process, I have probably superimposed my conclusions on the guidebook’s suggestions but for good reasons (and whatever is taken from that publication is duly marked as quoted). What are the main takeaways of this exercise?
First, politics has become a battle of narratives (or was it always that way?). It is a realm where a good story may triumph over facts. “The goal is to promote the unusual, the unique, the unexpected that will pique the editor’s curiosity,” we are told. “Don’t ever tell the media what you want from them. Instead, ask them about the kind of stories they are looking for,” the manual also tells us. “A good story will have many takers,” it concludes. “We have to focus on winning the perception war.”
Second, the media and social media space is about the context. There is no text without the context, as philologists would say. “If you are asked to spell your views [during an invitation to a TV program], remain a little reserved,” the guidebook cautions politicians, “and don’t give your complete stand on the telephone itself. Save the best for the debate.” Or consider this: “Remember that the reporter can ‘hear’ or ‘see’ more than just your words. Your tone and your style – as well as your content – are part of the picture, too.” Another wise advice is as follows: “Take the time to interpret the context of a situation before jumping in with a response.” This is certainly a rule all of us, not just the politicians, should follow on the internet.
Third, as media and social media never sleep, and we, the species of netizens, live in a constant search for new information and stimuli, political campaigning has transformed into a constant process. “Political parties generally start campaigning when elections are near. However, successful political parties are always trying to reach out to people, communicating with them,” the manual tells us. There is no doubt that this is a conclusion about the BJP itself. Under Modi, the party has been set to constant election campaign mode. In the world of the sleepless internet, perhaps all major parties of the world are bound to follow in the BJP’s footsteps.
Fourth, and in connection to the above, the world of social media and media is about the “now.” Even if the objective is to direct attention to the past, it is better to start from the current context. “[Y]ou can come up with news stories that capitalize on current events,” the guidebook suggests to its readers. Similarly, I may add, you cannot get attention by simply reposting your old content; it is better to make it a part of your commentary on the present, on the hot button issue of the moment.
Fifth, social media is no pastime where a politician can type in a few words or upload a photo on his phone when he is done with other tasks. The guidebook makes it crystal clear that to be successful a party must be as disciplined, well-organized, and scrupulous in the realm of social media as in all other walks of life. The publication time and again reminds readers that they should know and follow the party line, keep consulting with older and more knowledgeable colleagues, and keep following the party’s activities. “A comprehensive public and media relations program must track public perception of the party,” the publication concludes.
Lastly, in line with a golden thought included in “The Little Prince,” adults tend to be impressed with numbers. “If you quantify your argument, it’s more likely to be accepted, trusted and […] likely to get greater story space,” the guidebook advises. Governments across the globe are indeed flooding the audiences with numbers – numbers that we cannot verify; numbers that serve to conceal other statistics. Numbers are supposed to define and explain our life but have become so ubiquitous and superfluous that we can no longer make sense of them. The battle of narratives is not just your word against mine, but also your number against mine. And maybe this is the hidden meaning of that tired phrase: “We live in a digital age.”