A much-deserved honourable mention for BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra, who has successfully resisted the norms of civilised debate twice in a fortnight. On November 10, he had taken the name of Aaj Tak’s programme Dangal a little too literally, and threatened “Allah bhakts” that he would rename mosques in favour of Lord Vishnu (without seeking the Lord’s permission, of course). This week, again on Aaj Tak, he claimed that the Gandhi family were all “dacoits”. Jawaharlal Nehru was the “first dacoit”, and Rahul Gandhi — who has never enjoyed power and therefore had no opportunity for dacoity — was the last dacoit. This is farce, not debate, and television channels which encourage this sort of thing should have themselves rebranded as burlesque companies.
Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari tried his hand, too, but his performance wasn’t a patch on Patra’s. He tweeted: “Anti-Brahmanism is the reality of Indian politics…We are the new Jews of India and we should just learn to live with it.” He may be entitled to victimhood — indeed, down South, even people of stature like the Tamil litterateur Ashokamitran wrote on behalf of the community. But really, opposing the patriarchy encoded in Brahmanism is progressive, rather than a holocaust.
Tewari was responding to the controversy over Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey being photographed with a poster which read, “smash Brahmanical patriarchy”. Smash patriarchy, that is, not Brahmins. And yet a fight broke out about whether Twitter had done this on purpose to rattle Brahmins, or if they were led on. A couple of the women who had attended the meet weighed in with accounts of what had transpired in the meeting. Interestingly, they differed a little. But the debate should have been about why the phrase inspired so much outrage, and what it says about us, rather than about Twitter. The phrase ‘Brahmanical patriarchy’ has appeared on the covers of so many learned titles that it would take several library shelves to hold them. People who are irritated to learn this would probably self-combust if they encountered a single essay by Ambedkar.
Meanwhile, the other social media giant is in deeper trouble, and the coverage in India, its most promising market, has not been excellent. Facebook, which has weathered countless controversies, has finally taken a body blow with The New York Times revelation that it had engaged the services of Definers. The company specialises in opposition research (popularly known as digging up dirt), and its president also serves as editor-in-chief of NTK, a news organisation which ran diversionary stories about Facebook’s competitors and opponents in Silicon Valley. It recalls the time in American politics when it was said that every time a little blue dress was produced in court, Bill Clinton bombed Iraq.
Within the company, there appears to be complete confidence in continuity, because Mark Zuckerberg retains a controlling interest and it follows that his protege Sheryl Sandberg is also safe. But the brand is tarnished, and calls for Zuckerberg’s ouster have been mounting. Though it is technically impossible to remove him, he may choose to remove himself rather than see his baby’s brand value damaged further. The campaigns that Facebook is alleged to have promoted tilt to the right, and have sundered the history of Silicon Valley’s alignment with the Democrats. The stories alleged to have been run against the Jewish philanthropist George Soros coincided with Soros receiving a pipe bomb in the mail, and the worst-ever anti-Semitic attack in the US occurred in Pittsburgh.
As in the Russian hacking controversy, Zuckerberg and Sandberg pleaded that they had no information about underhand dealings, which were commissioned by underlings, and acted appropriately when they learned the truth. But in corporate terms, this itself is a terrible acknowledgement — that the top leadership had no idea what was going on in politically sensitive areas. But there is a crucial moral difference between the two cases. Permitting Russian interference was an error of omission, but the present matter looks like an error of commission, in which Facebook used its muscle to smear opponents and deflect attention from its own crises. This will have a greater impact on the perceived reliability of the platform, and therefore on market sentiment.
But the outrage is excessive, too. Did anyone seriously believe that a media giant, bereft of the controls and self-controls that have developed in traditional media over a century, would not stoop to smear if it faced an existential threat? Especially in this age, when the manipulation of opinion and ad hominem attacks are mainstream tools in politics, appreciated and even celebrated by electorates as expressions of power? In every election in the two biggest democracies, newspapers run appreciative articles about head-turning online campaigns, and about consultants and spin doctors who sway millions of minds with silicon snake oil. It is business as usual, and the only sin is to be caught. Even discovery is not a sin if the guilty party can brazen it out. That is probably the route that Facebook will take.