Politics of Commotion: Superficial Dialogue through Digital and Social Media

Over the last several years, we are witnessing, may be not perceiving it seriously, that political discourse in India is now getting confined to TV and Social Media and is commandeered by the scheduling consideration of these media options.

To enable the TV editors to gather participants for the debates and encapsulate content for prime time viewing, the messages are created no later than 5:00 pm. Likewise, to ensure proper rest for the media persons and the message sources, political activities, agitations, rallies, sloganeering, press-conferences, are all usually held after 10:00 am but before 2:00 pm.

The use and proliferation of digital and social media has radically changed both the way we are using language and the way we are ‘doing politics’ these days. Virtual space has now become the ‘natural habitat’ of an increasing number of individuals around the world; a space where they engage in discussions, work, shop, bank, hangout, relax, vote, find love partners, conduct their day-to-day activities, and so forth. A large proportion of day-to-day verbal and visual communication has migrated to various participatory web platforms. Social media have been hailed as either emancipatory tools contributing to a more participatory democracy, creating instant awareness about different social issues, a new public space of sorts (‘Arab Spring’ and the ‘Occupy’ movement are two widely cited examples).

A public sphere is a space of political communication and access to resources that allow citizens to participate in it. In this sense, given the exclusionary and commodified character of digital and social media, they cannot be considered as public spheres nor should they raise our hopes that revolution will be tweeted. Social and digital Media is dominated by corporations that make money by exploiting and commodifying users and this is why they can never be truly participatory. On a serious consideration, digital and social media are just another tool of control and containment, a profoundly depoliticising arena that fetishizes technology leading to a denial of a more fundamental political disempowerment.

One can realize the magnitude and impact of the medium if they consider that in the famous ‘Russia meddling,’ posts from a Russian company had reached the newsfeeds of 126 million users on Facebook during the 2016 US election and hundreds of thousands of bots posted political messages during the election on Twitter alone.

Digital and Social media is a new kind of an effective political instrument that, in the context of advanced capitalism, both dehumanizes politics and struggles and absolves people from the guilt of inertia in the face of major social and economic crises. It serves as an escape from the stress of intelligence, the pain and tension which accompany autonomous mental activity. Social Media is actually an effective anaesthesia against the mind in its socially disturbing, critical functions – leading to the knocking out of the mental agitation. Social media, as tools for producing and consuming different kinds of texts promotes a one-dimensional discourse. Consider the characteristics of Twitter’s one-dimensional discourse:

Language used in Twitter is short, fragmented and decontextualized: it is a language that tends to express and promote the immediate identification of reason and fact, truth and established truth, essence and existence, the thing and its function leaving no room for a dialogue and counter-reason. Twitter demands simplicity, promotes impulsivity, and fosters incivility.

Digital media takes the pedestal of instrumental and technological rationality and reduce audiences to the status of commodities and consumers of advertisements.  Such audience commodities that the media consumers become themselves are than sold as an audience to the advertising clients of the media.

Face-book, Twitter and other sites serve as an escape from the mechanised work process, and a breather to muster strength in order to be able to cope with the next round of work again. This allows social media to be marketed as entertainment – an entertainment that is accessible, on demand, any time and every time. For this entertainment to remain as a pleasure, it must not demand any effort of independent thinking from the audience. This constructs an involvement through inertia that creates a false sense of participation, security, homogeneity and consensus. Everyone is presumed to be a producer as well as a consumer of content, and the meaning of the messages get lost.

While there is around-the-clock exposure, constant access, and immediacy (all content is immediately available for reading and commenting), the message in the digital and social media is often decontextualized. The context is always that of-the-moment, limiting broader interpretations, connections and exploration of ramifications. Such content have a planned obsolescence, as the next programme or tweet will draw even more attention, commentary, visibility, and currency. The contents history is the here and now, as an ongoing critique of reality. Meaning loses history.

It comes, then, as no surprise that digital and social media have been serving as the ideal medium for populist parties and their leaders promoting the Politics of Commotion.  Digital and social media constitute an alternative to the mainstream media. Political campaigns started using social media as early as 2009, but it was with the 2019 General Elections that their use was taken to the next level.

Today, most political figures and parties use digital and social media platforms to disseminate their agendas and this has largely changed the way politics is conducted. This is a time when politics is ‘branded’ through social media. While democracies need liberation of the individuals from politics over which they have no effective control,  it seems that digital and social media have a firm grip on a large percentage of the our population, while people, in turn, have no control over digital and social media.

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First published 05 Aug 21

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Published by

Mukul Gupta

*Educator, researcher, author and a friendly contrarian* Professor@MDIGurgaon

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