In an earlier post, I’d talked briefly about the Emergency and my small involvement as an activist. Many things have changed since then, and at some point, it is worth talking of how protest movements have evolved over time. But for now, just one aspect: collecting crowds.
It wasn’t easy back then. To an extent, being a student leader made things relatively simple: You went to the classrooms, or called for a general assembly, explained the reasons, and asked students to turn out in their numbers. You also got in touch with fellow students in other colleges across the city and had them do the same.
Political parties did not have that advantage (and we students of the time were hamstrung when colleges were closed). Those days, when a politician came visiting, his party would deploy jeeps and autorickshaws fitted with loudspeakers, and send them around the city, blaring out the details of who was visiting, the venue, the time, etc. And even then, there was no guarantee people would hear, remember, and turn up.
Today, all it takes is a hashtag, an announcement on social media, to spread the word at blinding speed. And sometimes it doesn’t need even that — just the news that something happened somewhere is enough. For instance, remember January 5? When thugs invaded JNU? Literally within an hour, even while the assault was still ongoing, people turned up at Gateway of India holding ‘We are all JNU’ signs. Check this out:
That’s an incomplete list, but it still contains the names of 251 cities around the world that have hosted/are hosting anti-CAA protests. It leaves out much — for instance, in a lot of cities there has been at least one protest every day; in several cities, there are multiple protests each day; then there are the ‘occupy’ movements involving 24/7 sit-ins. But still this list, incomplete as it is, gives you a sense of how viral this movement is, how widespread its sweep and scope.
This rapid mass mobilisation is the main challenge the world of social media, of interconnectedness, poses to authoritarian governments. And to counter this, governments have had to reinvent their own tactics. Here is a clip, from a book I am currently reading:
Rather than a complete totalitarianism based on fear and blocking of information, the newer methods include demonizing online mediums, and mobilizing armies of supporters or paid employees who muddy the online waters with misinformation, information glut, doubt, confusion, harrassment, and distraction, making it hard for ordinary people to navigate the networked public sphere, and to sort facts from fiction, truth from hoaxes.
Whereas a social movement has to persuade people to act, a government of a powerful group defending the status quo only has to create enough confusion to paralyze people into inaction. The internet’s relatively chaotic nature, with too much information and weak gatekeepers, can asymmetrically empower governments by allowing them to develop new forms of censorship based not on blocking information, but on making available information unusable.
The passage above is from the book Twitter and Teargas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest by Zeynep Tufekci. (A review, in case you need one).
A friend told me about this book yesterday morning. I started reading it last night, and this morning, something happened that brought this particular passage starkly home.
Kanchan Gupta, long-time journalist and now a Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, had DM-ed me on Twitter a while ago, asking me why I had stopped following him. We’ve known each other for a long time; we disagree (and have disagreed even publicly) since our views are dramatically opposed, but that is ok, disagreement is fine. I hadn’t stopped following him — I suspect there is some kind of bug in Twitter that keeps messing with follow lists (The other day I saw a mention that ‘x is now following you’; it startled me, because I knew for a fact that x had been following me, and I her, for ages).
Anyway, I followed him again. And one of the first things I saw on my timeline after that was a post by him, about some Hindu girl in Pakistan who had been kidnapped and converted to Islam. The post demanded to know where the ‘left-libs’ and ‘commies’ were now, and why they were not speaking out. It was not the only post on the subject that day — a few trolls had made similar comments in my mentions (and got blocked for their trouble). Without naming anyone, I posted this response.
Literally the first thing I saw on Twitter this morning was this:
And this was my response. Now go back and read the passage I had extracted from Tufekci’s book. See why it resonates? This is classic gaslighting, disinformation. Why pick Malapuram? Because it is a district in Kerala, which is anathema to the right wing. It is a district with over 90% Muslim population, carved out of the erstwhile Kozhikode district. And the post, using false information, was intended to show both the community, the LDF government in the state, and the unnamed ‘left-libs’ in bad light.
By the time you counter it with facts, that same handle and hundreds of others have peppered you with multitudes of other posts, all equally fake. And pretty soon, you give up out of sheer exhaustion, and they win. This is one of the techniques totalitarian governments have begun employing, to counter the relatively recent trend of rapidly escalating mass movements.
For some time now, I have been playing around with the question, what next? It is fine that over 250 cities are witnessing anti-CAA demonstrations. It is heartening to see the enormous turnouts. It is uplifting to see the courage, the determination, the dogged persistence in the face of state repression. But for how long? And what, finally, counts as a win?
In this column, I had suggested that getting people involved was itself a win, that the real wins and losses would take a long time to become apparent. But somehow, that answer leaves me dissatisfied, and I realized I don’t have the tools, the information, to think beyond the here and the now. So I decided to read, whatever I could find, on popular uprisings, student movements, mass protests and related issues. Below, in no particular order, a list of books I have read, re-read, or acquired for reading, in the past ten days — offered for those of you who might be struggling with similar questions:
- Twitter and Teargas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protests by Zeynep Tufekci
- The Children, by David Halberstam
- How Propaganda Works by Jason Stanley
- How Fascism Works by Jason Stanley
- JNU: The Making of a University by Rakesh Batabyal
- Assam: The Accord, the Discord by Sangeeta Barooah
- The Emergency Chronicles by Gyan Prakash
- Book of Dissent (Verso)
- A People’s Constitution by Rohit De
- Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirkey
- The Trial by Franz Kafka
- Tribes, by Seth Godin
- Blueprint for Revolution by Srdja Popovic
- The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millenium by Martin Gurri
- Why It’s Still Kicking off Everywhere by Paul Mason
- Our Damaged Democracy by Joseph A Califano
- Necessary Illusions by Noam Chomsky
- This is an Uprising by Mark and Paul Engler
- If They Came In The Morning by Angela Davis
- Freedom is a Constant Struggle by Angela Davis and others
- Carry Me Home by Diane McWhorter
- The Good Girls Revolt by Lynn Povich
- The End of Protest by Micah White
I’ll keep adding to this list as I discover more books, and quoting relevant bits from these as and when occasion arises. Meanwhile, there it is, for those interested. And if you have read books on similar subjects that are not part of my list, please add them via the comments section. See you tomorrow; I’ll leave you with this video that is worth watching both for the clarity of the thoughts and the impeccable use of classic rhetorical structure.