What happens when ‘eyes and ears’ of the government become its mouths?

Is the right-wing echo chamber – comprising of ideologically aligned corporate media and BJP’s overbearing presence on social networks – affecting Modi government’s ability to see the truth?

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Narendra Modi-led BJP Government is known for meticulous strategizing and ruthless execution. This was at display in August last year when it made the big move in Kashmir by stripping the state of the special status granted by Indian Constitution. It pre-empted any possible fallout in the volatile region by suspending the internet and telephone lines, arresting thousands of leaders – including BJP’s own former allies – and moved over 35,000 troops in addition to about 3 lakh already placed there. A curfew was imposed in the entire region. While all these ‘measures’ came under fire from a section of Indian civil society and international media, they did help the government in containing protests and clashes leading to loss of lives to a great degree, something that was subsequently paraded as an ‘achievement’ and ‘sign of normalcy’ by the government.

Considering this, it is intriguing to note the way the government was caught completely off-guard in the aftermath of the passing of Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 in the Indian parliament last month. The government failed to foresee the biggest resistance on the streets that it has faced since 2014 and was clearly taken aback with the scale and the spread of the protests. It took a few days before it could come up with a coherent response and devise a scheme to tackle this uprising.

What could have led to the government to miscalculate the impact of its CAA move on ground? By Home Minister Amit Shah’s own admission, the government ‘erroneously’ believed that the move, which for the first time sets a ‘religion test’ for Indian citizenship, wouldn’t have any consequences on the streets outside the northeast of India.

Was it the complacency that had set in considering mild, confused response its previous ‘big ideological moves’ evoked from political oppositions and liberal elite since it returned to power with an empowered mandate in May 2019? Or was it the belief that this mandate was an endorsement by majority of Indians for its ‘Hindutva agenda’? Since the protests broke out on December 15, it has increasingly become clear that a large section of Indians – especially its young – are fiercely against India stepping away from its secular path. What could have blinded the government to this disillusionment among the aspirational youth which was a large factor behind Modi’s rise in 2014 over Modi choosing ideology over the economy?

The other end of the echo chamber

Much has been written about how a media echo chamber created by ideologically partisan journalism outlets and algorithm-driven social media platforms affects citizens’ ability to make an informed opinion about what’s happening around them by increasingly filters the information, sending the citizen-audience only the information that they consume favourably and thus stratifies their opinion which may be in variance with the truth. Thus, it creates communities which are increasingly insulated from differing narratives being consumed by other communities similarly caught in their own echo chambers.

This phenomenon and its impact on democratic processes have been thoroughly discussed by media scholars. However, the focus mostly remains on how the echo chambers affect the citizens and their ability to make informed choices. The seemingly ‘irrational’ or ‘unexpected’ choice made by people in United Kingdom when they voted for Brexit have been cited as an example.

But what happens when the other end of the democracy, the government, is ensnared in an echo chamber? The current government in New Delhi provides an excellent case study of such a scenario. Over last six years, the government has created an echo chamber around it which comprises of a pliant broadcast media, a virulent social media army that has the ability to hijack every online narrative and a coterie of yes-men’ that surround the decision-makers. This system, which was actively spawned, nurtured and exploited by the government for a while now, makes it believe that everything is right with the government and agents of the wrongs have to be looked for and found elsewhere -in the opposition, among the ‘Muslims’ or, most conveniently, in Pakistan. Inside this echo chamber, every decision by the government enjoys tremendous support when, in reality, it may not be the case. The fact that it has an extremely centralised set-up, with only two persons namely PM Modi and his trusted lieutenant Amit Shah, holding all the powers makes the government more susceptible to fall into such a trap.

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A protest against Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) outside Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune. Photo by Arul Horizon

The state of India’s broadcast news media – especially Hindi news channels which have the largest reach – is well-known. Barring a few exceptions, the news channels have willingly turned themselves into the propaganda arms of the government. This control over broadcast media has paid the government dividends – the ability to set the narrative, the opportunity to discredit the critics, to divert attention from its failures and, most of all, as an instrument to build a larger than life image of Narendra Modi. In the imagination of Indian broadcast media, Modi is an omnipotent, incorruptible, self-less crusader against all things evil. He’s no less than superman and hence every move he makes is no less is worthy of being hailed as ‘masterstroke’. This dominance of pro-establishment discourse on corporate broadcast media has pushed the critical voices to the margins.

On the virtual front, the social media sphere remained BJP’s stronghold for several years starting from the build-up to the 2014 general elections. It caught on to the social media phenomenon much earlier than the rival political parties and built formidable machinery. Although others have since closed in, BJP continues to dominate the narrative to a great extent and uses it as a handy tool to spread its messages through a cobweb of ‘troll’ accounts and social media influencers. Its machinery is so well oiled that it controls the Twitter trends – indicating most discussed topics of the time – at will. A recent example, and embarrassing for BJP’s social media team, of this was when it trended a phrase with a spelling mistake #WeSupportCCA instead of CAA, the acronym of the recent Citizenship Amendment Act, with over 13,000 tweets mentioning the erroneous hashtag. These trends are intended to make the citizens believe what’s the mood of the nation. In the process, the government also seems to have taken them for the truth, forgetting that these are manufactured by its own internet army. This unquestioning, fervent support from media anchors, solidarity from prominent personalities from sports and cinema and validations with millions of posts and hashtags on social media platforms provides a confirmation – although fallacious – for the Modi-Shah duo that the path on which they are taking India enjoys overwhelming support.

Evidence? Look at the language.

The way the government and the BJP reacted to the CAA protests also provides us with some evidence of how its judgement of the situation is coloured by the echo-chamber. It also shows how Modi-Shah and their confidantes use the arguments and vocabulary from the right-wing echo-chamber. The strategy that the government came out with to tackle the protests -after initial days of bafflement- was to portray the protests as ‘violent riots’ (when, in reality, violence happened only in a fraction of them) and terming the protesters as stooges of the opposition parties or people who were misled by them. These ‘arguments’ were not fresh when they came from the government officially. The pliant media channels were running these for days before Modi made them but hadn’t worked as protests grew in their spread and size as anti-CAA, anti-NRC chorus swelled.

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Across India university students have staged numerous protests against CAA as well as Modi Government’s handling of the agitation with an iron fist. (Photo: The Indian Express)

The mistaken belief that these counters will work seemingly came from television studios and social media ecosystem, where they could be seen as working. In fact, in his December 22 speech at Ramlila Maidan, his first address to the nation since the protests broke out, PM Modi pushed the same two arguments to discredit the protest. The vocabulary he used was also the same being peddled by the media to discredit the protests. He urged the people to not listen to ‘Urban Naxals’ – a term governments friends in the corporate media and its faithful warriors on social networks use to describe the liberals and left-leaning intellectuals of the country – and that they should no listen to “Congress and its friends” or ‘Mamata didi’, whom the prime time anchors had been attacking for “misleading the Muslims”.

Only a few days later, Home Minister Amit Shah told the party supporters at a Delhi rally that it was time that the ‘Tukde Tukde Gang’ of Delhi – a term used by pro-establishment media students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and those who sympathise with them – is taught a lesson. In fact, after the violence in JNU, the defence that the government put also was straight from the social media where BJP followers tried to argue that the violence was a ‘left-conspiracy’ to assaults own boys and girls to blame ABVP. Union Information and Broadcasting Minister questioned how activist and psephologist Yogendra Yadav reached JNU main gate “within 10 minutes of the violence breaking out” and hinted that the violence was staged. This claim, blatantly inaccurate as Yadav later showed, was clearly picked up by Javadekar from the right-wing cyberspace. Being a minister, he could have used the government machinery to confirm the timeline but he chose to rely on the social media for information.

Of eyes and mouths

In a democracy, the media is often referred to as ‘eyes and ears’ of the government. It would serve the government’s purpose better if the ‘eyes and ears’ provide it with the genuine picture of the situation in the country rather than telling the government what it wants to believe.

The usage ‘eyes and ears’ derives from a Persian intelligence service called ‘eyes and ears of the king’ established by Archemedian figure Astyages. The members were supposed to closely observe the society, prevent insurrections from the oppressed subjects and investigate evils in the society and report to the government. This information would help the ruler to rule.

In a democracy, there are no kings but, as Benito Mussolini once described it, is ‘a kingless regime infested with many kings’. These ‘many kings’ of democracy needs a functioning media to sense the mood of the voter-citizens, perhaps, much more than the kings of the olden times, as it’s the citizen-voters who make ‘the kings’. However, the pliant, pro-establishment media, of the kind that dominates Indian broadcast scene today, forgoes the role of being ‘the eyes and ears’ of the government but has morphed into its mouths, those which talk only the language approved by its masters. The social media is either looked at as a statistical tool to prove that the mood of the nation overwhelmingly favours all its decisions or is used to silence the critics.

This failing of the ‘eyes and ears’ to do its function will invariably lead to a disconnect between the government and the lived reality of the citizen; the drive of the former and the needs of the latter. In a functioning democracy, this is bound to end badly for ‘the kings’ of the time.

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