Prasanto K. Roy

Last year, the so­cial me­dia con­tin­ued to splin­ter main­stream nar­ra­tives in new ways. Five pre­dic­tions for what 2018 will bring

India Today - - INSIDE - By PRASANTO K. ROY

SAM BOURNE’S 2017 THRILLER To Kill the Pres­i­dent starts off with high drama in the White House. Its star fig­ure is launch­ing a nu­clear strike on North Korea and China—be­cause the for­mer has just taunted him as ‘a coward and a small man’. Bourne’s fic­tional pres­i­dent is a strange man, big, loud, given to out­bursts on Twit­ter, with a fond­ness for women, and a love for Fox News. In the real world, Don­ald Trump re­turned from va­ca­tion and spent the first few of days of 2018 at­tack­ing for­eign gov­ern­ments on Twit­ter. He de­nounced Pak­istan for its “lies and de­ceit” and sup­port to ter­ror­ists. He de­nounced Iran, and Pales­tini­ans.

Then the pres­i­dent turned his at­ten­tion to North Korea, whose leader had just spo­ken about a ‘nu­clear but­ton’ on his desk. Hey. Mine is way big­ger than yours, he said, and reached for his phone.

“Will some­one from his de­pleted and food-starved regime please in­form him that I too have a Nu­clear But­ton, but it is a much big­ger & more pow­er­ful one than his, and my But­ton works!” @re­alDon­aldTrump, the very real US Pres­i­dent, tweeted, leav­ing the State De­part­ment, as usual, groan­ing, and the world rub­bing its eyes in dis­be­lief.

The post-truth era of mod­ern so­cial me­dia has se­verely blurred the lines be­tween fact and fic­tion, par­ody and re­al­ity. But one thing’s for cer­tain: so­cial me­dia is cen­trestage. Main­stream me­dia (along with lib­eral dis­course) is un­der at­tack. World lead­ers com­mu­ni­cate through Twit­ter, from Pres­i­dent Trump to Prime Min­is­ter Modi— who has aban­doned press con­fer­ences al­to­gether, speak­ing ‘di­rectly to the peo­ple’, in broad­cast mode, via ra­dio and Twit­ter.

So­cial me­dia gives an al­ter­na­tive vir­tual land­scape. An al­ter­na­tive to main­stream me­dia, to main­stream nar­ra­tives, even to main­stream fem­i­nism dis­missed as left-lib and savarna by ‘woke’ neo-fem­i­nists— em­pow­ered with The List of 2017. That was a stu­dent’s com­pi­la­tion of names of (ini­tially 60) male aca­demics ac­cused, mostly anony­mously, of sex­ual ha­rass­ment. The lib­eral (ra­tio­nal?) fem­i­nist voices ques­tioned the tar­ring of promi­nent aca­demics

via anony­mous ac­cu­sa­tions sans ev­i­dence or specifics or ac­tual com­plaints. The splin­ter­ing of In­dian fem­i­nism was loud and painful to hear. There will be more such splin­ter­ing of nar­ra­tives, for bet­ter or worse, across our busy so­cial me­dia land­scape in 2018.

For In­dia has, along with the largest mo­bile pop­u­la­tion, the busiest so­cial me­dia land­scape on this small planet, pos­si­bly ex­clud­ing our gi­ant north­ern neigh­bour: but more about them later. And it’s about to go into over­drive.

Bat­tle­ground 2019: The year be­fore In­dia’s Big Elec­tions will be su­per­heated on dig­i­tal me­dia, with most of the ac­tion fo­cused on What­sApp, Twit­ter and Face­book. The ac­tion will in­clude fake news, troll armies, ul­tra­na­tion­al­ism, and all the tried and tested for­mu­lae that helped the right wing emerge and grow across our small planet, in­clud­ing the US and In­dia, in 2017. The ac­tion will be across the political spec­trum, with our weak op­po­si­tion strug­gling, as usual in the past five years, against the dig­i­tal might of the rul­ing party. Pay­ing enor­mous at­ten­tion to pre­elec­tion In­dia in 2018 will be Face­book, which has a ded­i­cated team train­ing political par­ties world­wide on its plat­forms, and Twit­ter, whose global user and rev­enue growth slowed last year and for whom In­dia is ter­ri­bly im­por­tant.

Fake news fac­to­ries will flour­ish, both as struc­tured, funded ac­tiv­i­ties, and as in­for­mal op­er­a­tions sup­ported by a cot­tage­in­dus­try dis­tri­bu­tion net­work, but with a fo­cus shift­ing grad­u­ally to video. The small speed­break­ers: the fact-checker sites—@BoomLive_in, @ AltNews, @Fac­tCheck­In­dia and oth­ers—will grow busier, while strug­gling with their busi­ness model and fund­ing. The idea that fact­check­ing is needed only dur­ing an elec­tion cy­cle, which has led to many global fact­check­ers shut­ting down, is coun­tered in In­dia by the fact that we are so of­ten in an elec­tion cy­cle. But noth­ing to beat the real big­gie of 2019 loom­ing up for fact­check­ers to see more trac­tion, ex­cite­ment and even a bit more fund­ing. And per­haps even to get me­dia houses into fact­check­ing be­yond the odd, one­off story safely check­ing out claims in a speech—or, in­deed, re­broad­cast­ing fake news them­selves.

The next 100 mil­lion users will come on­line in In­dia by March 2019, from fur­ther down the so­cio­eco­nomic pyra­mid, on track to about 730 mil­lion by 2020. A third of the new users will be the youth ac­quir­ing smart­phones; the rest will be older, lower­lit­er­acy, lower­spend users (with lower ARPU, as the tele­com in­dus­try calls it— av­er­age rev­enue per user). They will mostly con­sume video, not text: hence the con­tin­ued rel­e­vance of What­sApp and Mes­sen­ger.

Many ser­vices will adapt to this emerg­ing au­di­ence, in­clud­ing the fake news in­dus­try, which will shift fo­cus in a big way to video—mostly old or un­re­lated videos picked out of con­text and re­pur­posed. Fact­check­ers, whose pri­mary out­put is text, will strug­gle with this au­di­ence. So will the big new apps: es­pe­cially dig­i­tal pay­ments, strug­gling be­tween seam­less, fric­tion­less us­abil­ity and se­cu­rity, for a low­lit­er­acy au­di­ence used to cash.

Live stream­ing video will be the top 2018 trend in so­cial me­dia in In­dia, cut­ting across lit­er­acy lev­els and age seg­ments. It will be driven partly by cheaper 4G (with tele­com gi­ants Jio and Airtel con­tin­u­ing to bat­tle it out) and free ac­cess—es­pe­cially Google­RailTel’s fast and free Wi­Fi at over 400 rail­way sta­tions; 257 now, an­other 161 sta­tions ex­pected this year. But, most im­por­tantly, it will be driven by the rapidly grow­ing new au­di­ence of younger smart­phone users, as well as lower­lit­er­acy users who won’t con­sume text. Political par­ties, cor­po­rate brands, and schools and col­leges will all de­pend on live stream­ing for the eas­i­est, quick­est out­reach for events.

Surveil­lance via so­cial me­dia will rise, with au­to­mated tools. In­dian in­tel­li­gence and law en­force­ment keep a close look at so­cial me­dia, but way, way be­hind China and even the United States in their use of tools to track what users are say­ing—the for­mer for political con­trol, the lat­ter al­legedly for law en­force­ment and home­land se­cu­rity. WeChat, China’s equiv­a­lent of What­sApp, has over 900 mil­lion users and is a way of life, a com­plete ecosys­tem— in­clud­ing pur­chases and pay­ments. But Ten­cent, which owns the app, gath­ers, mon­i­tors and shares user data with the Chi­nese govern­ment. Crit­i­cal posts are blocked or deleted, and po­lice have ar­rested WeChat users for posts with mes­sages crit­i­cal of the govern­ment.

In­dia doesn’t have its own so­cial mega­plat­forms, and our govern­ment doesn’t have the con­trol or ju­ris­dic­tion (nor is it as big a con­trol freak as China) to do the same on What­sApp, whose mes­sages are en­crypted. But our agen­cies spend a lot of time with Face­book, and they do use dig­i­tal tools (and agen­cies) to search and an­a­lyse so­cial me­dia (apart from us­ing the plat­forms for their own out­reach). Face­book re­ceived 9,853 re­quests for data in the first half of 2017, a 56 per cent jump from a year ago, rep­re­sent­ing well over a 10th of the re­quests it got world­wide. In­dian agen­cies also asked for in­for­ma­tion


on 13,752 user ac­counts (likely in­clud­ing What­sApp, which is owned by Face­book).

And I’ll end with an old so­cial me­dia aphorism and in­evitabil­ity, which will con­tinue to rock and rule (and those in cor­po­rate or political power just won’t learn).

That’s the Streisand Ef­fect, the so­cial me­dia phe­nom­e­non where an at­tempt to sup­press some­thing has the in­evitable ef­fect of pub­li­cis­ing it more widely.

The new year kicked off with a half­dozen me­dia houses si­mul­ta­ne­ously tak­ing down sto­ries re­port­ing on how Twit­ter users had mocked an ea­ger and en­er­getic speech by the son of the chair­man of a cor­po­rate gi­ant. Soon af­ter, the 10­day­old speech, which had by then faded away into the dark dig­i­tal cor­ners of the In­ter­net, ex­ploded back into promi­nence. Duh.

The Streisand Ef­fect is as old as so­cial me­dia. In 2012, a South In­dian politi­cian who filed a po­lice com­plaint against a man for a tweet sent to 16 fol­low­ers, helped that tweet reach tens of mil­lions overnight via na­tional tele­vi­sion.

And so it has been with ev­ery banned book or ar­ti­cle in the In­ter­net age: noth­ing boosts them on­line as much as the at­tempt to shut them down. If you want your 2018 movie to be a hit, get it banned for a bit.

Prasanto K. Roy (@prasanto) is a for­mer tech­nol­ogy jour­nal­ist now with Nass­com. The views here are en­tirely his own

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