As of May 2016, India ranked as the country with the second highest number of Twitter users (after the US) at 41 million users (as per Statista). For anyone with a healthy appetite for political discourse, this should come as no surprise as tweets have become almost synonymous with official public statements. As someone who jumped onto the Twitter bandwagon rather late, I have no qualms in admitting that I failed to see much worthwhile potential of this and for that matter any other social media platform. But the way in which social media has creeped its way into public discourse has been simultaneously surreptitious and remarkable. This article, looks at two important ways in which Twitter has been a force for beneficial disruption in the sphere of national/public interest in India.
The most recent issue to rake up a Twitter storm, that of Sonu Nigam’s stand against noise pollution by religious establishments, is a case in point for it is a potent example of an issue first emerging on the platform and being picked up by the mainstream media thereafter. It used to be that Twitter tracked mainstream media and served as a platform for people to air their views on topics raised therein. Millions of frustrated Indian citizens initially took to the platform to speak out on everything from corruption to anti-nationalism, mostly when they felt that the mainstream media was not accurately or adequately representing their views. But those days are long gone. Twitter has slowly emerged as the platform of first choice, forcing the mainstream media to track it and pick up worthwhile stories for television programmes. Earlier news made tweets, now, tweets make news. This, I think represents the first big disruption effected by Twitter – disruption of the media.
As people spend more and more time on their phones, traditional media is struggling to get those eyeballs to focus on Television sets and newspapers. Consequently, the number of likes and retweets have emerged as valid guages of public sentiment. Moreover, the immediacy and inclusiveness of this form of feedback is unparalleled in history. Traditional media is no doubt unhappy about its loss of power to the likes of Twitter and You Tube but if they’re true to the purpose of their own founding, namely the galvanisation of public opinion, they shouldn’t be.
The second disruption that Twitter is wreaking on the Indian societal landscape is in its role as a platform for pushing reform. Whether it be the cause taken up by Sonu Nigam or the ‘triple talaaq’ issue, the social media platform is instrumental in galvanizing public opinion and hastening the process of social change. Post-independence India has not much flaunted its talent for protest marches. One important reason was that Indians usually doubted whether their fellow citizens generally shared their views. The educated middle class silently rued that they were the only ones concerned with the governance and developmental issues facing the country. But the election of the Modi government in 2014 sent a very clear signal to the public that the majority in the country were indeed on the same page. Twitter has further strengthened this confidence, emboldening citizens to speak on topics they probably wouldn’t have either dared or felt motivated enough to discuss before. The oft-cited issue of trolling is a rather insignificant one relative to the benefits enjoyed by citizens who can now express their views and be heard. Similarly rumour-mongering doesn’t have a long shelf-life given the self-correcting muscle that social media is inherently equipped with.
The pace of reform is not only hastened, but also strengthened through social media. A well worded tweet by PM Modi is enough to engage the imagination of lakhs of people and make them feel more connected with his causes and activities for example. This of course goes a long way in building a stronger national identity.
It’s probably fair to say that Twitter founder Jack Dorsey could never have imagined that an Indian pop singer would someday use Twitter to fight religious fundamentalism. These positive ‘externalities’ of the news and social networking site have been largely unsung because of their sheer unexpectedness. While one can rail against the detrimental effects of social media on our society to our heart’s content, the fact is that it has brought many more issues under scrutiny and enabled heretofore unheard voices to reach the fore like never before. Now that certainly deserves a ‘like’, if not also a Retweet.
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About the author: Shruti Bakshi is a finance professional holding an MBA from INSEAD and an MPhil from Cambridge University. She tweets at @shruti_paris and blogs at www.livingwiseproject.wordpress.com.
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