Social media has fast emerged as a market of its own where selling and buying are both easier and more practical. But there has been a slow and steady rise of “promoted content” on such platforms, where one can increase the reach of one’s content manifold by simply advertising. In such a scenario, where start-ups run into existing big players with huge resources, has the magic wand of social media lost its purpose?
“No,” says Ankit Lal, a computer engineer-turned-activist who spearheaded the social media efforts of the Anna Hazare-led India Against Corruption campaign in 2012, the defining moment when the power of social media in shaping public perception was first felt in India.
“Promoted content does bring in value, but it can’t sell the unsellable. Content was, is and will remain the king. One can buy likes shares and engagement, but not creativity and talent. Natural talent will find a way out even in the sea of promoted content,” Lal, whose book India Social unravels the behind-the-scenes stories of some of the most influential social media movements of the past decade.
The consumption of popular culture too is shaped these days by the hashtags and trends of social media. Youtubers and Instagram influencers are celebrities in their own rights, reaching out to huge audiences by just a click on the computer.
Lal agreed that social media has changed the way pop culture icons were perceived but added that the industry itself now interacts with its fan base and public at large — and that is what has led to this change in consumption of popular culture.
“While earlier they had to be dependent on magazines, newspapers, TV or other media, now there is a way to directly connect with the audience. Response times have shrunk as well as the frequency of gaffes and controversies,” he said.
Lal reflected on the fact that, like any other technology, there are positive and negative aspects to social media too. Like fire can be used for burning down homes or cooking food or like nuclear technology can be used for generating electricity or making bombs, similarly social media can also be used for promoting good content or fake news, he said.
In his book, Lal notes that “social media has become the number one source of news for most young people across the world”. Asked to specifically comment on the aspect of fake news, Lal said that it is a basic dilemma that all new technologies face. It is for the social media influencers and platforms, he maintained, to ensure that the positives outweigh the negatives.
“Fake news and propaganda have been part of all platforms. There have been books which promote a certain idea, magazines which do propaganda of a certain ideology or even TV channels which have bias towards a certain ideology. Similarly, now there is the problem of fake news on social media.
“Earlier it was a bit difficult to find and counter this propaganda material as it used to work in closed groups isolated from the majority. With social media, everything is for everyone to consume. So, this bane of fake news is a boon in one way as now it is easier to detect and counter it. For every voice there had to be a counter voice; similarly, for fake news there needs to be fact-finding platforms. And they are now evolving. In India, platforms like SMHoaxSlayer and AltNews are filling this gap to a certain extent,” he asserted.
From the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, which unleashed the potential of the medium, to the 2012 India Against corruption protests; from the rage-filled Justice for Nirbhaya movement to the citizen-driven fight for a free Internet with the #NetNeutrality campaign; from the controversial #AIBRoast to the growth of WhatsApp as the main weapon used to spread the agenda and the ideology of the BJP and AAP, and plenty more — Lal’s India Social brings together, for the first time, behind-the-scenes stories of these social media movements: How they began, why they spread and the way they have reshaped democratic life in India.