The Government of India was ill-advised in responding to western celebrities, who comment on practically every issue on earth.
Six words – 'Why aren’t we talking about this?' followed by the hashtag #farmersprotest and a link to a CNN article about internet shutdowns in the protest areas, set off a storm in Indian cyberspace. While most furiously googled to find out who Rihanna was and why she had over a 100 million followers on cyberspace, the next salvo arrived.
Teen climate change activist Greta Thunberg tweeted: “We stand in solidarity with the #FarmersProtest in India.” Parts of Indian Twitter began seeing a global left-wing conspiracy to defame the Indian Government and stall economic progress in India. This seemed to be confirmed by the act of Thunberg tweeting links to a ‘protest toolkit’ – a set of pre-written tweets that could be used as part of a campaign to bring awareness to an issue. In this case, farmer protests.
For those of us who work in the media, the idea of organised trends of hashtags are not new. They have been used for almost a decade now – trending things like consumer products, protest information, political propaganda, and protest information. The internet and its various platforms have been weaponised for a long time for those who want to put out their agenda. And the tools used by ‘your side’ and ‘their side’ are identical. Tools that help you organise, communicate, share, and trend issues that are dear to your heart.
The same tools that were used to trend #coronajihad and #coronaterrorism last year, were used to trend farmer protests. A few years ago, when the west was gripped by protests around the 'Extinction Rebellion', the same tools were brought into play to organise and agitate. An identical method is used by agencies, on behalf of their clients, when celebrities and influencers spontaneously start referencing brand hashtags.
If you look at western celebrities - especially popstars, actors, sportspeople and authors, they are definitely more vocal than their counterparts in India. For example, during the Vietnam war, celebrities like Jane Fonda and Mohammed Ali, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan spearheaded the anti-war movement. In later years, other celebrities have stood for other ‘contentious’ causes - Richard Gere in his support of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan cause.
15 words stir up a storm
Many celebrities were part of the anti-Trump campaign – including Mark Ruffalo, Meryl Streep, George Clooney, to name a few. And climate change per se, has attracted celebrities across the world – talking on behalf of ‘global good’ and taking on governments, corporations, and policies. It is part of what they believe in, and it is part of the packaging of their overall persona.
Those 15 words - 6 words by Rihanna and 9 by Thunberg - set off an overreaction of epic proportions. And, instead of being sage and mature about this, the Indian government did the unthinkable and reacted to private citizens reacting in their private capacity. The Ministry of External Affair put out a statement defending the farm legislation to a popstar, a teenager, and a bunch of assorted celebrities. This was followed up by a tweet storm from Indian actors, and cricketeers synchronised in tone, intent, and hashtags, and often identical messages. It is almost as though the celebs were posting content out of a similar toolkit.
The Streisand effect
The Streisand Effect is a social media phenomenon named after singer and actor Barbara Streisand. The Economist defines it as “efforts to suppress a juicy piece of online information can backfire and end up making things worse for the would-be censor.” The history of cyberspace is littered with examples like this. While the Indian government did not try and censor the celebs, it tried to counter them – and ended up drawing more attention to the cause internationally than these tweets would have otherwise merited.
But it was not just the government that reacted. Most of Indian cyberspace had an opinion on international celebs turning the spotlight on the farmer protests. And, then women themselves. Most of the international celebs talking about the farmer protests were women who then got a taste of what most Indian women face on social media daily. Threats of rape, violence, vile abuse, flooded their timelines. Rihanna’s previous encounter with domestic violence was pulled out, and her abuser lauded. And India’s dirty secret of troll armies who shower those they dislike with daily with abuses, sexually explicit content, and threats of rape and murder, was out. Hopefully, this is another thing ‘we will talk about’ and platforms will see how to weed out these abusers.
India comments on the issues of other nations. Indians have a view on almost everything on the planet (and beyond). And part of being a chaotic democracy is accepting that people have views that are not your views. It also is understanding that people across the world will have a view on what you do, just as you will have a view on what happens elsewhere. A secure republic will take this in its stride and ignore celebrities. Even Donald Trump learned to ignore most celebrities who were critical of him, and his policies. There is no reason for the Indian government to react or overreact.
The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology, and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker.