The Online Warriors Of India's Opinion War

12/02/2016 8:11 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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One fine day a man asked of an old ascetic, "Why do two people think so differently?" The seer replied, "The difference is in the eyes my child. And how you see depends on your experience with life..."

We live in an age of information glut. One click, a couple of swipes and you become the most erudite person that ever existed on a subject. So far so good, but the problem arises when you realise that the guy next to you is a self-proclaimed expert too, except with a view that's diametrically opposite to yours. Now, you must seek to convert him with a fanatic's passion! What follows are heated arguments and aspersions, where ardour dictates over reason. This becomes the demise of a constructive discussion.

With the keyboard as their bayonet these neo-zealots bay for blood.

The impact of social media in moulding the opinions of a large section of the urban middle-class came into sharp relief during the 2014 general elections. For the first time in Indian polity, the voters were engaging directly with the political class on a level platform. The result was extraordinary: a large section of enthused urban youth participated in the elections making it a spectacle to behold. In this frenzy of elections, one ominous development was the rise of a menacing new breed of social media users. We all know who they are - they disseminate propaganda, spread rumours about ideological rivals and specialise in abusing and harassing any poor soul who dares to differ with their absurdly exclusivist and supremacist world view.

The rise of a visible urban middle-class in 1990s, led to a proliferation of aspirations. This euphoria quickly dissipated when it became apparent that the growth story could never translate into a cornucopia of jobs and a significantly improved living standard. Interestingly, this was the same time when right wing ideology masquerading as nationalism finally began to gain credence among the masses. Desperate youth needed a channel to voice their resentment and many jumped into the bandwagon of jingoistic nationalism, denouncing everything beyond the insular realm of their dogma.

As the internet revolution began sweeping the world it was only a matter of time before these warriors took their battle online. With the keyboard as their bayonet these neo-zealots bay for blood. The fact is that in today's world patriotism comes quite cheap. The opportunities are plentiful and the consequences negligible. The game is simple, addictive: vent your anger on any issue, preferably something contentious, use strong language, pepper liberally with cuss words. Once you're done, the chain reaction ensues: those who agree sing eulogies in your name and those who don't press their 'launch tirade' button. Congratulations! By the end of the day you've every chance of turning into a mini-celebrity. Surely very few things in life can earn you such fame.

For a functioning democracy you require every type of personality: that paranoid communist, the histrionic nationalist, the subtle centrist...

The psyche of a nation is the opinion of its people. Contesting perceptions on a myriad issue make a society dynamic and receptive to changes. For a functioning democracy you require every type of personality: that paranoid communist crying wolf every time he encounters anything foreign, the histrionic nationalist with an instant obsession with anything that appears different, and finally the subtle centrist treading on a fine line between the two extremes. In mature democracies, each of these ideologies has ample space to voice their opinions, however brazen. Although the discordant voices vying for an audience may sound cacophonous, there is sufficient space for every ideology to be heard and this ensures that no one system has enough leverage to dismantle others.

In a society like ours, where accommodating a plethora of opinions is still a novelty and where the modern social hierarchy eschews free-thinking, it seems that we are still some way off from having a mature and constructive engagement of people and ideas.

Until then, remember that the difference is always in the eyes!

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