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Digital Democracy: How Social Media is Transforming Indian Politics

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Digital Democracy: How Social Media is Transforming Indian Politics

The Traditional Media’s Shift to Provocative Content Could Lead to Its Downfall

“If Congress wins this election, it will be because of Dhruv Rathee,” declares a young Muslim man in Uttar Pradesh. In Agra, a group of young Jatav men list their preferred influencers, with Rathee topping the list alongside other local online personalities. Even a young supporter of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from the Rawat community in Mohanlalganj admits to regularly watching Ravish on YouTube. Remarkably, almost everyone can recount the specifics of the shows and episodes they follow.

This election marks India’s first significant social media-driven political contest. Social media has opened channels for alternative viewpoints, often challenging the government narrative and creating cognitive dissonance among the populace.

Changing Dynamics

Historically, the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have effectively utilized social media. In the early 2010s, a “right-wing ecosystem” emerged online to counter traditional media narratives. During this period, traditional media did not engage in active fear-mongering, a role filled by politically charged right-wing social media, which often pushed the boundaries of decency with commentary on Muslims, women, and historical events. Kunal Purohit, in his book H-Pop: The Secretive World of Hindutva Pop Stars, notes, “It provides ways to disseminate hate and stoke anger against minority groups and rivals each day, without ever becoming a tangible event, like a hate speech rally or a riot.”

However, the landscape has evolved. Traditional media now echoes much of the right-wing content, saturating the information space. People, including core BJP supporters, are aware of this control. As one BJP supporter mentioned, “The media only speaks for one side (the BJP).” With more diverse populations accessing mobile phones and seeking alternative viewpoints, critical voices have found a platform. These voices often do not align with any political party, thereby gaining credibility lost by traditional media. Many believe that social media offers a truer picture of current events in India. Ironically, traditional media’s shift to more provocative, biased content for survival might lead to its demise.

Influencers challenging the dominant narrative have thrived, aided by algorithms. YouTube and Facebook algorithms boost popular content, broadening its reach. For instance, Dhruv Rathee’s video, “Is India becoming a DICTATORSHIP?”, has garnered 25 million views on YouTube, with additional snippets circulating on various platforms.

Social media has also become a space for political engagement for increasingly cautious voters. In Mohanlalganj, a local Instagram influencer from the Jatav community, who shares poetry and remains publicly apolitical, expresses growing frustration with the BJP. He says, “I see and hear everything. If I speak, I will have trouble.”

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Youth Engagement

Educated youth have adopted social media most rapidly. Once a core support base for Modi, many young people are now disillusioned after ten years, their aspirations replaced by frustration.

In central and eastern Uttar Pradesh, the Kurmi population’s support is critical. Once solidly behind the BJP, divisions are now evident in places like Barabanki. Educated youth, frustrated by the lack of jobs and influenced by social media narratives, have shifted away from the BJP, as reflected in recent election results. While the BJP won the Barabanki parliamentary constituency in 2019, it lost three of the five assembly constituencies in the 2022 State election.

Democratic Reclamation

This development is positive at a basic level. A democracy thrives on diverse opinions and active political debate. The emergence of these spaces indicates sites of democratic reclaiming in India.

Long-Term Implications

However, the long-term implications warrant closer examination. Political narratives are increasingly shaped outside formal party systems. Traditionally, party workers and intermediaries connected voters with political ideologies and generated policy demands from the grassroots. Social media is diminishing their relevance, enabling greater centralization within political parties, as leaders can directly shape narratives. Algorithms also foster deeper polarization. The impact on party structures and the public sphere remains uncertain.

Conclusion

The rise of social media in this election is tied to the traditional media’s failure to frame political issues credibly. This raises significant questions about the future of reasoned discussion and the health of Indian democracy as we approach the 2024 election.

(Read the latest news of the country and the world first on  Talkaaj (Baat Aaj Ki) , you  can also follow us on Facebook,  Telegram,  Twitter,  Instagram ,  Koo  and  YouTube)

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