Man is, by nature, a political animal”-Aristotle

People who grow up in Indian households are told right from the get go that there is quite a neat distinction between ‘political’ acts and ‘sincere’ acts. Parents tend to paint politics as an avenue which is dirty, crooked, violent and one which is inhabited by fools. On the other hand, the ideal children are those who put their heads down and study hard even if it means being ignorant about the political happenings of the world. There is a fundamental flaw in this distinction.

As expressed in the opening quote, no human can ever lead, what is called as, an ‘apolitical’ life. The reasoning is simple. By virtue of being a part of society, every action that you commit, even if it is something as frivolous as sending a meme to a friend, has political ramifications as it influences the perspective of your friend. The inverse is also true. Every inaction is just as much a political statement as an action. Confused? Here is an example. Let’s say there is a nationwide demonstration going on against corruption in the government. Since you’ve been told that being ‘apolitical’ is ideal, you decide not to attend it. However, ironically enough, your inaction constitutes a political act as the anti-corruption movement has been deprived of a potentially valuable member. Simply put, when you’re a member of a political society, you have the power to influence what goes on in it. If you make a conscious decision not to use that power, you’re just as political as the ones who are using it.

Now that it is established that there is no escape from politics, let’s arrive at the topic under discussion. What happens when you take millions of these political people and put them on a platform which transcends political, cultural and religious boundaries? This article will attempt to answer this question.

Before proceeding, it is imperative to establish a general relationship between politics and technology. As mentioned in the first paragraph, politics is a game of perceptions. It is your perception about the world which dictates the political party you support, the leader you prefer and your stance on major political issues. Since our perceptions are a result of our interactions with our peer group, family members and the world at large, the arrival of new communication patterns is bound to change the way our perceptions are shaped. This is where technology comes in.

Throughout the history of mankind, each technological advancement has revolutionised communication patterns among human beings. As you’ve probably deduced by now, these changes have also had significant political ramifications. For example, the inception of anti-caste and feminist movements in India can be traced back to the early 19th century when magazines, newspapers and pamphlets became commonplace in the streets of the subcontinent.

As a result of the widespread use of radio in the 40s, millions of Indians heard Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech from the comforts of their homes. The first televised presidential debate in 1960, which still carries historical importance, meant that the confidence and good looks of John F Kennedy triumphed over the much more intellectually profound ideas of the not-so-charismatic Richard Nixon.

The latest, and perhaps the most revolutionary, technological advancement has been the emergence of social media websites on the palms of millions of people around the globe. What initially seemed like a harmless and exciting innovation of the Silicon Valley has turned the sphere of political discourse upside down. The positive side of this coin has been well documented and experienced in the form of increased connectivity, increased access to information and democratisation of political expression. This article will focus on the flipside of the coin, namely, the side-effects of the interaction between social media and politics.

Firstly, the age of social media has ushered in a dangerous epidemic of fake news. What is fake news? It is the large-scale dissemination of factually incorrect statements which seek to influence the behaviour of social media users. You may think that since you’re a critical thinker, you are immune to fake news. But the truth is, each one of us has been fooled by pieces of incorrect information multiple times.

The reason for this can be found in the nature of social media websites. They are built to keep us engaged for long durations of time and the best way to do this is to bombard us with information from all sides. This reduces our probability of leaving that website because we are constantly curious about new bits of information. If we scroll for about 15 seconds, we can view more than 30-40 posts. However, since we’re so obsessed with scrolling and seeing what post comes next, we never really stop to engage critically with any one post.

We subconsciously accept whatever the post says and move on. Detecting fake news requires paying close attention to its source and reconfirming it from other sources. But the average social media user simply does want to spend time on doing this. Taking advantage of this psychological tendency, people have been befooled to believe ridiculous facts such as ‘Angela Merkel is the granddaughter of Adolf Hitler’, ‘Hillary Clinton runs a child sex trafficking ring’, and ‘European Union has more powers over Britain than the British Parliament’. The scope of this problem can be ascertained by acknowledging the fact that nearly 68 percent of the news we receive is from our social media handles.

Secondly, something that is linked to the first point, we lose our ability to develop critical perspectives on political issues. A democracy can only function efficiently if every citizen is able and willing to formulate informed and critical opinions. However, in our relentless quest to quickly scroll through endless streams of information, we never really spend time on one topic and read about it in detail. Hence, most of our political opinions are based on shallow foundations and frivolous lines of argument.

For instance, almost everyone of you would be aware of the recent Black Lives Matter protests which swept across the USA and the resultant backlash from right wing groups. Most of you would even have an opinion on what transpired. However, it would be quite an overstatement to claim that each one of you had read a detailed and nuanced editorial on the issue. The perspective of those who didn’t is likely to be ill-informed.

Thirdly, Social Media has fostered the growth of echo-chambers. When we go online, we deliberately look for posts and articles that support and confirm our views. That’s because all human beings have an inherent psychological tendency to defend what they believe in. However, in the age of social media, human beings are no longer willing to change their opinions even if there is enough evidence to the contrary. Why? Because social media users no longer care about listening to the other side. For example, Trump supporters will deliberately look for opinion pieces that are pro-Trump.

In addition to that, they’ll join Facebook and WhatsApp groups that are unambiguously devoted to Trump. They’ll surround themselves with people and perspectives that accord legitimacy to their own viewpoints. In such a scenario, it becomes pretty impossible for them to accept any argument that the Democrats make since they are part of a group whose entire existence centres around defending Trump at all costs. Using a simple analogy, if I hold an ill-informed opinion, I may doubt its validity. However, if I go online and see that 3000 people have the same opinion as me, I’ll be convinced that I’m right.

Fourthly, these echo chambers eventually give way to online tribalism. What is online tribalism? The coming-together of people belonging to a particular identity group, national group or an interest group which eventually develop tribe-like tendencies. It is imperative to state here that collectivisation on the basis of shared interests or identity itself is not harmful. The problem arises when a collective of people adopts patterns of tribal behaviour such as, “If you go against the tribe, you’ll be killed” and “All other tribes are our enemies”. This is harmful for three reasons.

First, in such an environment, one can’t critique the systemic problems of one’s own group. For any social movement to succeed, it must mature and correct its own flaws by weeding out harmful elements and practises. However, in the age of online tribalism, if any member of the social movement makes an attempt to critique it, then the member is declared as someone who has betrayed the cause of the movement. Second, it can falsely convince an entire section of society that they are in danger. In the case of genuinely oppressed communities such as the African Americans, this is not a problem as there are enough facts to indicate that they do face actual danger from institutions of state like the police.

However, recent times have witnessed the rise of quite a few white supremacist pages who claim that the interests of the white community are threatened in the USA. This is quite an absurd statement to make as there is enough evidence which contradicts it. However, through a perfect mixture of rhetoric and fake news, they convince their members that there is an ongoing conspiracy against white people and that Donald Trump is their only hope of survival.

Third, once every tribe is convinced that their interests are threatened, the scope for meaningful debate diminishes to a great extent. An ideal debate requires decency and the willingness to accept when the opposing side makes a stronger point. What’s happening on social media websites is quite the opposite. Accepting an argument from the other side is not even an option to consider. Instead, all sorts of unacceptable slurs are levelled at people based on their race, ethnicity and religious affiliations. It is no wonder that cyberbullying has become one of the major problems in the world today. In its most extreme manifestation, tribalism can also lead to actual violence as is evident from the alarming rise of mob lynching cases in India.

Governments all around the world have at least started acknowledging the existence of this problem after the Cambridge Analytica fiasco and allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 US elections. The past few months have also witnessed congressional inquiries of imminent social media tycoons like Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg. But a lot still needs to be done in order to stop the regressive course that political discourse has taken.

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