With online access getting cheaper, gen-now seem to have taken to a new form of dependence. The number of internet users is surging among the urban Indian youth and it is important to assess its impact on politics. Recent studies reveal that while the direct participation of people in political affairs has declined in the most powerful democracies, the increasing outreach of the social media has allowed people to share and exchange political views online.
India in 2016 marked the largest number of Facebook users with around 195 million accounts and overtook the US by over four million subscribers. A recent report released by the Internet and Mobile Association of India and IRIS Knowledge Foundation has revealed that of India’s 543 constituencies, 160 can be termed as being of ‘high impact’ that is, they are most likely to be influenced by social media in the next general elections. So, even if most of the 195 million Facebook users in India are not interested in politics, this study clearly signals that growing outreach of online media will ensure greater participation.
However, given that most political campaigns are largely influenced by stories that get circulated online, it has become challenging to separate actual news from the fake ones as social media adds to the confusion. The constant stream of click baits, links, memes, and rumours about political leaders and candidates is a mix of satire, truth, lies, and speculation. For instance, in July this year, a 65-year-old man was stabbed to death in Basirhat, North 24 Parganas, after an offensive Facebook post was circulated by a 17-year-old student. This was followed by communal clashes that caused large scale damage to life and property.
Fake news sites like ‘The Onion’ often post stories that seem authentic. There are also sites with political biases or those peddling various unsubstantiated conspiracy theories. It’s easy for people hooked to online media to get misled by posts of friends and followers, even if they don’t intend to mislead. It’s therefore necessary to use a great deal of discernment before believing anything that is posted online. Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh while launching the intelligence wing of the Sashastra Seema Bal expressed similar concerns and was reported saying, “The anti-national elements are trying to foment tension in the society by posting unverified information on social media. I urge you to not to forward such messages without verification or even believe in such things”
According to experts, social media is also a significant driver of political polarisation in India. Excessive reliance on technology has hindered our sense of objectively. Whether it is Aamir Khan’s intolerance row, Rishi Kapoor’s tweet on beef ban, Gurmehar Kaur’s post against ABVP, or ex-Vice President Hamid Ansari’s last speech, the social media has become a battleground for extreme ideologies.
These are further followed by online bullying, circulation of threats and explicit messages. Another hidden force that operates on social media is that of confirmation bias. This is especially powerful when it comes to controversial topics. Online media may reinforce our opinions and make it more difficult for us to entertain alternative points of view. In politics, it can help to make people more opinionated and less tolerant of others.