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Social Media and the Idea of India


Updated: Nov 23, 2020

Radhija Bordiia and Gulan Kripalani with high school students Suhasini Das Gooptu, Nikhat Khatoon and Shrijit Dasgupta.

This presentation and discussion was held on August 17, 2017 as part of 3rd annual History for Peace conference, The Idea of India.

Radhika Bordia. News organizations make it mandatory for their journalists to be on social media, most certainly on Twitter. But when what people post on Twitter actually ends up dictating news priorities—that becomes tricky. Because as a journalist you are relying on a lot of what the general public is talking about, on hearsay, almost.

The other thing is that Twitter has a huge following. According to the Centre for Internet and Society, we have less than 40 per cent internet coverage in the country. Yet we are the third-largest users of the internet, after America and China. Such a reach is phenomenal, especially in terms of how journalism operates. For instance, I work for a show called India Matters. It goes on air three times over the weekend. When the episode we do on a particular week is uploaded on the web, suddenly the feedback is far greater. I work for an English news channel, which means the audience is already restricted. But even for those numbers, the feedback and discussion all happens on Twitter. Giving a recent example: I did a show on discussing the changes that have been implemented in textbooks in Rajasthan. The definition of ‘mammal’ has been changed in Hindi textbooks because the word for mammal in Hindi is sthandaari or sthanbaai. But the Rajasthan government now feels that the word sthan which means mammary gland is inappropriate for students. A few faithful watched that episode on television, but when I put it out on Twitter—what followed was utter madness. The response was unending, including a deluge of hate messages.

I am sure we are all aware that we journalists are called ‘presstitutes’. Occasionally, people even interchange the ‘e’ with an ‘o’. The debates, the issues and the information are all converging onto social media in such a way that it has become absolutely impossible to ignore it. We now need to figure out ways in which some of these debates and these issues can be introduced to students.

Social media is hugely democratic—anyone can use it. Forums that do not have any representation in mainstream media can use it effectively to communicate. Recently, young dalit boys were beaten up. A video of the incident was taken and put on WhatsApp where it went viral. I had gone to report this story for India Matters. I was talking to a young dalit boy named Lalji Chavda, whose family has been involved for generations in the traditional caste profession of removing carcasses. He said, ‘If this had not gone viral, none of you would have come to report the story. Because it is not an isolated incident for us. We are beaten for doing what is our caste’s profession. We are beaten for not doing our caste’s profession. This is pretty much how it has been. It’s just that it never makes it to the news. So, thank god there is WhatsApp and thank god the video went viral.’

The use of the word ‘viral’ has become a part of our everyday vocabulary. This incident in Gujarat became news primarily because it began trending on social media. It had already become news, which is another problematic part of what is happening with journalism. There is a reliance on the fact that something has to become viral before one actually goes to report it. It means that several other issues do not get covered.

The other recent example was of the human shield in Kashmir. Again, this image went viral on social media and led to endless debate. Again, when we go to Kashmir we are told that they are thankful it went viral. Because incidents like these occur every single day and ordinarily go unreported.

Social media is clearly an effective way to bring attention to matters that need to be looked at. But for every positive aspect, there is a negative too. Social media is being used in divisive ways, which brings us to what is currently the main problem: fake news.

We have so many examples of fake news in recent times. At the peak of communal violence in West Bengal, an image with the caption of a Muslim man disrobing a Hindu woman started trending on social media. It went viral within minutes, and communal tension escalated in that area. The image was actually from a Bhojpuri film called Aurat Khilona Nahi Hai.

These images are circulated in a very organized way. There is an army on Twitter, with a very clear intention, that will work to ensure that an image is widely circulated. That’s where we come back to the wonderful phrase we now hear all the time: the idea of India. The battle for whatever the idea or the soul of India is—it’s happening on social media The Hindutva armies on social media are very organized. They are very successful on Twitter, especially, both in terms of numbers and in the way they use cultural identities. Anyone opposing their intent is viciously and violently trolled.

The problem is, where do we go from this? Is there currently any debate or discussion in the classroom on this? It is easier to control television and newspapers, but it is almost impossible to get the source of the data on WhatsApp. On Twitter, it is a little easier to trace back threats, but WhatsApp is where the majority of today’s youth are now consuming their news.

There are modules now in the West that address social media. They have come up with key vocabulary words: misinformation, disinformation, misdirection. They try and define and explore these words in the classroom. The issue here is intent. Misinformation is a mistake; disinformation is a very careful attempt to spread something that is false. It’s not surprising that the Oxford Dictionary made ‘post-truth’ the word of the year in 2016. I think that some of these modules will have to be looked at in our classrooms too. And I think a good starting point would be take some of these examples and discuss them. To know that not everything you see on Twitter is news, is real.

Gulan Kripalani. Thank you, Radhika, that was a great start. I think it’s time we heard from the youth on how they respond to the world in the context of social media.

Suhasini Das Gooptu [Class 12, Modern High School]: What is my idea of India? Is it just a country I spot on the map during my geography lesson? Or is it the colour of my passport? Or is it the identity I was born with? To me, India is more than just an idea—it’s the first ever identity I’ve truly embraced. I’m Suhasini, an Indian. This idea was nurtured by my history books, my family, my teachers and my community. Today, I value the idea of a free democratic India that grants me liberty, equality, justice and fraternity, the pillars of our Preamble. I foresee a diverse passionate and highly opinionated India. An India that is involved and always ready for a debate. But today’s social-media language is not argumentative. It manifests this unnecessary sense of aggression and combative spirit that rather than stimulating a free flow of thoughts, encourages regimentation. To be unique is to be mocked in today’s world. For example, if I post something on, say, LGBT issues or criticize Mr Modi in any way, my inbox will be barraged by a slew of nasty comments. They will be graphic, often involving hateful comments, or will pressure me to keep my mouth shut. And god forbid if you are a girl—you will receive everything from sexist insults to rape threats.

I was born into a liberal-minded, intellectual family. My political socialization taught me to take my liberal ideas for granted—I thought everyone was liberal! What else could everyone possibly be? Twitter, despite its faults, granted me for the first time a panoramic perspective of my own world. Social media has transformed social issues into movements. Take the Nirbhaya rape case: it grew into an unprecedented mass movement, held the union government accountable and changed the way in which we perceive brutality against women in our country. This is my idea of India, an India that refuses to accept the status quo and fights back. The ultimate power of social media is to be able to change perceptions. Because, at the end of the day, mankind is nothing but a product of their created perceptions.

However, in this era of ‘fake news’, it is foolish to believe everything we love. Today media literacy is not a luxury but a necessity. The questioning of the barrage of news that we receive every day is imperative.

I still remember my first media class in school. Our teacher showed us a BBC video about a family that grew noodles on cheese. It had interviews and evidence and, believe it or not, some students completely fell for it. So is it that unrealistic to believe that every section of society will not question all the news they hear throughout the day? Media literacy, however, must never be confused by blind criticism of anything and everything. It is the practice of discernment and the use of critical thinking to analyse a situation. And accepting it only after it meets the high standards of your verification proecess. All forms of media, even advertisements, are a hyperbolic mirror of society, reflecting the development we perceive in that society.

I am sure you all remember the advertisement in the 1970s of a girl in a bikini under a waterfall. It outraged public opinion. But if you saw such an advertisement now, I am sure you wouldn’t remember it. Can the faculty necessary for critically analysing media be developed through the introduction of yet another period in our school days? No. It should be a natural part of our formal education, a part of a framework that will allow us to use our historical perspective and apply our academic lessons to question the events of our present day. Its function: to teach us to use the fundamental questions of who, when, what, where and why. I don’t believe everything I read on social media, but I must know my facts and my history in order to fight against what I think is wrong. India is a chaotic country that believes in liberty but with restrictions. India cannot be analysed in black and white, in liner equations or algorithms. We hate test cricket but we are the No. 1 test team in the world. Our gender diversity rank is 134 but most of the CEOs in banks are women.

So, has the idea of India failed? It cannot be answered, because it is the wrong question to ask. The right question is: ‘Can the idea of India be allowed to fail?’ India is a bundle of contradictions, an experiment! But an experiment that must succeed. We live in a country that is the product of some of the greatest minds. To let that idea of India fail is not an option. To let it fall into the hands of communalism, mindless intolerance and uniformity, is not a choice. We are the children of a vast and diverse nation. A nation that I believe will accept my flaws and amplify my strengths. A nation that thrives on diversity and, despite of world’s harshest deliberations, continues to survive and thrive. This is the nation challenged every day by social media.

Nikhat Khatoon (Class 12, Future Hope). Earlier, people had the habit of reading newspapers every morning. Now that has begun to fade away. Still, young people like us stay updated with news. But where do we get our news from? From digital media. People across the world communicate with each other with just one click. Just one click and the bond between parents and their children studying abroad grows stronger. We don’t have to go to the stadium to watch a cricket match—we get updates and live videos on Facebook. The players can even contact their fans on Facebook. Facebook, created by Mark Zuckerberg, is one of the most promising social-media sites. It probably helps many brands too. When we see advertisements on Facebook, like for a sale on Myntra, we immediately download the app. Social media has made things so much easier for us. We can buy anything we want with just one click.

To be honest, I don’t like watching the news on television. The debates go on, people arguing but not really getting anywhere. I prefer going online and watching the videos and reading the articles or blogs. As soon as school is over, my friends check their social media for news about politics and the rest. All you can hear about is the corruption, the inequality. Being from a poor family, it really distracts me.

We can also use Facebook to share or promote information about organizations like ours. We want the world to know about the good work our NGO is doing for us. I feel things are changing every day, and that social media is becoming a way by which we youth can share things. I read a news article on social media about a man who had saved Jewish children during the Holocaust. He was giving an interview and all the children, who are now grown up, were sitting beside him. He had tears in his eyes. These articles are forgotten by the newspapers, but they are being posted on Facebook. We get to hear the news of the past that has never been printed in the newspapers. Social media does help us. It has made it so easy to look for information, which might be making us lazy but I think it is also doing a great job for us.

Shrijit Dasgupta (Class 12, Calcutta International School). We can now connect faster than ever before. Social media is a democratic platform—everyone is equal. A person like me, a ‘nobody’, can tweet to the president. Talk to a foreign leader on a daily basis. I have noticed, however, that on social media, everything is either black or white. On Facebook, there are hundreds of pages that compliment every aspect of the present government and hundreds of pages that criticize the same. Information on social media is reduced to a couple of bullet points because that’s how you can convey it in the fastest. The speed of information dissemination is one of the best qualities and also one of the biggest weaknesses of social media. Concise information is amazing when you are preparing for an exam, but horrible for policy-making. Social media is based on shareability, likeability and rateability, and there are very few repercussions for anyone being irresponsible on social media. Whenever I share a joke or a funny sketch on social media, in the comments section there are always reactions from people who are offended by it. This trend is increasing in India. The arts are coming under greater criticism. People seem to be becoming harsher by the day. Social media also normalizes many of the horrific things that happen.

Why does social media matter for the ‘idea of India’? The primary reason is because most of my generation consumes information via social media. However depressing that may be, we get most of the information from there and, yes, there is fake news. It has its problems, but social media also proves to us that when things can be bad, they can also be incredibly good. Social media shows us the incredible diversity of the people, and how everyone can voice their opinion. How every marginalized group has a voice on social media. It shows us that absolute liberty and absolute equality is possible.

Gulan Kripalani. We are going to talk now about media literacy which is something that I hope will help us negotiate the very bewildering space that is social media. We will also talk about what is trending or not trending and what it indicates about our society.

What is the importance of media literacy in classrooms? Why is all this information out there? What is its impact? Is there an agenda behind the information? I would first like to start with a question to all the schoolteachers here: How many of you have media-literacy classes that are part of the curriculum, to work with the students and help them negotiate? How many of you discuss social media, its implications and its importance even if it’s not in the curriculum? So, can we first talk about what is critical and why it’s so critical?

Radhika Bordia. Listening to the three presentations, I think there is already a good degree of media literacy in terms of what social media can or cannot achieve. I hear all the time that the curriculum is burdened. But as Suhasini said, ‘It’s the way of bringing in this critical theory in classroom discussions on most other subjects.’ I feel that involving another person teaching media literacy is not required. One of the easiest ways of bringing media literacy into a classroom is to introduce some of the sites that look at news and journalism critically and perhaps building a resource space. Alt News, founded by Pratik Sinha, is doing some incredible work, looking through news and identifying what is fake and what is not. Hoax Slayer is another one of these sites. Introduce these sites, pick up what is the news of the day and discuss it. If the use of a human shield is trending on social media, and is also in the newspapers, discuss that. You can use all the imagery that you see. For instance, after India loses a cricket match, the internet will be flooded with Muslims celebrating. You could begin a classroom discussion on videos like this. How does one know where the video has originated from? What are the primary sources? Whether it is taught as a separate module or as a part of classroom discussion, it is important that media literacy be looked at.

Gulan Kripalani. Can we hear from some of the teachers? What kind of response have you had in your classrooms?

Audience Member. Media studies has been introduced in my school as an elective course under the CBSE curriculum. This is itself a realization that it is a very important tool for citizens and society and should be taught. We have been teaching the course for three years and have a good number of students enrolled in it. Now as a teacher and a core-team member in our school, I believe that it is important to have a fine balance between the importance of media and the over-use of media. The first thing, on principle, we say is: if you like something on social media, don’t forward it without going through every detail. It does not mean that just because you like it, everyone else will. First discuss its authenticity.We should also question some of the news that has been created by social media. We had an in-depth discussion about Nirbhaya.We discussed how this was real news—not something that was started on social media.

Suhasini. When I think of how I would like to be taught media literacy I don’t think a separate period or subject is necessary. I should have a broad perspective and be able to make correlations. I think that is how history should be taught—in such a way that we create a broad framework in our mind, so that we can apply what we study every day in class to the present situation.

Audience Member. Media literacy is now a necessity. It is as useful as knowing how to read and write. Deciding what is right and what is wrong is of utmost importance. It is not something that should be taught as a subject—it needs to be taught as a skill. It is like having to swim after being thrown in a river and that river is the internet.

Krishna Kumar. The classroom is a space where one needs to have time to understand things. The whole idea of education is to allow children to make sense of what is going on. Having heard this last hour of presentations on social media, I want to propose that it is perhaps too early in the history of this particular issue for us to suddenly start drawing implications on how we should go about it in the classroom. Some of these presentations prompt me to think that social media is just one more dimension of mass media. And that as teachers and educational planners, we haven’t yet made sense of mass media despite the fact that it’s been around for more than 150 years in different forms. Ultimately, what does mass media do to the profession of teaching? It presents a kind of difficulty. To respond to it is a responsibility. The speed at which communication flows does affect that responsibility. We have to understand and then respond. As one of the speakers said, ‘It’s very difficult to cope with the kind of responses one gets.’

These responses don’t necessarily mean that they carry an understanding of what has been said in this very fast-moving media. Now that presents a very serious case, but it’s not new. Social media may be new as a term but this difficulty has been presented by mass media all the time. Even during days of radio, and even before that, by mass media. I have a microphone in my hand and you are listening to me. If I say something about somebody which carries a certain edge of either misunderstanding or expansion, then that person will be facing a situation where he or she may not feel comfortable responding after a point has been made.

I am sorry to give this example from my very dear young friend Radhika’s presentation. I was having a discussion with her over tea in which I tried to distinguish the problems of provincial textbooks and national-level textbooks. And she added a line to it in her talk which totally distorted my view. She said that I equated left and right—which I have never done in my career. I know that the left’s distortions were never as bad as the right’s, and I will be the last person to equate left and right. But now I am in a position where I have to defend myself. Because somebody carried away a point. Mass media has always done this. They have done it in the days of the loudspeaker. They have done it with radio and TV, and now they are doing it in this age.Our young friend here says that social media allows her to communicate with Trump. I try to communicate with my chief minister or my prime minister—and it is exciting for me to send a message. But it is equally depressing for me never to receive a response.

Power has got even more concentrated in the age of social media, and that is where the meaning of prophecy has to be revisited and understood. I think this hype about equality is hype only, it has not been achieved. Perfect equality is highly problematic and I have no idea how the teacher is going to convince the young person that this is not equality. Yes, you are free to say what you want but the other person is not playing the role of listener, because understanding what you are saying takes time. Mass social media covers space, but distorts time. The problem is more acute today because the message of that never got across. That syllabi and textbooks are basically ways to package time. And if teachers are professional, they don’t have to accept that package, Mr. Yash Pal said. They first need to create a timeframe in the classroom within which understanding is possible. And as he defined it, he said: Education is nothing but a process of creating an addiction for understanding. For not letting anything go just because it’s going fast. For not letting anything go without the right to say, ‘No I have not understood.’

This business of being oppressed by the examination system, the syllabus, the textbook and now social media—which has made it so difficult to say anything critical—is a manifestation of the erosion of the profession of teaching. Negotiating knowledge with understanding takes a certain time. Don’t say it can be done fast.

Radhika. I do not see the encouragement of this sort of critical thinking in students. Of course, I could be wrong but things are not very different from when I was studying history. From when you could do really well by just memorizing five tutorials. We are being bombarded continuously with information—a very well-organized strategy of communication—and I think we need to find ways of countering that.

Suhasini. Archiving tweets has become very important, but what about the issue of privacy?

Audience Member. When one reads letters written by personalities from history, that also is an issue of privacy—but that has an archival gap. The important issue here regarding social media is when someone’s privacy is encroached upon for surveillance. I think if the archival gap is maintained, then privacy will be diluted. So archiving tweets is significantly important for future historians but archiving tweets for surveillance by the state is a completely different issue.

Audience Member. There is a temporal separation between the information we consume from the media and the information we consume from history. So one way in which I try and tackle this with my students is that I have an activity that we do every week, an activity that teaches us how to analyse sources and identify bias, perspectives and the purpose of the writer in terms of history-writing. We then tell the students to apply the same skills to what they see on the media today. Social media presents and requires immediate responses, which is a pressure we don’t face when we are studying history. Social media doesn’t give us the time to digest the information presented to us. So each student has to present a piece of news they find significant and I present them with some basic questions that encourage historical thinking and critical thinking. I ask them who the author is and what the purpose may be. I also ask them if there is any bias in the segment.

Audience Member. Perhaps that we are not aware that most of these apps are public. For instance, I can take a screenshot of a private WhatsApp message. People forget that anything one puts on the internet always stays on the internet, and this is something students need to be educated about.

Suhasini. When we download something from the App Store, we actually say that we agree to all the ‘conditions’ but nobody really reads what those conditions are.

Audience Member. How do you negotiate the dichotomy that the very people who are in desperate need of the potency of this medium, especially in the global south, are the very people who don’t have access to it? How do you negotiate the challenge that the minorities who need to access the digital medium are unable to?

Radhika Bordia. We make a conscious effort to not be dictated by what is trending and stick to classic journalistic responses. Regarding the point you made about access to the internet: there is a lot of work being done on making the internet more accesible to the wider community. Many marginalized groups, dalit groups and women's groups, have access to cellphones with internet, but they do not use it to surf for news. In terms of news, I think it is the responsibility of journalists. Sometimes we find that Twitter becomes crucial in putting out stories and putting the pressure for something to be reported on. For example, the incident in Pune was talked about so much on social media that the news organizations found it impossible to ignore. On the other hand, sometimes we get pushed into doing stories that don’t give us the time because they are viral on social media.

Audience MemberThose who don’t have access to the platform that provides the medium are the people who need access to it. You as a journalist will try and push the barriers—you’ll identify the voice. This is not making sense.

Radhika Bordia. There is a concentration of power in every single media outlet and there are biases. Does the internet democratize it? Yes, to a certain extent. You have to be a large corporate media institution if you have to get your views out, so the smaller ones use social media as a platform. Also, there is the issue of organized ideology, like the Hindutva using social media to troll. But we do have to accept the fact that it is now easier for smaller organizations to be able to put out stories. We are using social media to renegogiate and and repeat issues that have been debated for years now.

Gulan Kripalani. In the hugely complex and complicated space of social media, there is no simple black-and-white answer. There are ethics involved, criticism, fake news as well as amazing sociopolitical movements that have started gaining momentum through social media. How we use this technology is up to us.


A television journalist for more than 20 years, Radhika Bordia is Senior Features Editor, NDTV. She has worked on several docu-style series, such as 24 Hours, Witness and India Matters, each of which has looked at issues through the combined lenses of current affairs and culture.

Suhasini Das Gooptu, Student, Class 12, Modern High School

Nikhat Khatoon, Student, Class 12, Future Hope Foundation

Shrijit Dasgupta, Student, Class 12, Calcutta International School

Gulan Kripalani is transformational leadership-development facilitator and development communications professional, and member, Advisory Board, History for Peace.


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