In the contemporary politics and journalism, a strange symbol on the keyboard which looks like a noughts and crosses game has gain prominence. We call it hashtags and whether we are on Twitter or not the messages we will be hearing from politicians are usually shaped by it. There are many who say that hashtag activism is not intended to have any effect, nevertheless, hashtags by some media outlets demonstrate the manufacture of consent and the power of polarisation. In November 2016, Raj Kamal Jha, editor-in-chief of the Indian Express, had stated that ‘criticism from the government is a badge of honour’. However, what we witnessed on social media as Republic TV and Times Now’s hashtags is the exact opposite of what Raj Kamal had said. Twitter boasts 316 million monthly active users with 500 million tweets per day, and its hashtags offer members of the public a route to signify solidarity, and raise awareness of events happening in the country, but some media outlets used hashtags to campaign and shape public opinion for or against the political parties in the fray.
Nationalism is the most dominant theme going by the number of hashtags devoted to it by Republic. The hashtags like #NationWithForces #NationLovesIndianArmy, #IndiaAgainstAntiNationals, #ArmyAbovePolitics #NationFirstNoCompromise, and so on are designed to drum up nationalist support. It appears that if it was not for the Kashmir issue and India’s problems with Pakistan, the channel would struggle with what to report. It is not that these are not important issues but that a disproportionate importance being given to them at the cost of other crucial issues. In the current era of hyper nationalism, any talk on nationalism is not complete without the “nationalists” declaring others as anti-nationals. Not to be left behind, Republic organized a debate on “Who is an antinational” with the hashtag #IndiaAgainstAntiNationals. It brought together a panel it considered qualified to classify fellow students into nationals and anti-nationals. While Major Gaurav Arya took on JNU, Sambit Patra declared “questioning the conscience of the govt., and the Constitution is anti-national”. A fair amount of time was spent discussing Arundhati Roy’s statement which it later turned out that she had not made. It was still not a wasted debate for the channel as it achieved the important purpose of keeping everyone distracted from any real issues that they should be bothered about. Nationalism serves a dual purpose for these media outlets because apart from distracting attention from real issues, it is also used as a weapon against the opposition. While it projects #NationWithForces, the opposition is singled out as insulting the Army and martyrs for e.g. #AkhileshInsultsMartyrs, #LeftInsultsArmy. Republic continuously reminded its viewers of their nationalist duty with these chest-thumping hashtags at the cost of bringing up issues for discussion. There was not a single hashtag devoted to topics like unemployment, farmer suicides or growing vigilantism.
Rahul Gandhi is the most featured politician in the hashtags promoted by Republic. When Rahul Gandhi’s political adviser quit, it was #RahulDumped, when he visited the riot victims, it is #RahulRiotPhotoOp, when he went on holiday, the “nation” wanted to know about #RahulItalianHoliday. The purpose and tone of the hashtags was to ridicule him. The Congress still remains the constant target of attack by hashtags of both Republic and Times Now. Hashtags like #CongNeechPolitics accused it of playing politics whereas those like #CongSlamsIndiaRise and #CongTerrorPhoto attempted to portray it as anti-development and anti-national. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in an election rally in response to the Congress party that he had sold tea but not the nation, Times Now parroted the same with the hashtag #UPANeDeshBecha. Republic has done an outstanding job of holding the opposition and liberals responsible for failures of the government. At the time of Sukma attack, the channel’s official handle had put out a set of tweets questioning the JNU students instead of the government Republic focused on several opposition leaders including Rahul Gandhi, Shashi Tharoor, P. Chidambaram, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav and Arvind Kejriwal. They were questioned, mocked and in the words of Republic, “exposed” on various issues. Not to mention, they were also accused of being not “nationalist” enough and insulting the army at the slightest pretext. It is interesting to note how in its tweets and hashtags, the channel often addressed the opposition leaders by their first names but did not follow the same protocol for BJP leaders. We will find Rahul, Farooq, Akhilesh, Kejriwal and Lalu but we won’t find a Narendra or Amit. Even the BJP spokesperson is always referred to as Dr Sambit Patra. More recently, when five farmers were shot dead in Madhya Pradesh, Republic used the hashtags #LeftInsultsArmy and #RepublicStingsFatwaBrigade to keep the viewers busy with a completely different set of issues. One day later, when the issue had escalated, Republic reluctantly covered it with the hashtag #FarmersFaceBullets. Unlike in the case of opposition, BJP or Shivraj Chauhan were not named or held responsible in the hashtag. The question that was asked was “What do the residents of Mandsaur have to say about the political parties?” You heard it right. No, not the government, but political parties.
A few of the hashtags that Republic and Times Now used to identify topics of interest during the Gujarat Assembly elections were #SupariPolitics, #MandirGujaratPitch, #CongMandirLie, #RahulMughalEmperor, #GujaratGaaliPolitics, #CongExposedOnAyodhya, #CongressNeechPolitics. On the other hand, channels like NDTV, India Today and CNNNews18 selected neutral hashtags like #GujaratElection2017, #BattleForGujarat, #ElectionsWithNews18 and #AssemblyElections2017. Times Now actively campaigned for the establishment with its hashtags mocking Rahul Gandhi. When Gujarat State Election Commission raised an objection on the use of word ‘Pappu’ in advertisements, Times Now called it #PappuCensored and even carried a poll on it. Also, Rahul Gandhi’s jibe on the Gujarat model and ease of doing business ratings was reported by Republic with the hashtag #CongSlamsIndiaRise. One day after the elections was announced, Republic ran the hashtag #PakHawalaUnderCongress. Rahul Gandhi’s remark saying PM Modi’s Gujarat model has failed was debated on Times Now as #RahulVsIndiaRising. Republic tried every trick in the trade to run down the press conference and build public opinion against Rahul Gandhi. As per Altnews report the attack over social media did not stop at Congress and its leaders. It extended to all those who opposed BJP. The so-called sex tape of Hardik Patel was a topic of incessant debate with hashtags like #HardikTapeTrouble #HardikTapes and #GujaratSexScandal. Also, Times Now labelled Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakore and Jignesh Mevani as #TheCasteCowboys and also promoted the hashtag #RahulHardikTango. A picture of Jignesh Mewani, receiving a cheque from members of SDPI, the political front of the PFI led to the hashtag #CongTerrorPhoto.
Distraction From Real Issues
Republic managed effectively to deflect attention away from the failures of the government by using different strategies. At times it blacked out the issue altogether and at others, it distracted the viewers by discussing something totally unrelated. Whatever the strategy adopted, the objective was the same to deflect attention from the raging issues and set a new agenda for public debate. On May 18th when seven men were brutally lynched by a mob in Jharkhand, Republic was busy with its nationalist agenda with featured hashtags of #PakShamed, #PakKashmirStunt, #NationWithForces, #CongForPakLawyer. Over the three days that the story unfolded, there was not a single tweet by Republic on this topic. It brought us news from a zoo in Ahmedabad but not a word on the lynching incidents. It is not too much to expect the fourth pillar of democracy to play a responsible role by debating the stand of political parties on critical issues that affect the people of Gujarat? There was not a single hashtag relating to economic issues or development. What we saw instead was sections of media taking a blatantly partisan position and using hashtags to manipulate public opinion in favour of one party. Even during the Gujarat elections, no hashtags questioning the current state government’s claims about Gujarat’s unemployment rate, or the lack of clarity on the figures of Vibrant Gujarat investments, or that the cost of hospitalisation was the most in rural Gujarat, or the number of atrocity cases filed by Dalits from 1988 to 2017, which, by the way, was 115, with 85 cases being filed when Narendra Modi was the chief minister. At all times, attention was diverted from real issues facing the people and focused on matters like #GujaratTemplePolitics, #MuslimQuotaPlot, #RahulSeparatistBhakt, and #ModiAttacksRahulBhakt. There was also a clear attempt to define the narrative of the election on communal issues in an attempt to distract the citizens from focusing on and questioning political parties over their position on issues of socio-economic significance. The channel has compiled past instances where they believed Rahul Gandhi played photo-op politics. Such accusations are never levelled against the Prime Minister or any other leader from the BJP even though there may be many occasions that could be questioned as a photo-op. Rahul Gandhi is a constant target for the carefully selected like-minded Republic panellists as well. The charge against the Congress President is led by Arnab Goswami himself. He asks if, “A dynast leader of an undemocratic party that wants to run a democratic republic? Is Rahul Gandhi treading thin ice?” There are almost no hashtags by Republic that focus on questioning or criticising any BJP leaders but in contrast, hashtags like #RahulShocksIndia #RahulNRIComment #RahulBacksDynasty #AmericanRaGa #RahulManhandlesCop #RahulChinaMeet #RahulItalianHoliday are dedicated to Rahul Gandhi. Humanity was once again shamed in Uttar Pradesh when the government’s apathy saw a rape victim’s father succumbing to his injuries while in the alleged custody of the state police. The Republic had posted 30 tweets using three different hashtags starting with #RahulAtRajghat to #RahulFastDrama and #RejectCastePolitics. In contrast, the channel had posted just two tweets on the tragic death of the rape victim’s father in Uttar Pradesh #UnnaoRapeCharge. In fact, the wording of the channel’s hashtag amply illustrated their reluctance to provide significant coverage to a story that ought to haunt all of us human beings, let alone the media fraternity. Republic and Times Now have made it clear that they wouldn’t be giving any space to dissenting voices. Brainwashing isn’t journalism.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.