Social media: The new theatre of India’s culture wars

The phenomenal rise of social media (SM) platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and others is proving to be a double-edged sword in the functioning of democracies. On the one hand, it has democratised access to information. On the other hand, it has concentrated power over that information with a handful of private companies, their billionaire owners, and certain ideologically committed activist groups.

Billions of netizens around the world now feel empowered to bypass traditional curators of information, such as journalists and editors, in searching for their choice of content. They have also become creators and disseminators of content, not just consumers of it. This is further accentuated by tech platforms directing more content at people similar to what they have already seen, thus creating echo chambers of like-minded groups.

This is already known. What is happening now, however, is the next stage of that transformation in how information is generated, disseminated, and consumed, and it is directly impacting how democracies function. There is a global war underway, involving the role of SM and freedom of expression, which is an extension of the culture wars between the Left and Right.

India is seeing the early skirmishes of the online version of this war, which has already progressed to a much higher intensity elsewhere, most notably the United States (US). In America’s bitterly polarised polity, the frontline of this war is a battle between Twitter and President Donald Trump. The former’s flagging of a presidential tweet as fake news, and the latter’s executive order altering the liability of SM platforms who edit content, is worth understanding better.

One of the most stark aspects of the West’s culture wars has been its erosion of the right to freedom of expression, which had been a hallmark of its modern democracies. Especially since the early 20th century, US Supreme Court rulings by the legendary Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, interpreting its Constitution’s first amendment, had established what many considered a gold standard of free speech.

While those struggles for free speech had pushed for more freedom, even to say and write very unpleasant things, the intensification of the West’s culture wars in this century has seen a reversal of that trend. Curbs on hate speech became widely accepted and implemented. But, thereafter, there has been a relentless push by so-called woke activists for ever more curbs on speech, often implemented forcefully and without consensus, based solely on political correctness.

A key aspect of this has been the shift from earlier activism against governments clamping down on speech to a focus instead on pushing media, and especially SM, to impose curbs on politically incorrect speech.

The irony in this new activism for speech curbs is that it is being championed by those who call themselves liberals. Of course, this does not represent classical liberal philosophy, and is instead a reflection of the far-Left takeover of present-day liberalism. This is visible around the world, whether in the forced withdrawal of a US academic’s paper contradicting the zeitgeist about race relations, or in the unsavoury departures of senior staff at the once venerable New York Times, after they had dared to publish op-eds reflecting Centre-Right views. In India, this bullying has manifested itself in the ganging up by self-avowed “liberal” authors to stop the publication of a book contradicting their narrative on this year’s Delhi riots.

Such far-Left canons have now invaded the realm of big tech firms. That should hardly be a surprise, considering Silicon Valley’s preference for recruiting “liberal” and “woke” employees. Books and articles by conservative authors such as Douglas Murray and business journalists such as George Anders have documented explicit hiring policies, practices and statistics to confirm Left-wing dominance among SM employees. It was, therefore, inevitable that employee activism would push these platforms into adopting leftist, illiberal policies.

The inconsistencies in those policies show up when SM platforms apply selective standards, such as when Twitter was accused of hypocrisy for not flagging or proscribing the aggressive, warlike tweet of a West Asian leader.

President Trump’s executive order directly impacts this. In US law, SM had been protected against the kind of liabilities — such as defamation — that traditional news media are subject to, on the grounds that SM are simply platforms for others’ opinions and did not edit or otherwise shape that information. But now that they are, by flagging, shadow banning, or deleting posts and accounts, the Trump order echoes many voices that had been asking for SM to be treated on par with media outlets.

A similar battle is raging about SM giants’ abuse of their massive power by sourcing news from media companies without paying for it, and then disseminating and profiting from it. Despite a bitter legal struggle, Australia is likely to become the first nation to require Google to pay for such content.

These battles are relevant to India, which is both the largest democracy as well as one of the largest user bases for SM platforms. Some of these battles have already begun here, such as the recent Indian version of the West’s leftist pressure on Facebook to put curbs on Right-wing posts. It is time to broaden the dialogue here about how India ought to respond.

Naxalism in India

Article Title:”The soil isn’t coloured red”

The coyness with which Indian politicians desist from publicly describing Naxalites as terrorists is telling. But ask them privately,as I have of many,and a surprisingly large number of them have no compunction in saying that “encounters are the only way to deal with them.These anonymous endorsements for dispensing summary justice by way of staged encounters where police and paramilitary forces are encouraged to gun down suspects in cold blood also speak volumes about political correctness in the largest democracy on earth.

India has long been called a soft state when it comes to taking hard headed decisions in the national interest that is,taking those decisions in time,well before years of festering brings the country to the brink of calamity. After years of the central government pretending that Naxalism was a state level problem,we are now at that brink nationally. In large swathes of the country today,the writ of the state has been replaced by that of the Naxals,who collect taxes,hold trials,issue punishment (including executions),recruit and operate a standing army,and are deeply dedicated to overthrowing the six-decade old Republic of India.

It is,of course,the failure of the republic to improve the lives of hundreds of millions of Indians that created the conditions for Naxalism to grow in the first place. This original sin has underpinned the guilt-ridden response of many liberals. Naxalism is not a law and order problem,goes the argument; it is a socio-economic one. The reality,of course,is that it is both. The tragedy is that the debate on how to deal with Naxalism invariably treats the problem as one or the other  that is,either a law and order problem,to be dealt with harshly,or a socio-economic problem,to be tackled with dialogue and development  when what is probably required is to do both.

The origins of Naxalism might lie in socio-economic injustices,but the movement has long since gone past the stage of fighting for social justice and development. In fact,and this is what the liberal viewpoint often misses out,the Naxalites today actively oppose any form of developmental activity,be it the construction of roads,schools,hospitals,anything whatsoever,with the cold-blooded aim of securing their turf. Their sole objective today is to ruthlessly keep hammering away at the organs of the state until the state is no more. The movement is explicitly committed to dismantling the republic,doing away with elections,closing down the media,and,by way of its sympathy for regional breakaway groups,chopping up the country.

So are they terrorists or not? The only stretch by which it could be argued that they don’t meet all the characteristics of terrorists  as opposed to militants or freedom fighters of some kind  is that they do not officially target innocent civilians. But ask those who understand the problem best,those who have studied the Naxals credo and have actually risked their lives in the frontlines,and they will tell you that there is no doubt at all.

Does that mean that dialogue with them should be out of the question,military-style action the only option? Not exactly. National policy must first distinguish that all Naxals are not equal. Many of the Naxal elite are college and university educated,they form the core of the CPI (Maoist) party,are its ideologues,and aspire to come to power some day. They must be tackled differently from the grunts,the disaffected tribals and other disenfranchised Indians who are the indoctrinated foot soldiers.

The central government has finally put together a grand plan,which will hugely increase boots on the ground to fight fire with fire. Those of us from Naxal-affected states had for years been wondering when Delhi was going to wake up and smell the coffee. Delhi seems to have not only smelled the coffee,but ingested a large dose of testosterone as well. But while hitting back with firepower is a necessary evil  necessary because the policy needs to have both carrot and stick  it will sadly not be enough.

The Naxals have been preparing for this day for years. They believe they have the upper hand in guerrilla type hit-and-run jungle warfare against the paramilitary forces being massed against them. They will also not hesitate to use as cannon fodder their cadre of foot soldiers. While the resolve of the Government of India will surely be tested,that of the Naxalites will not be,until and unless their core leadership,their ideologues,are engaged.

It is here that dialogue,track two discussions,could help. As in other militant movements in the North East for instance resolute military action combined with astute discussions could help to bring them into the mainstream. But there are those who maintain that dialogue is not the only complement to massive armed action. A retired civil servant with experience of such matters recently told me that talks are a waste of time,but a hundred or more top (Naxal) leaders need to be wiped out by targeted action,just the way it was done in Punjab before the terrorism there could be solved,and exactly how progress has been made in Andhra Pradesh.

There is hidden irony in the underlying similarity of these vastly different approaches talks vs. encounters  in that both doves and hawks are unwittingly saying the same thing: the massive armed action being readied now will run into expendable,and renewable,low-level Naxalites; what is also needed is a plan to tackle their leaders.