Democracy is the offspring of public opinion. Politics is the midwife. In the gigantic auditorium of power, only the stars deliver the lines. Not anymore. Facebook has got the faceless in your face. Twitter gives titter gravitas.
Instagram is the competitive celebration of narcissism. Social media is the middleman’s middleman. With the internet becoming the unambiguous universe of opinion and consumption, social media has transformed into the universe of the consumption of opinion. It’s the engine of politics.
And what’s politics without the software of ideology? Politicians log in to people’s fears and hopes. The password needs to be changed occasionally: once upon a time in India, it used to be socialism, today it’s Hindutva. So long as the mainframe has no malware, voter reboot is a given.
Anyone can be a leader on social media without credentials or the pain of and sweat of public life—the endless campaigning in the burning heat and bitter cold, the triumph of winning and the heartbreak of losing, the bitterness of being passed over and the joy of an undeserved berth. Likes are votes.
Retweets are by-elections. Forwards are the graffiti on the invisible wall that separates virtues. Trolling is party work. Bots are workers. The greater the likes and followers, the bigger the dude. Social media is the steroid clinic of the ego and everyone there is a doctor.
The disease of public opinion is a pandemic that has no vaccine. It forces sensible people to defend hate speeches as advocates of free speech versus the professional liberals who tried to seize control over the internet and failed. Where else except on social media can anyone get a free ride on the bullet train of freedom of expression?
Like politics, social media is about the business of views. India's FB chief Ankhi Das could well be a secret Urban Naxal, but her unapologetic support of her company as a profit generator echoes her boss Mark Zuckerberg's philosophy—all’s well so long as money is made. It took an internal revolt within the parent company in the US to disallow the ravings of Donald Trump and his white power cohorts.
In India few revolt against the boss, especially on trivial matters like right and wrong. Being a rebel gives them stage fright. Capitalism has always won in history because it is fuelled by greed and ambition—the two powerful catalysts of evolution. Socialism loses because the state keeps tight control over public opinion. You never know what your neighbour is thinking.
The refuge of failed socialism is capitalism and vice versa. Anything that affects the lives of people affects the fate of politicians. Control over values may work for a bit and you can get off by paying a one-buck fine, but public opinion is a fickle friend.
You can’t always get a read on the silent majority. It is better for rulers to co-opt viewpoints to avoid expiry on the shelf of authority, rather than exulting in its voltage. Social media has let the beast into the soccer field of emotions.
It kicks the ball around in a frenzy to score self goals. It is responsible for image makeovers for the simple reason that people engage one another with prejudice towards all. A pissing contest to decide who is the dumbest has no victor.
(The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)