Prasanto K. Roy
Last year, the social media continued to splinter mainstream narratives in new ways. Five predictions for what 2018 will bring
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
THE YEAR BEFORE THE BIG ELECTION WILL SEE A SOCIAL MEDIA OVERDRIVE: FAKE NEWS, ULTRANATIONALISM AND TROLL ARMIES
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