PRIME MINISTER Narendra Modi is the most popular politician on Twitter, with more than 68 million followers. In his tweets, we don’t get the Modi we find on the stump, the only one with a sorcerer’s soundbite, playing with the mass mind. We find a Modi who’s statesmanlike, sagely, spreading the good news and inspiring the folks out there, and more preachy than political. He has always understood the uses of storytelling in politics, and as a communicator with an idiom for each occasion, he has always wanted to be the master of his words—and mistrusted traditional media. The messenger is the message. The narrator is the narrative.
Twitter still continues to be his favourite—and most effective—medium for his prime ministerial expressions: the wise man talking, calm and interactive. He is indebted to the medium that enabled him to build an intimate interface with his followers. He knows, it’s more rewarding than a political rally of simulated adoration.
Jack Dorsey spared him because the Indian politician did not turn his platform into a relentlessly updated political rally that disrupted the liberal, progressive order.
Someone else did, and paid for his transgression.
Donald Trump was the most popular politician on Twitter with close to 90 million followers—until he was cancelled by the medium to which the President of the United States owed all his combustible “covfefe”. He too mistrusted traditional liberal media, which was hostile and as combative as the First Bogeyman of America himself. He was, in the non-Fox portrait of evil, everything that civility and democracy could not afford. Wounded, vengeful, bitter, he withdrew into his own media universe where he was far from being presidential. He was the online flamethrower, in constant conversation with his base, still playing the MAGA-maniac. He was not Modi. Twitter was his permanent political rally. But the Panopticon Silicon Valley built to perfection was watching. Twitter, miming the armed morality of progressivism, started censoring him. The Capitol riot of January 6th marked the end of Trumpian argument on social media: Facebook exiled him; Twitter hanged him.
Trump was the one who militarised the public square. He was the Evil Emperor against whom all good men came together. In the new Cold War, the Iron Curtain was made of words and more hateful words. In the end, the Good wins. The new social media morality was born in the embers of Trump’s presidency. In the unipolar world of progressivism, dissent was betrayal; conformity was empathy. The absolutism of free speech and the relativism of hate speech always tested the business model of Facebook and Twitter. In the beginning, even as Twitter bared its woke soul, Facebook, showing spine, resisted progressive censorship. It would succumb eventually.
Remember: Once upon a time, long before Trump began typing Armageddon on his cellphone, social media rhymed with freedom. It relayed the sighs, struggle and romance of the newly awakened in stifled societies, whether it was Iran or Egypt, Myanmar or Turkey. It was the most shared Revolution Square. It was digital samizdat. It was the telegram of the trampled-upon. There was innocence still in the worlds it made possible. Data was not a curse; it was the door that suddenly opened at the end of a dark corridor. It was the day before Trump.
Then, as the age of Trump brought with it the politics of personal extremism, hashtag became the talisman of the victim, sexual or racial. #Activism turned social media into a battleground, and blood was spilled. Twitter justice was more cathartic than court-ordered justice. Show trials were in vogue again (and they are still). Soon prime-time proselytisers and oped oracles would be overtaken by the foot soldiers of social media. The abridged rawness of their arguments—maybe just statements—was matched by their autonomy. Never before had loftier pronouncements and baser vilification enjoyed this amount of freedom. It was tolerable, notwithstanding the filth, as long as definitions about free speech and hate speech were not the sole prerogatives of the most righteous in the fray.
Harvesting the mind was once the Soviet model; it is now the first rite of freedom in the parallel universe of Big Tech. It is science. It is inevitable. Who wants to be a moral Luddite? So we gave in
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Then data became the doctrine. The business model of social media is built on the intelligence of the machine, and on minds managed by algorithms. Our choice is not our choice, and what we see is what we have been programmed to see. The most—perhaps the only—appreciating investment of what the Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism is the human mind. Harvesting the mind was once the Soviet model; it is now the first rite of freedom in the parallel universe of Big Tech. It is science. It is inevitable. It is, in the end, the triumph of the human mind in defying frontiers, bringing god to the machine. Who wants to be a moral Luddite? So we gave in. The pleasures—and possibilities—of submission were boundless.
The pleasures are conditional now. Twitter has a political position. Facebook has outsourced its politics to its own ‘Supreme Court’ with an Orwellian name: Oversight Board. ‘Content moderation’ has become narrative control, and in the case of Twitter, it has become a woke-up call. It has joined the truth warriors of the progressive Left. A case study: At the peak of the recent Israeli-Palestinian limited war, there was a liberal media consensus on who was wrong and who was the victim, and the number of the dead and the visual evidence of devastation added to the angst. Once an aggressor, always an aggressor, and on Twitter, the Zionist aggressor was amplified in anti-Semitic hatred. #HitlerWasRight was the new instance of hashtagged hate, which turned a people’s suffering and survival instinct into a verbal Holocaust. As the actor and filmmaker Sacha Baron Cohen tweeted, “the surge in anti-Semitism on the streets is fuelled by anti-Semitism on social media…Those who celebrate the Holocaust aim to perpetuate another.” There was no cancellation; there was no content moderation. There was only free speech. Hate has higher saleability, and it is not just the algorithm that selects the best-selling, morally suitable hate-tag. It is made possible when the morality of social media joins the morality of the street. It is manmade morality ruthlessly implemented by the machine. It is the Sovietisation of social media, notably Twitter.
Does it mean the state should respond in Soviet style? No. Does it mean the state should take back the narrative control? No again. States, even democratic ones, want to be the moderator of truth. Social media, born in the romance of freedom, has gone on to become a meta-state. Power is paranoid, and more so when a higher power stakes a claim—absolute claim—on truth. This paranoia is as old as political power, and today the new imperium that demands absolute copyright over the popular mind is social media. Call it capitalism without a human face. To curtail it is to commit the folly of curtailing freedom. Truth is a disputed item, trapped in a hashtag; amplified by multiple retweets; exaggerated by the number of likes. It takes just another hashtag to make it a lie, a rotten privilege, a shame shared a thousand times. The political morality of social(ist) media may be a sham, but the state that may collapse under the weight of a tweet can afford a bit more of national confidence. If history is any lesson, truth abhors arbiters.