There is palpable excitement as the most populous democracy in the world goes out to vote. Last election, which saw the saffron sweep, we realised the role of social media platforms in electoral politics. From the controversial selfie by the aspiring Prime Minister flaunting the lotus symbol, that was reported as violating the advertisement rules set by the Election Commission, to the mass mobilisation of ideology-based voters, orchestrated by automated bots and the hashtag brigades of #acchedin, there was no denying that digital strategies are going to form the backend of a robust political campaign.
In a country of hypervisible lynch mobs staged via WhatsApp, polarised hatred exacerbated by armies of trolls, and the fluency with which hate speech has been normalised on the tweetosphere, social media and digital apps are front and centre in this election. People are coming out of voting booths and, even before the exit pollsters catch them, they are making Snapchat videos and “I voted” selfies, clearly identifying the parties they support. The verified social media accounts of leading political parties are doubling down on their poll promises of a communal purge of “infiltrators”, divine curses for the heretic who doesn’t vote for the “party of gods”, and threats of profiling if a community voted for the correct party and subsequent dire consequences. The door-to-door campaigning of the past has obviously been replaced by the tweet-to-tweet mixture of threats, cajoling, and blood lust that seems to set the tone for our current political climate.
At the same time, the manifestos of the two leading coalitions, as well as the affidavits of the people running for office, are under deep public scrutiny. The BJP, in a Freudian blooper, announced itself as working for violence on women, incurring the sarcastic wrath of Twitter. One minister, who has been running through various cabinet positions, including education, was called to task to explain her wide repertoire of unverified degrees that change every voting season. Complaints against suspicious Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) have made themselves heard loudly on social-media discussion forums. And lately, the YouTube videos of people allegedly showing the easy removal of the indelible ink from the voting fingers, exploded into public view, jeopardising the integrity of the one-person-one-vote paradigm.
Social media, it would seem, is everywhere. And its ubiquity is ensuring that all stakeholders of the electoral process are performing for the social media gaze. Our leaders are talking in tweet-sized morsels, hoping to get their last messages in. The organisers of the massive process have taken to debunking false claims, providing verified information, and guiding people to their voting processes. The voters are not only wearing their party colours, but also canvassing for their favourite leaders, either through proclamations of patriotism or through emotional messages of voting against hate and discrimination. Voting groups are scrutinising and discussing the party manifestos and also the unexpected alliances coming into being in the quest of reaching the majority mark.
And as if all that was not enough, almost every social media site is rife with speculation, concern, fear, and hope about the outcomes of the election. Both sides of the ideological divide are equally guilty of emotional manipulation and angry expectoration, located in a virtuous filter-bubble where they preach to their choirs. My timelines have become interesting battlegrounds where people, who you would never have suspected of having a political bone, are suddenly erupting in ideological rashes, oozing with the finesse of an infected wound.
If there was ever a spectacle that the social media gaze loved to consume, it is the performance of emotional extremism and wounded outrage. Social media platforms thrive on this outburst disguised as politics because it increases engagement, exposes more data points to mine the users, and to customise their feeds and advertisements to keep on ghettoising them into network neighbourhoods. As the election plays out for the social media gaze, we can only expect all of these behaviour forms to escalate and intensify. The algorithmic nature of our feeds will ensure that we are constantly being triggered into consistent anger. The social media platforms are like the spectators who gather around a public fight where two people are inflicting hurt and pain on each other, as the audience watches with morbid delight.
The only way out of this is to remember that our difference does not make us separate, it makes us stronger together. The role of the digital is to make us molecularised into such extreme isolation that our only friend is the algorithm that mines us. And it is going to need a lot of discipline, introspection, compassion, and forgiveness from all of us, if we are going to survive this election designed for the social media gaze.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘The Gaze’.