By Dushyant Shekhawat
When your uncle who only posts old songs on Facebook, or friend who spams Instagram with memes is suddenly discussing national policy, you know you’re now scrolling through your election newsfeed. And like Thanos in the upcoming Avengers movie, there’s no running or hiding from it.
Earlier this month, I logged in to Twitter and thought I had walked into a chowkidar convention. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to give the Opposition a stiff dose of reverse psychology and reclaimed the word chowkidar by adding it to his Twitter handle, his stan army, which includes influential ministers in his party as well as online randos, quickly followed suit. It was then, to crib a line from the specimens on MTV Splitsvilla, ki feel aaya ki hum election season mein hai.
Like the unmistakable, highly irritating sound of that trumpet marks the arrival of IPL, the politicisation of your social media feed lets you know that it’s that time of the year where your netas pretend to care. The viral chowkidar campaign is both an extremely relevant and recent example of how this works. The #MainBhiChowkidar trend was carried forward by national political leaders, pro-Modi celebrities, as well as common citizens. There were debates on TV, jingles on the radio, and you could not browse any social media platform without stumbling upon #Chowkidar. This is what I’ve been dreading — the arrival of the election newsfeed.
I normally use social media as a distraction from my day. When you’ve depressed yourself by reading too many upsetting news headlines, the ability to go online and watch something as mindless as strangers’ pets doing seriously impressive (but mostly cute) things is a blessing. Social media is supposed to be a break from reality, a vacation to a perfect world, and the introduction of politics is a sure-fire way to ruin that perfect world. But like Thanos in the upcoming Avengers movie, there’s no running or hiding from the election newsfeed. It spreads its tentacles everywhere.
I’m friends on Facebook with a friend’s dad, who is a classic rock fan. He normally posts twice a day, and until a few months ago, it was always an old Led Zeppelin or Aerosmith video, accompanied by a caption like “remembering college times…” But now, the songs have been replaced by posts proclaiming that Nehru was a Muslim and that the Pulwama terrorist was secretly Rahul Gandhi’s schoolmate. Sometimes, you spend four years wondering why you’re not in touch with some people, and then a big political development takes place and you remember exactly why.
In the entire history of the internet, there has never been a debate with a clear winner, because nobody admits defeat online.
Fake news is omnipresent and the misinformation seems to flow faster during election time. And social media is the catalyst. Studies published in 2017 documented a significant paradigm shift, where 80 per cent of urban Indians claimed that they get their news from social media, rather than traditional outlets like newspapers, TV, or radio. And during an election year, with people as discerning as my friend’s dad sharing their (not so) expert opinions, it becomes even more important to not fall prey to the temptation of getting into a flamewar, or giving up and hitting the block button.
Of course, it’s hard to just remain passive when your bullshit detectors are going off at maximum volume, whether the trigger is a blinkered liberal insisting a second term for the BJP would lead to the complete destruction of democracy in India, or some unqualified Indian history enthusiast claiming ancient India had flying vehicles. But as I’ve learned from painful experience, trying to change peoples’ minds by debating with them in their comments section is an epic fail.
In the entire history of the internet, there has never been a debate with a clear winner, because nobody admits defeat online. So this time around, I’m trying not to react too strongly to the election newsfeed. I’m not interested in breaking off contact with those whose views I disagree with, because I’d rather live in the real world than in a bubble. In the noisy atmosphere of social media, it’s all too easy to forget that multiple perspectives exist in a nation as pluralistic as India if you confine yourself to an echo chamber and refuse to engage with the other side.
Yet, it’s worth remembering that engaging with doesn’t mean arguing against. I choose to look at overtly political posts as a reminder that different issues matter to different people. I may not be willing to lynch people for eating beef, but it would be naive to pretend like gau rakshaks and their supporters aren’t as much a part of this democracy as I am, or that they won’t play an equally important role in the elections. I read these posts as a reality check, and move on.
In an Inc.com feature about why political arguments on social media so quickly turn nasty, the author puts forth a theory backed by research conducted at UC Berkeley and the University of Chicago, which states that social media is the wrong medium for such discussions, and that having loaded political conversations in-person is much more conducive to constructive dialogue than an online debate. So even though it might not be as entertaining as the memes that once populated my newsfeed, my new activity on social media is gauging where on the political spectrum my friends and acquaintances lie. And even if we can’t see eye-to-eye, the next time we meet face-to-face, at least we’ll have something to talk about.