How isolated Indians in the real world are connecting, inspiring and arguing in the virtual one
For the past month, as we ran our tired eyes over rapid dispatches of breaking news on the pandemic, dipped in and out of Houseparty games, succumbed to vicarious gluttony even as dirty dishes piled up in our own kitchens, and stalked our favourite consecrators of public opinion through the social web, we were only half-aware of the altering contours of social media as we knew it. We had gone into lockdown FOMO-ridden and time-poor, interminably consuming and contributing to the endless trail of crumbs from our lives leavened with capitalism. Our desire to keep up with the norm of vying for the ephemeral attention of strangers and peers wore us down. A social media persona was a dress shirt without buttons that we wriggled in and out of and carefully ironed in private. In isolation now, with a killer virus on the prowl outside, we were quickly tiring of our pajamas. We were seeking out long-lost friends, baring our souls to exes and estranged cousins, letting colleagues into our messy homes on rambling Zoom sessions. And when this wasn’t enough, we were logging on to the public square to huddle with strangers or to trade opinions. “You feel like a witness of the times and want to engage with thinkers and moral agents directly,” says Sunanda Anant, a 38-year-old UI designer from Bangalore, who emerged from a self-imposed six-year-long exile from social media to reclaim her Facebook account and set up a Twitter handle. “It is okay to never post, or just to re-tweet. It’s the equivalent of listening to your colleagues talk at lunch.”
According to the Hammerkopf Consumer Snapshot Survey conducted on March 28 across 1,300 respondents in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Chennai, the first week of lockdown saw Indians spend over 280 minutes a day on social media, a spike of 87 per cent over the previous week when the daily average was 150 minutes. It was, of course, natural for people in isolation to want to stay on top of happenings around them, but adding to this hunger for information was a glut of leisure. The informal economy grinding to a halt and anxiety over the future of work further drove consumption of entertainment on social platforms. YouTube reported 300 billion views in the first quarter of 2020, 11 per cent more than the views in the first quarter of 2019, according to a study by Mindshare India and video analytics platform Vidooly. The ByteDance-owned TikTok was the most downloaded app in India in the social media category during the lockdown, followed by WhatsApp–the app already reaches nearly 80 per cent of all smartphone users in the country, its biggest market, and just doubled the number of callers that can participate in group video conversations from four to eight people–and Facebook, according to a study by App Annie. Helo, Instagram and the Alibaba Group-owned VMate were other popular apps categorised under social networks and communication. With Facebook announcing a $5.7 billion investment in Reliance Industries Ltd’s telecom unit on Wednesday, making it the largest minority shareholder in Jio Platforms, Facebook-owned WhatsApp, 20 per cent of whose two billion users come from India, is all set to deepen its footprint in the country as it emerges from the lockdown. For starters, the deal will bring together JioMart, Jio’s small business initiative, with WhatsApp to enable users to to connect with local businesses for a seamless mobile shopping experience.
Before the lockdown, there were social networks and there was social media. WhatsApp and Telegram were a subset of our phone books and conversations on these networks were largely personal and real-time. Much of the news feed on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, in contrast, was not immediately consumed. We sifted through social media content at our convenience, even if it was claiming progressively larger chunks of our time. The line between social media and social networks has now blurred considerably. There is no such thing as asynchronous communication, with most content being consumed almost as soon as it is posted online. “After the lockdown, as people are forced to stay indoors, there is a lot more consumption of content on social media platforms than there is creation. The one thing that is being created in heaps is opinion,” says Aprameya Radhakrishna, founder and CEO of Vokal, an Indian language knowledge sharing platform. The Quora of the Indian language web, Vokal connects users who have questions–usually about their careers, or other aspects of self-improvement–with other laymen and experts who are in a position to answer them. Vokal is a rare social platform that has seen more content being generated during the lockdown, with consumption remaining almost the same. “While search behaviour has remained more or less the same, we have recorded a huge surge in answers. From 7,000 answers a day when we went into lockdown, we now have over 25,000 answers being uploaded every day,” says Radhakrishna. Contrary to expectations, there isn’t a big uptick in questions on health and hygiene, he says. Over 70,000 users, including 15,000 subject matter experts–3,000 of them are doctors–have registered to take questions on Vokal. Those asking them fall in the 18-25 age bracket and hail from non-metro urban centres like Lucknow, Kanpur, Jaipur, Patna and Bhopal. The app expects to close April with 20 million monthly active users–a 100 per cent growth over last month.
The first week of lockdown saw Indians spend over 280 minutes a day on social media, a spike of 87 per cent over the previous week when the daily average was 150 minutes. Adding to this hunger for information
was a glut of leisure
On lifestyle platforms like Instagram, the infinite scroll has lost its utility as a fount of ideas. Restaurant-mobbing, indie fashion-toting, personal best-seeking biographical snapshots have made way for instructive and candid livestreams from kitchens and home gyms and offices. The performed intimacy of a celebrity giving a haircut to her spouse now has us feeling equal in our incompetence, even if, in her next video, she may lunge deeper into her exercise mat than we can ever hope to. “At a time like this, people are looking for engagement and inspiration,” says Rathika Ramasamy, a wildlife photographer based in Chennai who has a million Facebook followers and 78,000 more on Instagram. On March 18, she went live for the first time on Instagram, announcing a series of live interviews with award-winning photographers over the next 10 days. “I had never felt the need to face the camera before,” says Ramasamy, who interviewed 25 personalities and conducted free mobile photography workshops for over 1,300 people. “The first week of the lockdown was confusing. I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. Now I am busier than ever and I have the satisfaction of engaging with followers at a deeper level–I try to take as many questions from the comments as I can, and tailor my next interview accordingly,” she says. Ramasamy conducted a poll where 89 per cent of respondents said they would like her to do another series of interviews for Season 2. “I have conducted photography masterclasses for several years, and now I have the added option of online classes.” All her content for Instagram has been free so far, but the lockdown period has given her the opportunity to consolidate her fan base. In fact, using her social media reach, she raised over Rs 1 lakh in just two days to fund monthly rations for 800 rickshaw pullers from Bharatpur Wildlife Sanctuary who now find themselves out of work.
In India, social media as a fundraising and relief tool in times of disaster has come of age. With the lockdown undercutting the livelihoods of farmers, migrants and gig economy workers who normally operate outside the zone of urban public visibility, the smartphone has become the mirror they are holding up to a viciously unequal world. The curated partisanal chitchat of social media is now punctuated by these voices from the margins, boiling and breaking likes waves on the shore of bland assurances by the state, and commanding emotional reciprocity. Volunteer groups, activists, NGOs and high-net-worth individuals have stepped in to bridge the gap. The Harvesting Farmer Network is one such effort to connect prospective bulk buyers with farmers on the verge of dumping their produce or making a distress sale. “Twitter has emerged as a major SOS platform for people in distress during the lockdown,” says Dileep Konatham, Director, Digital Media, Government of Telangana. “In fact, we have seen a very interesting trend. Most of these messages were posted by first-time users, who had created accounts just to reach out to the government.” Telangana, which has extended the lockdown till May 7, has seen unprecedented traction for videos and interactive virtual sessions by the Chief Minister and Minister for IT and Industries KT Rama Rao.
This is also the first time state governments in India have exploited the wide reach and the broadcast architecture of TikTok to roll out advisories. The social clearing houses of Twitter and Facebook seem tiny in comparison to TikTok’s #GharBaithoIndia campaign, which, in association with UNDP, roped in Bollywood celebrities to generate 6.1 billion views.
In the initial days of the lockdown, a pall of decency seemed to have fallen over the internecine world of Twitter. Fortunately, the illusion of standing together, grim and witless, did not last. “Whenever the government takes a key decision, whether it is demonetisation or the lockdown, there is the argument that this is not the time to question it. Be quiet, feed five people if you can, is the typical response. That is highly limiting. At a time when there is a high chance of herd mentality, critical inputs become more valuable than ever,” says Kannan Gopinathan, a former IAS officer who resigned in protest against the restrictions imposed on Jammu and Kashmir. A popular anti-establishment opinion maker, Gopinathan, who has over 143,000 followers on Twitter, started tagging the prime minister in tweet-threads reimagining his addresses to the nation under lockdown, recommending policy measures, putting out data on India’s testing and positive detection rates, number of recoveries and other points of interest. As the initial shock of locking ourselves up against a clear and present danger wore off, timelines were abuzz with a chorus of voices–self-professed epidemiologists, economists and math modellers, gratingly cocksure policy wonks–that was neither predictable nor stable, admitting discoveries and rediscoveries, ever expanding, forcing us to think laterally and to seek answers the governments did not seem to have. Highly technical multi-tweet threads by doctors and scientists began to rack up thousands of likes–had isolation improved our attention spans by that much? Are we at a cultural watershed? Gopinathan, who has been racking up 500-1,000 new followers every day of the lockdown, certainly believes so. “I have had a lot of good disagreements in this period. People who wouldn’t normally have the time to read through data-rich posts are now doing so. And many have said that while they disagree with me, they wish me well.” A 19-year-old who publicly wished him dead came around to apologising in direct messages a day later, he says. “The key is to trawl through all the abuse to find the point of disagreement and start a rational discussion around it.”
Social media as a fundraising and relief tool has come of age. With the lockdown undercutting the livelihoods of farmers, migrants and gig economy workers, the smartphone has become the mirror they are holding up to an unequal world
According to Gopinathan, Indians, accustomed to a culture of top-down communication, are yet grappling with egalitarian platforms. “For instance, a young man in a family WhatsApp group disagreeing with a senior on a social or political matter would still invite wrath,” he says. “Krishna did not shut Arjuna up. He did not say, it’s a war, don’t ask why you should fight, just shut up and do it. That is our mythology and our history.” Social media can be a great leveller, but only if influencers actively engage with people from the other side of the fence, or those less articulate or lacking a big following, he says. “We should use the lockdown period to have meaningful conversations. There is nothing democratic about the illusion of a direct means of communication with a popular persona when he or she can choose to take it up or not at their discretion.”
In an FIR registered on April 12, the Gujarat Police cited Gopinathan’s March 30 tweet “shaming” the prime minister for cutting the salaries of doctors as a violation of the law under Article 295A of the Indian Penal Code that applies to “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”. Lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan was booked for re-tweeting it. “I get trolled a lot for my strong opinions, but I am amused that the state should give a social media comment so much importance,” Gopinathan says. Like everything else under lockdown, the paid trolling economy too is in a slump, he says. “They are all sitting at home twiddling their thumbs. In fact, I sent messages to some regular trolls saying I was game for a debate if they wanted to make some money off it.”
Fake news peddlers, however, ran riot, ensnaring millions even as it took entire teams of fact checkers, backed by governments, social networks and media organisations to debunk the worst of them. “Three or four people out of every 10 users of social media have come across some fake news or the other regarding Covid-19,” says Rakesh Dubbudu, an RTI activist and founder of Factly, an information portal that was roped in by the Governent of Telangana to launch a fact check website. The site has had over 100,000 views since its launch on April 2 and generated 500 queries. “As irony would have it, the misinformation curve is now flattening,” says Dubbudu. “In India, it hit its peak in late-March and early-April. We saw several waves: gory photos exaggering the havoc that Covid-19 supposedly wreaks on the body; a wide range of miracle cures; misattibution of quotes and information to the government or to eminent personalities (the quote on the state of the economy wrongly ascribed to Ratan Tata, for instance, or the misleading news that the government had outlawed social media posts about the pandemic); conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus; and finally, the communal angle where Muslims are being wrongly accused of intentionally spreading the disease.” A team of seven fact-checkers at Factly has been working on eight-to-nine cases a day, out of a swelling pile of leads–up to 20 per day. “Over 95 per cent of the misinformation was spread through all platforms,” Dubbudu says, adding that Sharechat has retained its popularity among regional language users, and Telegram has gained traction thanks to liberal group engagement policies. “The nature of fake news being spread was mostly the same all over the country. If you take Telangana, there were just two special instances that weren’t seen anywhere else: a piece of so-called research that toddy can help the body fight off Covid-19, ostensibly endorsed by a member of the state toddy board; and another set of rumours for and against eating beef as a remedy.” The speed and the reach of the Covid-19 rumours were unlike any we had seen before–this was all that people were living and breathing, and anything that appealed to their existing preferences, or contained an emotional aspect, had the potential to go viral. The Telangana government made 16 arrests in connection with spreading fake news, including a case in Bhongir near Hyderabad where two men had wrongly–as a prank, it turned out–accused a local of testing Covid-positive.
As some of us tuned into online music festivals, shared our black-and-white visions of lost youth or photos of opalescent skies from our terrace, we were each weaving strands of impressions into the complex piece of tapestry that is the social web. “By sharing more, we feel like we are part of the response,” says Sunanda Anant. “We are each proving our social utility, in our own small way. This won’t change for months to come.”