A radical shift in the infosphere is changing the Indian common sense

The only divide that is made to matter for the mainstream media is that between Hindus and Muslims—the binary of choice for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates.
06 June, 2022

Extreme hate has a neurological impact on human beings. Sumaiya Shaikh, a neuroscientist and founding director of the Sweden-based organisation ViolEND, recently told me about her ongoing research into “cult-hopping” among Islamists and neo-Nazis. Violent extremists frequently switched between groups, she said, “to satisfy the perpetual urge of violence.” She compared this urge to an addiction. “Neuroscience research has demonstrated that extremists prefer this dopamine-driven high from violence over other types of high from addictive substances like cocaine and alcohol. In the brain, this drive of violence addiction overlaps with the same neuronal pathways as the brain of an addict.” Citing data from US prisons that showed higher rates of recidivism among those who commit violent crimes, Shaikh said that, unless this addiction is “treated correctly through evidence-based measures, even the fear of prison will not deter people.” As India, with its young demographic, drowns in hate and violence, this is sobering news.

News itself has contributed to this dire situation, with the intense media focus on Islamophobic talking points, such as the consumption of beef and “love jihad,” or on Hindutva claims around the Gyanvapi Mosque and the Shahi Idgah, and numerous other copycat petitions. As a number of surveys have confirmed over the years, Indians have held on to old social identities, defined by caste and religious lines. This sense of separate identities has successfully been turned into hate for the Other. As Shaikh’s research shows, hate and violence take decades to overcome—and that, too, only if there are robust rebuttals. In India, such rebuttals must swim in the same infosphere that is flooding our public discourse with hate.

This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Watergate scandal, which forced the resignation of Richard Nixon, the only US president to ever have done so. The media played an important role in his exit. Today, commentators lament that there is little chance of the news environment in the United States enforcing similar accountability on a sitting president. The decline started with Fox News, which rushed to cover up the misdemeanours of right-wing politicians. Over time, the rise of Fox and its imitators has changed the common sense of that country.

In India, common sense has become even more uncommon. Eight years of the Narendra Modi government have brought about a massive transformation of the information ecosystem—comprising both the mainstream and social media. An infosphere promoting a deep disconnect between material realities and political concerns has made it impossible to seek government accountability. Instead, it amplifies other priorities in service of its masters.

Accountability would only be possible if the media helped join the dots on the misery that people otherwise experience as their personal agony. For example, if the media were to explain the linkages between economic mismanagement, demonetisation, unemployment, GDP figures and skewed taxation policies, the truth about the fallacy of personal misery would be driven home. The job of the media is to help those experiencing hardships understand how they got there. Instead, the biggest newspaper in the country recently ran the headline “GDP grows 8.7% in FY22: Highest in 22 years.” This was a diabolical mask over the severe economic contraction of the previous year—when compared to 2019–20, the GDP had grown by only 1.5 percent. The story should be that the economy is on its knees, sabotaged by the government’s incompetence and mismanagement before, and during, the COVID-19 pandemic. But the record decline of the rupee, the dwindling reserves of foreign exchange, the truth about how much excise on fuel is cornered by the centre and the fiscal impact of corporate tax cuts barely get coverage.

The failure of the mainstream media to establish how government mismanagement and inaction lead to economic misery ensures that no meaningful solidarities are forged on the ground. The only divide that is made to matter is that between Hindus and Muslims—the binary of choice for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates. This has assumed demonic proportions. It explains why people are not hitting the streets to protest price rise or job losses or COVID-19 deaths. Modi was right when he remarked, at a public meeting in Shimla to mark his government’s eighth anniversary, that newspaper headlines used to be about scams but are no longer so. It is all “positive” news now, with the government as the protagonist.

When it comes to social media, the government’s use of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 as a threat and inducement to get major platforms to play ball has been extensively documented. Meta’s hesitation to take action against Hindutva handles spreading hate and disinformation has been pointed out by two important whistle-blowers. One of them, the former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang, uncovered how networks of inauthentic accounts were using fake engagement to flood the information pipelines and revealed that the social-media giant did nothing about it once it found that a Bharatiya Janata Party MP was involved. Zhang recently said that it had been over six months since the parliamentary standing committee on information technology sought the permission of the Lok Sabha speaker, Om Birla, to have Zhang testify. “He has refused to respond,” Zhang told the fact-checking website Boom. “So effectively, it is an answer. And the answer is no.”

India has over 749 million internet users and is the world’s second-largest online market. Online fact-checkers perform a very important service, but, as Ruchi Gupta, the founder of the Future of India Foundation, writes, “even though there is growing recognition of political motivations and impact of disinformation, the surrounding discourse in India has remained strikingly apolitical and episodic—focused on individual pieces of content and events, and generalised outrage against big tech instead of locating it in the larger political context or structural design issues.” Fake news is not just slivers of falsehoods shared for a laugh but part of a coordinated bad-actor problem, whose intent and consequences are political.

In 2014, Modi used much of the standard Hindutva playbook, but part of his campaign, supposedly for the aspirational middle class, centred on the promise of achhe din—good times. People’s desire for a better life, and an appeal to these classes, was shorthanded by the dubious but well-packaged “Gujarat model.” This economic and material component disappeared during the 2019 campaign. The Uttar Pradesh elections earlier this year showcased the regime’s priorities even more honestly. Why do you want better hospitals or roads? India needs to be turned into a Hindu Rashtra first. This is no longer camouflaged. It is the direct appeal of the ruling party, aided and abetted by the infosphere. The same infosphere that first shaped the environment that legitimised this appeal, and is now an accomplice in maintaining it, is unlikely to produce a rebuttal to the hate and violence fuelled by Hindutva.

Seema Chishti is a writer and journalist based in Delhi. She was formerly the Delhi editor for BBC India and a deputy editor at the Indian Express. She is the co-author of Note by Note, The India Story (1947-2017) and the author of Anees and Sumitra, Tales & Recipes from a Khichdi Family.