The Art of Provocation on Social Media

Published: 02nd September 2015 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 02nd September 2015 02:59 AM   |  A+A-

On Sunday night (in Los Angeles where the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards were playing out), rapper Kanye West announced that he was running for US president in 2020, pop star Justin Beiber flew around like Peter Pan, then cried after an emotional performance, and hip-hop star Nicki Minaj called out host and fellow singer Miley Cyrus on stage. What’s new, you wonder. Well, the spectacle made for heavy traffic on social media, and days later, the memes and funny tweets continue. On the night of the show, Rega Jha of Buzzfeed India, a media start-up, posted: @narendramodi Sir pls bring Kanye to India (sic). Her site had listicles (bullet point list) about the 21 things and characters that celebrities at the show resembled. Jha herself is no stranger to the power of social media and in particular, of Twitter. Back in February, the 23-year-old editor finally got some traction for the Indian arm of the New York-based media site when she tweeted that Pakistanis were hot and Indians ugly.

It was during the India Pakistan World Cup match in Adelaide and the tweet kicked up so much noise online even after she put up another post saying Indians were beautiful inside out. The good news? BuzzFeed was trending at last.

But who in India has really nailed the fine art of provocation on social media,  where one creates enough noise with an observation but avoids the need to apologise for it or be hauled up in a court of law? Popular tweeters include everyone from Bollywood’s Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan to Sonam Kapoor. Politicians like Shashi Tharoor, Omar Abdullah and Baijayant Jai Panda use it very well, sometimes stoking a controversy enough to get a rap on the knuckles. But do these celebrity Tweeters use it to best effect?

Our stars usually play it safe. SRK most recently helped a boy get a prom date via Twitter. Sonam Kapoor has firmly established herself as a fashion watcher and a follower. Another actor, Jacqueline Fernandez, is all about fitness and beauty secrets. And while we have a fair share of satire handles that are both honest and humorous, they are anonymous.

Hashtag is a relatively young language in India, brand consultant Harish Bijoor had remarked in an earlier conversation. The term ‘youth’ he reserved for the 21 and below, while it is the 18- to 30-year-olds who use the medium fabulously. Their online presence is unfiltered. They grew up with the internet and understand it. Not surprisingly, they have made careers of it. The 35- to 65-year bracket, meanwhile, preferred to retweet. “We are Gen Zero in the use of hashtags,’’ he stated, and that could be because unlike the West, we have certain taboos. Religion, for one. And sex. Both can get you trolled massively. If you feel strongly enough about the subject, you form a graveyard of tweets; it is a survival mechanism of sorts and like other sensible beings, this is where Bijoor buries the tweets he stops himself from sending out.

So how does a celebrity use Twitter effectively? It is understood that much of the older generation depends on PR machinery, where the spontaneity gets lost. Their presence on the Indian internet is very brand-like, as BuzzFeed’s Jha had noted in an interview. Their tweets are squeaky clean, usually promoting their next project, and probably written for them by a copywriter at a PR agency, she said. One identifies them by their display photos and names change with every character they play in a movie.

After all, this is just a medium they use to promote their work. The ones who have really cracked the code are many of the country’s comedians and journalists, besides a few politicians. As the internet grows stronger in terms of its ability to sway mainstream prime-time conversations (with around 300 million internet users in India, that is not far off), these people will have an obvious advantage, Jha opines.

As for brands in the internet space, adman S Prabhakar, whose outfit India/2 does advertising for national brands, insists that being a millennial is not an age but the age in which we live. Only five per cent of the advertising budget usually goes into social media marketing, for massy brands, unlike in the West, where it is more than 30 per cent. Brands, therefore, need to work on the space and cut through the chatter caused by constant Twitter feeds.

Aditya Swamy, EVP and Business Head for Viacom18 Media, admits that the power of the platform is huge. Advertising, he points out rightly, is a world of make-believe, and what the consumer really wants is for you to talk to them in an honest way. There is the opportunity to be very real. Controversies like the Maggie debacle can be quickly addressed via this medium, which offers an opportunity to talk person to person. Swamy, who is also Business Head of MTV, should know — it is one of the most active brands on Twitter today. Explaining how disaster can be easily averted by quick thinking on social media, he recalls an incident when an intern had tweeted birthday wishes to John Lennon a few years ago. Angry fans were placated only when MTV made an announcement online that this was the first time an intern was handling the account and fans were welcome to decide his fate. It was instantly sorted, with followers suggesting that MTV be more forgiving. Swamy’s social media team is the youngest in the company, and he knows that Instagram is where the action is headed. They are the largest on Instagram, thanks to active users like VJ and RJ Nikhil Chinapa. This ‘word of mouth marketing’ works best for them. “We encourage live tweets. My goal is that instead of watching MTV with a remote, the viewer has to be holding his phone, completely engaged,’’ says Swamy.

Unlike gossip shows and box-offices, the internet doesn’t care who you’re related to or how you look. Authenticity rules. Jha believes that for stars, whose personas are designed entirely by publicity teams and PR agencies, that may be a difficult adjustment to make. As for Sunday’s VMAs, a report by MTV stated that it generated 21.4 million tweets, reaching 11.8 million people. Additionally, 16 million people had 39 million Facebook interactions related to the VMAs. Clearly, the Twitter app was made for an event like this, and trading Twitter barbs always makes for good business. Despite our societal and cultural norms, does our entertainment industry need to take notes?


The writer is Editor of  Indulge, The New Indian Express


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