Propaganda, new media and racism

BY PRIVAT GIRI| IN Media Practice | 09/11/2012
In the matter of the exodus of the north-east people, as important as safeguarding the cogency of the idea of free flow of information, is recognising and discreetly annihilating racial ideology from Indian society,
The recent exodus of North-East Indians living in Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, and Pune in the wake of mass circulation of SMS and MMS warning a possible “reprisal” against the killing of Muslims in Kokrajhar, has generated a fresh debate about the role of media in a democracy. Two crucial issues needs to be fore-grounded here. One, there is a need for a substantive debate on the question of media ethics and the need to differentiate between propaganda and rhetoric in the epoch of media modernity. Two, there is this equally important issue of racial discrimination and a sense of cultural alienation suffered by the north-east Indians in “mainland India”.
The SMS and MMS contained fabricated phone videos of alleged atrocities inflicted on Muslims in Assam. The SMS warning a possible violence against the north-east Indians were circulated simultaneously among the Muslim youths and the north-east people. The entire episode smacked of an endeavour to dismantle the already fragile communal relationship among various communities in India and, more importantly, it signalled the entry of propaganda and rhetoric in the digital/new media platform.
Truth and public opinion
The use of media for the purpose of influencing the mind of the people is not a new phenomenon. There were the rhetoricians, professional speechwriters in the ancient Hellenic world (Poe 2011). Plato complained that there were charlatans who were not really interested in the Truth at all. Rather, their only aim was to teach politicians to flatter their constituents and construct a favourable public opinion. Plato wanted to find the Truth, by which he meant reasoned discussion, a kind of debate in which real people present arguments and the other real people affirm or refute them by means of logic (Poe 2011).
A similar idea of attaining Truth through unrestricted public discussion among citizens was the basic principle guiding the philosophy of press freedom that developed in Britain during the eighteenth century (Keane 1991). John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859) offers three reasons why the guarantee of freely circulating opinion is essential. First, any opinion which is silenced by the government because it is allegedly false may prove to be true, in a sense that it may conform to the facts and survive vigorous counter-arguments about those facts. Second, though an opinion turns out to be false, it often contains an ounce or two of truth. The prevailing opinion on the matter is rarely the whole truth. Finally, Mill argues that even if the opinion is the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, it will soon degenerate into prejudice--into a “dead dogma, not a living truth”--if it goes unchallenged.
Mill developed his argument during the period when the main antagonist intervening “free information flow” was the government. Government censorship was the foremost challenge facing the champions of the “free flow of opinion”. The only existing form of modern communication channelling and facilitating “opinion flow” was the print and the press in particular. On the contrary, today, there has been colossal transformation in the media landscape. Several sophisticated media such as telegraph, telecommunication, cinema, radio, television, mobile communication, and internet have been introduced. Media ecology characterised by digitalisation and convergence is a big industry catering to and fulfilling the diverse needs and interests of various stakeholders. Of course, Mill might have anticipated this possible future alteration in media and communication technologies, but his rationality behind the justification of the “free flow of opinion” needs retrospection, especially within the context of changing habits of media use where vested interests have entered their realm.
Opinion and propaganda
Indeed, John Stuart Mill did not consider the flipside definition of “opinion” which was due to gain special attention from political critics during the mid-twentieth century after the Second World War. That alternative form of “opinion” was “propaganda”. Prior to the War, the term propaganda was used quite openly and freely. It invited negative connotation after the Second World War when Hitler vehemently used media, particularly the radio, for disseminating anti-Jew sentiments (Chomsky 1997). Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their book Manufacturing Consent, defines propaganda as a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position so as to benefit oneself or one’s group. It traces the routes by which money and power are able to filter out and construct and manipulate information to control the public mind. Chomsky and Herman caution of immediate threat to public opinion because of the size, concentrated ownership, and profit orientation of the dominant media firms, particularly in U.S., and also because of heavy reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and “experts” funded and approved by the agents of power ( Herman and Chomsky 1988).
While considering the above facts, propaganda may be also defined as constructed opinion or information aimed at influencing public mind or sentiment for the purpose of furthering the vested interest of the constructor or the manipulator. Here, the very contradiction between Mill’s “true opinion” and the “constructed opinion” needs to be figured out and adjudicated. And this will be a big challenge for the media policy-makers. The exodus of the north-east people from the Indian metropolitan cities, after the mass circulation of doctored video footages through mobile telephony and social networking sites, is one of the reflections of such contradiction. 
India had never confronted such extensive use of the new media for propaganda before, though use of propaganda in the State broadcasting network is a recognised fact. During the colonial period, the imperial government made a liberal use of radio for countering propaganda from both Berlin and the growing “Home Rule” movement (Thomas 1993). Even after independence, that tradition was retained (Thomas 1993) by the new Indian State, mainly in governance of State broadcasting, until the promulgation of the Prasar Bharati Act, 1990. The enactment of the Prasar Bharati Act, that freed broadcasting from government’s monopoly to some degree, was an effort to legitimise free flow of information ( free flow of information suffered a heavy setback during the Emergency) within the masses. Simultaneously, during the nineties, India adopted the neo-liberal economic policy bringing far-reaching reforms in its economic structure. One of the outcomes of such a change was felt in the media industry brought about by the rapid entry of satellite television, mobile communication, and internet, thus transforming media habits, use and choice of the people and guaranteeing de-monopolisation of information vis-à-vis opinion flow.
Thereafter, India’s information environment appeared optimistic. But the events in recent years, where media failed to safeguard the lustre of free information environment and non-interference, have raised critical questions on the Indian legitimacy of “free flow of information”. The exodus of the north-east people is the classic account of such failure in addition to numerous other instances such as the issue of media trial, consolidation and concentration of media firms, irresponsible reporting (the case of Mumbai attack), to name a few. Under these settings, India needs a clear and integrated information and communication policy without invalidating the Constitutional right to “Freedom of speech and expression”.
It may not always be feasible to arrive at a single answer for a question. While explicating the matter of the exodus of the north-east people, as important as safeguarding the cogency of the “idea of free flow of information”, is recognising and discreetly annihilating “racial ideology” from the Indian society.
Racism and India
Racial discrimination against the people from the north-east in mainland India is an established fact. Contemporary Indian political and social science have remained mute on the process of racialisation of the north-east (Thounaojam 2012). No extensive literature exists that explores and studies it (Thounaojam 2012). However, if we carefully decipher the historical lineage of “racial ideology” in India, we need to go back to colonial times. British rule in India lasted from 1757 to 1947. The most fundamental and far-reaching policy that the British introduced to Indian society was the structure of political representation in the legislative assemblies based on the notions of proportionality (Chakraborty 2002). Nationalists such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi abhorred this process and ideology that governed it, namely, communalism or racism (Chakraborty 2002). Among many other things, one of the key changes brought by such legislation in the Indian society is “race consciousnesses” among its subjects. And the post-colonial state in India only expanded such ideology and has failed to subvert it. Instead, race consciousness is being institutionalised by the political establishments for petty political gains. But now, after the Kokrajhar incident and its aftermath, it is quite apparent that not only political institutions but also some extremist elements are striving to make the best-possible use of such deep-rooted fault line in the Indian society. Thus, in addition to the challenges upholding the nitty-gritty of “free information flow”, another major challenge facing India today is to terminate the very characteristic of race thinking in the India society which is evident in its social interactions.
The media which are considered to be the guardian of free flow of information have a big role to play. During the initial days of the turmoil in Kokrajhar the mainstream media had no clue of what really was happening there. This reflects the extent of understanding our mainstream media have on the social issues concerning India. Media in India are centred heavily towards politics. The mainstream media and the regional media should work in tandem and exchange information, ideas, and concerns. Particularly in a country of India’s diversity, the media should reflect and accommodate the voices of its entire people having so that they develop a better understanding of one another and in the long run annihilate “racial ideology” from the Indian society.
Akoijam, Bimal, A., 1990, Ghosts of Colonial Modernity: Identity and Conflict in the Eastern Frontier of South Asia, in Peace in India’s North-east: Meaning, Metaphor and Method, ed. Prasenjit Biswas and C. Joshua Thomas, New Delhi: Regency Publications.
Chakraborty, Dipesh, 2002, Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the wake of subaltern studies, New Delhi: Permanent Black.
Chomsky, Noam, 1997, Propaganda and Control of Public Mind (Recorded at Harvard Trade Union Programme, Cambridge, Massachusetts), ArtDamage Productions: San Francisco.
Herman, S., Edward and Chomsky, Noam, 1988, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Delhi: Random House, 2010.
Keane, John, 1991, Liberty and the Press, in Media and Democracy, John Wiley & Sons
Mill, Stuart John, 1859, On Liberty, ed. Gertrude Himmelfarb, UK: Penguin, 1985.
Poe, T., Marshall, 2011, Homo loquens: Humanity in the Age of Speech, in A History of Communications: Media and Society from the evolution of the Speech to the Internet, New York: Cambridge University Press.
Thomas, N, Pradip, 1993, Broadcasting and State in India: towards relevant alternatives, International Communication Gazette; 51; 19, Sage Publications.
Thounaojam, Swar, 2012, A Preface to Racial Discourse in India: North-east and Mainland, VOL XLVII NO 32, Economic and Political Weekly.
(The writer is a research scholar in the Department of Mass Communication, Sikkim University.)
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