[-empyre-] Week 4 Social Media
mrahul at sas.upenn.edu
Fri Feb 26 02:26:05 AEDT 2021
Thanks to Renate and Tim, for the invitation to think, share and discuss with this remarkable group.
This has been such a rich and illuminating discussion around social media, “untruths,” algorithms, and surveillance capitalism. Am particularly grateful to find out about such remarkable art projects and conceptual art that have critiqued social media surveillance practices. In India, governmental surveillance of, and clampdown on, protestors, journalists, and activists criticizing state policies has been a concern. There have been spirited protests against the recent problematic bills enacted by the state such as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and some specific farm bills (that aim to deregulate the agricultural sector). Some apps like WhatsApp have been used for anonymous encrypted communication earlier by protestors, and now there is a limited shift toward the apps Signal and Telegram ever since concerns regarding WhatsApp’s new policies related to data sharing have emerged in public debates. While WhatsApp has helped anonymous communication for progressive causes in the last six years, it also has been used by problematic right-wing outfits including cow vigilante groups in India.
I want to now discuss a somewhat related point about misinformation campaigns in India, particularly those that are amplified by the majoritarian Hindutva (nationalists) network collectives. Social media platforms and apps have offered Hindutva nationalism propagandists an extended media sensorium to create a communal atmosphere (“mahaul” in Hindu or Urdu). Such misinformation campaigns use a variety of platforms including Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp, and perhaps are most reliant on WhatsApp forwards (on mobile phones) in order to spread. While considerable work has been done on Twitter trolls in India, less research has been carried out on WhatsApp forwarding of objectionable messages with the notable exception of the comprehensive report prepared by Shakuntala Banaji and Ram Bhat titled “WhatsApp Vigilantes.” This is because of two reasons: a) being more used in urban India, Twitter receives more attention compared to media forms and technologies used in villages; b) there are mechanisms to publicly search keywords, hashtags, and URLs on Twitter, but such tracking is not often possible on WhatsApp. In India and elsewhere, while discussing or sharing news, people are moving from relatively open (Twitter, Facebook) to closed (WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger) social media.
An event, which could be as graphic as a live-streamed shooting incident or video of a lynching mob of cow vigilantes attacking a Muslim cattle farmer (or an image, meme or Twitter storm) keeps getting forwarded and circulated drawing Hindutva nationalist supporters into a variety of digital media platforms powered by the cell phone, thereby mobilizing sensing, affect, and multiple sites of attachment. Ravi Sundaram calls this phenomena “event chains” in a “distribution engine,” an engine which is an affect machine and a crisis machine dependent on the habitual micro-actions of likes and forwards. There are several reasons for the unabated WhatsApp forwarding tendencies: habit, pressure to participate, prejudice, and more… I have written elsewhere that the easy camera recording technologies of today’s mobile phones and the cheap circulatory affordances of WhatsApp make acts of cow vigilantism seem like performative rituals, very much ready and available for “mobile witnessing.” This is a sick visual regime and a deeply problematic form of witnessing. Fathima Nizaruddin has discussed how in certain public WhatsApp groups, the narrative of “CoronaJihad,” which blames the minority Muslim community for the spread of the virus in India, was being spread. While WhatsApp often gets singled out (because of its widespread use by mobile phone users in India), misinformation campaigns indeed are transmedial/intermedial as a range of material moves across platforms/apps like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, ShareChat and Helo.
WhatsApp has taken some steps to limit the number of users who can be added to a group, to limit the number of forwards to five (in India and it seems, some restrictions have been implemented in Brazil as well), and there is an option (though not default option) provided to WhatsApp users to not be added to groups without their consent. That said, the scope of algorithmic tweaks are limited given WhatsApp’s self-imposed encryption barrier (which might change in the future). I really appreciated the obfuscation tactics around Facebook and TikTok in the artworks discussed earlier in the month on empyre, and I wish there was an artwork tactic or an obfuscation technique around the WhatsApp forwards. There may indeed be one in the works that I do not know about…on another note, I remain interested like many others about the “Five Year Plan.”
Shakuntala Banaji and Ram Bhat, “WhatsApp Vigilantes” - http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/104316/1/Banaji_whatsapp_vigilantes_exploration_of_citizen_reception_published.pdf
Ravi Sundaram, “Hindu Nationalism’s Crisis Machine” - https://www.haujournal.org/index.php/hau/article/view/1485
Rahul Mukherjee, Mobile Witnessing on Whatsapp - https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14746689.2020.1736810
Fathima Nizaruddin, Role of Public WhatsApp groups within the Hindutva Ecosystem of Hate and Narratives of “CoronaJihad” - https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/16255
Associate Professor of Television and New Media
Cinema Studies Program, Department of English
University of Pennsylvania
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