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Shakuntala Banaji Interview: Media and Citizens

Shakuntala Banaji is Professor of Media, Culture and Social Change in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE, where she also serves as Programme Director for the MSc Media, Communication and Development. She lectures on International Media and the Global South, Film theory and World Cinema, and Critical Approaches to Media, Communication and Development in the Department of Media and Communications at the LSE. Her current research addresses the intersection between socio-political contexts, media, identities and participation. Her new edited book is with Sam Mejias, Active Citizenship: Ethnographies of Participation. In this interview with Divanshu Sethi, she discusses the impact of media in framing social realities and identities, the relationship between citizen engagement and digital media, the typology of misinformation participants, and the current discontents in the structure of media.

Welcome Professor Shakuntala, thank you for agreeing to do this interview. To start with, can you describe the ways in which media can impact the social reality and identities of people in a society?

You just asked the million-dollar question for all media theorists, which is, the interaction between human psychology and social phenomena like the media. Of course, different theorists answer this question in different ways. But I’ll just talk to you about the kind of work that I have done over the years. 

I started off more than 20 years ago looking at Hindi films and the kind of discourses around gender, sexuality, politics, religion, that there are in these films. One of the things that I was interested in was the theory that was around at that time, about media effects. It is a strong theory which came out of the US. It focussed on the tradition of examining just exactly how the media affected the behaviours, thoughts, and patterns of everyday social interactions between people. So just to give a very crude example – if you were someone who watched a violent film would you then go and become violent; if you watched pornography would you then become someone addicted to porn, and so on and so forth. Of course, this tradition of media effects was not the only one which had theorised media as having a direct, almost hypodermic effect on people. There was also a Marxist tradition which looked at ideology and how ideology worked through text and cultural products and formed a kind of hegemonic influence over people’s ideas and their minds. So that people agreed and consented to things, let’s say, women agreed to and consented things to in marriage which was actually not in their best interests, which didn’t serve them well. So for instance, the idea that, if you watch a film in which women are submissive, and they are slapped, and suddenly they fall in love with the hero, that somehow that actually makes women feel that that’s how they ought to be, that’s how a good woman is; a good woman allows her parents to marry her off, a good woman allows her husband to punish her, or she falls in love with a powerful man. I was looking at these ideas in films and I was looking at audiences. Around the time that I came into doing that research at the beginning of the 2000s, just the turn of the century, there was also an alternative theory around – which was that people don’t get so affected by media, in fact, that they chose what they watch, they enjoy it, they get a lot of gratification out of it, and that actually we should be thinking about how people use media rather than how media influenced people – this was commonly designated as the ‘active audiences’ theory’ and it was very very popular around that time. Both in India and the US there was a lot of work taking place to validate audiences’ – we are watching things, but it is for joy and there is nothing wrong with this, and we should give up on all theories of hegemony.

So I positioned myself between these two schools of thinking with a very negative idea of terrible immediate effects of watching media, which I now think is a very naïve idea because the assumption that would follow then would be that – if you watch something that is very liberal or egalitarian, that you would immediately become that sort of a person. So I come from a very school of understanding media, in a sense, that I think it is all about the context in which you are consuming media and that media is part of that context, but there are many things that are a part of that context as well, for instance – your school is a part of that context, you family is a part of that context, your religious institutions are a part of that context, and the history of all those things is very relevant. So, I was studying Hindi films within social, political, and historical contexts. And it began to be very apparent that the discourses, or the sequences, or the scenes, within Hindi films, that had the most effect on people were the ones where they reinforced the ideologies, the worldviews, the values, that people already held very dear. And the ones that had the most influence in divergent thinking, in critical thinking, were ones who already conformed to some critique that maybe a young audience member already had, so let’s say – there was a young person who had already started to think that it was very unjust that their father should control something to do with their mother’s life or a young person who is already questioning whether their boyfriend should be telling them what to wear or what not to wear, if they then watched a Hindi film which had a sequence in it, which was very liberating or questioning, or critical, that had much much more impact on people who had already started to think and question those critical things. And of course, the peer group is a huge place for opinion formation, and over the past 20 years, I have watched this particular cycle of social relationships to media play out in a number of ways. First of all, through television and television news. But it’s been very clear that we can’t throw all the old theories of effects out with the bathwater. It’s become very clear particularly with regard to social media and through messages that are received on WhatsApp, moving from Hindi films to now WhatsApp. It’s become very clear that a process of consent and hegemony is still in progress. And that the active/inactive audiences can often be or remain active in a very dangerously conformist way with the prevailing political ideology. 

Since you mentioned television and news, I would like to ask you about your book Children and Media in India. In this book, you discuss the relationship between young people from different parts of India and the role of the media. Could you tell us what was the main understanding from this book and how does this fit with the rise of digital media sharing platforms like TikTok, that has been particularly popular in rural areas and among people from diverse backgrounds?

Back in the middle of 2006-2007, after I had finished my work with young audiences of Bollywood, I started doing some work around the disparities in media access between children who lived in very poor households and those who lived in the middle class or wealthy households. First, I started researching in Maharashtra, and eventually, I extended it to other parts of the country, with research assistants working in different parts of the country. I became more and more interested in patterns of urban-rural migrations, so there were children and young people whose families for 6 months would be in villages where they had access to television, and they were watching it; then they would come to urban areas as migrant labourers with their families. So, you got these 10, 11, 12-year old children who come and they would no longer have any access to television, or even electricity, in the camps where they lived. So, I was interested in looking at the divergence of experience between the then-burgeoning digital sphere. I worked over a long period, from late 2006 onwards till almost late 2018, so a span of more than a decade. Of-course the media landscape changed enormously at that time and, with the rise of digital India and the influence of Aadhar, the narrative outside of India was that India was digitising at a massive pace and that everything was going mobile, that more and more people were connected. Whereas what I was seeing were patterns and pockets of connectivity, access, knowledge, and skills amongst urban youth, particularly amongst middle-class urban youths, some small-town urban youth and children but also a massive amount of exclusion amongst children in impoverished households or working-class children in cities, even if they might have access to someone else’s mobile phone, they didn’t necessarily have one of their own. So there was a real divergence between the experiences. Previously, maybe everyone would have occasionally had some access to something, like a radio, or a cassette player, or a television set back in the 70s, so actually the inequality in terms of media access, what I call the ‘media wealth’ and ‘media poverty’ was changing dramatically between 2010 and 2017. By the time I finished the book and had analysed the 100s of notebooks that I had collected over the years, it became extremely apparent that even the ideas and ideologies of the people using this media were changing at a very rapid rate. So, you could call it – the encroachment of extreme far-right ideas through internet access.

The narrative of a lot of development for Information and Communication Technology is that the more digital access you have, the more participatory you are in civic media and the more you take part in politics, the more educated and informed you are. What I was seeing was almost the exact opposite, especially, and I want to stress on this, among young men and boys in well-to-do middle-class Hindu families. Since mine was not a quantitative study, I was not looking at caste and religion as a large sample, but if you do qualitative work, over years and years, with groups of people, you become familiar with their thinking patterns. In some of those households where I was, when they were 6 or 7 years old, when I started working with them and we had chats and talks, there was very little discriminatory talk. There was a sense of being an Indian and what that might mean in 2007. But by the time they were going off to junior college in 2014, 2015, 2016, there was a change in their behaviour. Some of these people were saying “Hitler is a good guy” and when I asked them where they found it, they would show me memes online and sometimes they would laugh about it or disavow it and just say, “well, you know I don’t really believe in this, this was shared by my uncle or my cousin”.

And then in 2017, by the time I was writing up the research and was in preparation for another project on WhatsApp groups, following through into that work, what I found is – it became really clear that the ones with less access, the more rural young people, the less digital media experience ones, were the ones who had a much broader, a more humane imagination of what India was or what a citizen was, and how they should help and support each other in their families. And the ones, it’s a broad generalisation, but particularly among young men who were very technologically literate, had become quite politically embedded with their family values, either in terms of caste politics, or they were very anti-positive discrimination, anti-affirmative action. They absolutely believed that if you were below in the caste system, you should stay there and not try to step out of your bounds. They would tell me all these things in a very trusting way because I had worked with them, known their parents for many years. We debated it; I never concealed my views from any of them. But it is a funny thing, being a woman researcher in India, that a 17-year-old young guy absolutely thinks that he knows better than me. (laughs) And so he would say, “ya, you know, you have gone abroad, and you have all these firangi ideas and whereas here, it is different. Let me show you on the internet”; and he would show me things which were totally propaganda coming out of far-right-wing websites and things like OpIndia, Republic TV who would replay clips multiple times, they would replay all kinds of fake news and misinformation. So you began to see this change amongst this very educated, highly literate students, who were going to colleges, many were aiming to go to colleges abroad, that strata which were about 1/3rd of my sample. Then you have the urban working-class young woman, no doubt, there were many anti-muslim views aired in those, but when you talked about where they came from, they did not appear to come as much from the media, those who would pride themselves with being educated and independent thinking would say, “look at this website, it agrees totally with my parents say”, so I am right. They were drawing in the media to say that the media supports my arguments and values, the media was the evidence. And they would even use words like evidence, they had the whole vocabulary of “liberals have done this, they are like that”, it was entirely coming from the channels that would repeatedly watch on their mobile phones, coming from the websites that they perused.

So I go back to repeat that those who had very low media literacy, very little access to phones, few digital skills, were the least likely to express extreme views and hateful content. It was not always true in terms of practice because there was a lot of caste practice in the villages that we looked at, but certainly in terms of what they said and what they watched. If they had access to television, they would watch wildlife programs, they would watch cricket, and sometimes they would watch serials. Of course, the serials had all kinds of stuff going on in them, but truth be told, none of those people was responsible for the hateful content circulating on WhatsApp.

Prof. Shakuntala Banaji

That is fascinating and a rather surprising conclusion! Shifting from the negative aspect of media to the positive, I would like to ask you about the power of social media to mobilise people. We can see examples from the recent George Floyd case and the anti-CAA protests in India. With regard to these, how has the relationship between citizen engagement and digital media evolved? Have you observed any trends? And how do you think it will develop in the future?

I totally agree with you, I wrote a book in 2013 called The Civic Web, particularly looking at young civic producers online who were doing things to connect people working on issues related to poverty and inequality, racial discrimination, and state censorship. Those kinds of people were doing an incredible job, but I argued in the book that we need to start conceptualising citizenship more widely, in terms of, who considers themselves to be citizens. And if you look at India today, the civic activity of those who protested against the CAA and the so-called civic activity, even if it be violent, of those who wanted to defend the act and defend the regime, is very unevenly matched. So, you have a smaller group of people who are also using the internet with fewer resources to mobilise, they are being put under extreme surveillance and pressure, so it is a double-edged weapon. I don’t think this surveillance is inherent in the media this way, but unfortunately, we live in times where you have increasing authoritarianism. So, while I think it is amazing that what I have seen of the Black Lives Matter movement and the mobilisation of the young people, those people show incredible bravery, but I think they are still pitted against citizens who consider themselves to be patriots and they will use the media in any way they can, including social media to instigate violence and mobilise against those young people.

I will give you an example – many young people that I see today, including even their older parents, have taken a conspiracy theorist view of the coronavirus. They are using media in ways that, I think, are quite inflammatory to blame coronavirus on you name it – the Chinese if you are in the US, or on Africans if you are in China, or on Muslims if you are in India, each country has its group of people who have been set aside as ‘the devil’ or ‘the other’. Both social media and mainstream media are being deployed to portray those people in particular ways. Young people tend to be more sceptical than older adults in these things. But like you asked in the beginning, what is the logical outcome of these tendencies towards scepticism and lack of trust, and I think it is actually quite dangerous because it means that people who are viewing the media, particularly young people feel quite cut-lose, they do not know whom to trust. It is likely in their view that coronavirus does not exist and has been invented. Even very politically alert young people who have a sense of the internet as being something for social justice might also question whether a lockdown was imposed to save lives or prevent protests, and maybe there is some truth in what they are saying. So, I think that the proliferation of social media and internet have allowed and fuelled great, wonderful, civic protests but they have also fuelled, supported, sustained, and are still sustaining a lot of misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories, especially ones which are harmful and damaging to particular communities. Therefore, I go back to this issue of who is a citizen, even people who pass on misinformation that leads to the lynching of someone, consider themselves to be doing their civic duty; one of the ways in which these people justify what they are doing is by saying, “any patriot or any citizen would have done the same, it is our duty”. And when I ask them if they care if the information was right or wrong, they say, “no, because it is my duty to act when I hear something”.

So, this discourse of so-called civic action is extremely widespread on the internet and social media, in many apps. So you will have someone making a tik-tok video boycotting China or boycotting something that China did, there were 1000s of those proliferating before tik-tok itself was boycotted! I think the point here is that it depends on what the ruling consensus of the day is saying. One of the things that we didn’t talk about is how the media can make you feel like an agentic person, someone who is doing something, even if you are sitting at home and you are a keyboard warrior doing your stuff, it can make you feel very empowered, it can make you feel like you are contributing in some way, that can both be a very positive thing or a very damaging and problematic thing especially if you are contributing to a violent ideology. And I think that unfortunately, the power is in the hands of those who are using social media and digital technology for more violent and more divisive means. 

Moving on from the digital media, I would like to ask you about your take on the traditional media – they often critique these kinds of protests, and they are often short-sighted in realising the realities on the ground. What do you think is the perception of traditional media? And what is their role in causing polarisation?

That is very interesting to consider! Are you talking specifically with young people? Because it is interesting, and I think that there is a divide opening up between younger people and older people in relation to this and I would say that the cut-off comes somewhere in the mid-20s. I would say that a lot more younger people have been more willing to question mainstream media narratives and how those narratives are controlled by the government, particularly in metropolises like Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad. You have a lot more university students who are willing to open their minds and listen to something which might be quite contradictory to what they might see on a mainstream media channel. The news unfortunately over the last 10 years has deteriorated to such an extent in India that there are only a very handful of voices who can report any kind of dissident activity in India, in a fair and balanced way. I would say that fairness and objectivity have almost all but a few deserted the Indian news sphere. Of course, there are always people flying the banner for investigative journalism, and those are the one who tends to be patronized by the young people more than by the old people. This is not to say that all older people have gone over to a particular ideology, but it is to say that it is far more likely to find an aunty in her mid-60s outright believing lies on where coronavirus came from or why petrol prices have gone up or who is to blame for what is happening in the Galwan Valley; it is much more likely that the 65-year-old would believe that than the 15-year-old would believe that, particularly in terms of girls. There is a real upsurge of girls being critical in all kinds of things, from the way in which they are being treated in terms of gender and sexual harassment to national politics and actually taking a stance. Again, when you compare them to the number of members who don’t speak out, it is not huge; but I think that they would have been disempowered if social media did not exist. They are people who are getting information, making connections, and staying in groups to find like-minded individuals because there is an internet, and there is social media. In the days when there was just television, those people were actually stuck in place. So, there is that thing about geographical displacement as well. I am sure that a lot of young people whom I interviewed in villages as well, who are now entering their 20s, whom I have spoken to since they were in their early teens, I am sure that many of them have now acquired phones; they did not have them when I interviewed them. I think phones are also beginning to help with information around health, and health information does not just mean corona, it means things around periods or STDs.

Previously these people had to travel to a town, find an internet café. Now there is a gender divide in rural India, in terms of young men having more access to that kind of information and young women having to delete their search histories, not giving their number to someone who might want to call them, it is quite problematic in terms of how they feel. So, if you like, India has a stratified system of surveillance. If you are a dissident citizen and you are living in an urban area, of course, you are going to be under surveillance but, also if you are a teenage girl, and you are living in a rural area, and your family has 1 phone or the children all share 1 phone, you are still liable to surveillance. It is a different kind of surveillance, and there are multiple levels to this, where the family can surveil you, and it can have equally deadly consequences in both cases; you could end up being beaten to death if the wrong boy texts you at the wrong time, on a phone that you share with someone in your family, it has happened and it is still going on.

Staying on this for a minute, there is an aspect of polarisation and people say that it is because of the way that people consume news based on their identities; therefore many people who distrust the mainstream media, from both the left and right side of the spectrum, are moving towards creating their own space. What do you think will be the future implications of these developments?

I get asked a lot about polarisation these days, and I think that there is a deep flaw at the heart of the way that that question is posed. It isn’t and can never be polarisation because these are not two equal and opposite groups, you are talking about massive state machinery which has taken over almost everything in terms of institutions, judiciary, media; and it is not just the right, it is the far right. It is ideas which until 20 years ago would have been seen as genocidal which have now come into the mainstream. It is ways of speaking about people who are totally dehumanising, and it is not true to say that the official left of India has any fewer of these views. Many official left parties have not spoken out against caste in the way that they should; they have not spoken out against misogyny and gender violence for many years. So, I think the divide is between an increasingly far-right discourse which has taken over the state institutions and at least half of the voting public in India and then people who have some kind of dissident or critical thinking, not necessarily with the traditional left. The divide then is not a polarisation; it is simply people struggling to understand how anyone who believes in democracy could speak in such genocidal ways about half of the population of the country and treat them in such a manner. It is a very small minority of people, perhaps liberals or open-minded individuals who are starting their own media outlets. It is a privilege to be able to do that. Most of the young people that I talk to are just struggling to survive, whether that happens to be working in their dad’s store or going to work in the local factory or fields, or whatever have you. They do not have the time or energy to do any of that stuff. And the ones who do, the ones who are going to college are being targeted in such vicious ways that their family will think twice before allowing them out of the house again or letting them go to college. So, one must not characterise it as polarisation, it is an extreme far-right take-over of pretty much every institution of our country, and it is a long game! Those people have been infiltrating the textbooks and curriculum for more than a decade now. We are going to reap the very very bitter crop from this in the coming generations.

Citizens’ Media Against Armed Conflict by Clemencia Rodriguez

Do you see a global pattern with this behaviour, or is it unique to India, this situation where the state has been so influential? Would you say that maybe there has been push-back in a place like the US, for instance, because the media there has been stronger and more aggressive in their dissent? Or is it a problem faced by developing countries where there are less freedom and access?

I think it would be very unfair to say that it is only in developing countries. The current government of India was, in a way, the flag bearer for the resurgence of the far-right ideology across the world. People did not see it at the time, but if we want credit for something and be proud as Indians, it is this! India was definitely ahead of the curve in terms of far-right populism and a lot of people who have a western democracy-oriented mindset, did not want to acknowledge it because they did not imagine the influence that could come out of a global developing country, like India. India follows an international tendency which has been rising across Europe, in Brazil, in Turkey, in Israel; it is absolutely clear that this kind of authoritarian winning over citizens through the media, through political pressure is on the rise, with a massive resurgence. People say this slogan after the 2nd world war, or we say after the partition, “never again, we don’t want to see that kind of violence again”. It is almost like our barriers have been bridged and rendered ineffective. As citizens, we are somehow becoming more and more complicit. Actually, the last thing that I would say is that India is leading in innovation in how to get citizens involved in the dirty business of extreme violence, genocide, and eliminating communities, all while maintaining a mantle of democracy for the public to see!

And that is my next question! In your WhatsApp research project, you looked at the spread of misinformation and disinformation and how it instigated violence like mob lynching in India. Can you discuss the typology of these users, what do you think motivates them to perform such actions?

When one is undertaking any kind of research, you have to come up with, in the beginning, some kind of a framework to test, some ideas, or some hypothesis. One of the theories that social media companies were pushing around the time that we started our research was the idea that misinformation was passed on largely by digitally illiterate people. So these actions were done by people who only saw images, didn’t really read texts, didn’t know how to operate phones very well, otherwise, they would have known better. It was the rural user with less knowledge and access skills in terms of the digital sphere who were passing on all of these genocidal, dangerous, lynch related WhatsApp messages. Maybe to an extent, in terms of some kind of messages, especially the ones around child-kidnappers or kidney snatchers, this was not accurate since there were some people involved in these and there were 50 or more deaths which can be directly related to those kinds of messages on Tik-Tok or WhatsApp or Share Chat or ShareIt, they were going on everywhere, they were not just on WhatsApp. So, I think it is fair to say that pretty much every social media app and platform was used to push that agenda. At the time, it might have seemed that that agenda was not a very political one because, it just talked about kidney snatches and child kidnapping, but now in retrospect when you look at the fact that it is largely targeted at the people from the Northeast saying that intruders are coming from the Northeast or Rohingya and other places, it is very clear that that kind of dissension was started in a broad way, but it was intended at every level to target particular communities. Second, of course, all of the cow vigilantism and lynchings related to cow trafficking and beef, all that was absolutely a particular fascist behaviour and for a political base which the BJP subscribes to. Although no one has yet been able to do either a sting operation or an investigation publicly which links very high ranking BJP members to all of those cow lynchings. It has also become absolutely clear that there is no one who is willing to speak out against them and therefore, in some way is reaching out support to the people who are doing that, it helps them, it supports them, it supports the narrative of strong governance against people who are of other faith, so against Muslims; it supports a narrative of strong governance against secularism, and it clearly has a certain kind of payoff amongst a group of voters, not everybody, but a certain kind who want that kind of strong Hindutva action. So, just looping back to your question, in terms of the typology, when we started to investigate, to find whether it is these digitally illiterate people who are passing on these messages, we found that it was the absolute opposite. So, in our interviews with more than 200 people and in focus groups which took place across the country in 4 different states, in rural and urban locations; we really carefully made sure that we just didn’t stay in urban areas. It began to emerge that clearly there were fewer women doing this than men and the women who were doing it tended to be middle-class and urban. There were fewer rural men passing on false or misleading information, and there were certainly fewer rural men passing on misleading information related to politics than there were in urban areas.

So, urban, male, middle-class, educated, and then if you looked in terms of religion, because of course there was a diverse range of misinformation on pretty much every topic, and that was then evenly distributed across religious communities; but of course, misinformation related to vigilantism which resulted in the death of someone was pretty much concentrated among the upper-caste Hindu community. The lower-caste tended to be targeted by the vigilantes. We didn’t expect it. We didn’t go looking for it, I have been accused multiple times of hating a particular community and therefore going after them but, it is true that some of my best friends are upper-caste men, they are my student body, my colleagues, and of course I have no personal vendetta against any community. The truth is I wasn’t looking for it, we found it, and we found it in terms of people actually admitting it themselves; they talked about their prejudices, they would feel ashamed of them, they talked about passing on misinformation. Maybe some of them occasionally said that “I might not have passed it on if it hadn’t come to me from my family, and I did not want to disrespect them. Therefore, I passed it on.” Or maybe, some of them said, “at the time I wondered if this was true or not, but I felt it was imperative for me to pass it on”. But some people were very open, “anything against Muslims, I will pass it on”, “anything in favour of the Modi government, I will pass that on as well”, “do I care if it is the truth or lies, no. Because a good patriot doesn’t ask questions like that”. So, you have a typology emerging not from us imposing a schema on people but from people’s own mouths. They were very proud of the fact that they could do all kinds of workarounds on WhatsApp, so if WhatsApp puts a forwarding limit, they were like “Oh, c’mon sister! I can get around this!”. They would tell me things like, “come with me, I can show you how to clone your Aadhar number!”. They were very proud of their digital literacy skills, some of them were even saying, “I do this kind of work, I do it for our government, I do it for my country, this is my dharam” they were very strong about that, they didn’t feel ashamed of saying it.

Do you think this behaviour is related to people’s identity or it is because of economic reasons that they act like this? Is it because there has been a fall of the family unit, and they feel the urge to look at the country or the government to compensate for it?

I think all of those explanations can be true at the same time. We live in a very complex world! It isn’t necessarily the case that it is only ideological reasons or only identity reasons that push people to do these things. The truth is, I would be mistaken if I told you that my sample contained many accounts of people who did it for economic reasons. Sometimes people would say that “we are doing for our status in the community to go up”; so if you were the first person to pass on a piece of information, whether it was misinformation, disinformation, or true, your status would go up; if you were the first responder who forwarded the most things; if you had the highest number of posts, or your story was repeatedly updated; if you somehow got hold of a clip of news which you thought was true and which the mainstream media had not reported, your kudos level went very high. So there was something about social status which cannot be entirely boiled down to an ideology. People’s desire to be a very respected member of a WhatsApp group who is a top commenter and top poster, to whom everybody else forwards, was very high. In terms of all our groups, there were only 4 people who openly agreed to be paid, to spread some messages. Even they said that it was only for a month around elections. Another person said, “I do this for the money, but I don’t ideologically believe in it”. We didn’t believe him, but we had to report what he said about himself.

But other than that, not many people seemed to be in it for the money. Why do they support the government, that is a different matter. Maybe some of them are not entirely doing it because they hate Muslims, maybe they are doing it because they thought at the time (in 2018, when we were conducting our research), that the government was still working on the economy. But you are talking about a group of people who had just been through demonetization, so, you had to be someone who really really did not want to take their head out of the sand to think that this government was somehow going to make your life massively better; maybe not make it worse, but not make it any better. I have no desire to label all of these people as fascists in some way, I do not believe it. But they are contributing to an extremely fascist regime, regardless of their motivations behind doing this. The media, both mainstream and alternative media are also contributing to doing that. And the small sliver of people who are fighting back through the mainstream media is almost trivial compared to the numbers that you get on the other side. How this will be going forward after the coronavirus, I can’t tell you, but at the moment, things are not looking good!

To wrap up, can you give some recommendations to our readers to understand the emerging trends in media that can inspire hope? 

There is a wonderful book by an author called Clemencia Rodriguez from Colombia and it is called Citizens’ Media Against Armed Conflict. And although at the moment it seems like a sort of optimistic or hopeful dream, I would say that my hope is that citizens can use and develop an alternative media and ways which are against violence, whatever else we manage to do! That somehow in situations where there has been extreme violence between communities, which we know there has, and extreme oppression of one community by another, can find some way of reconciling communities with each other. That is something that we really desperately need! And there is a lot of very interesting work going on around new media and caste which I think is fascinating. It is just starting and burgeoning. Some of it is online, some of it is offline. And I think it is very interesting that people are talking about using new digital technologies to tell their own stories. And there is a whole tradition of people talking about digital storytelling as a means of reclaiming one’s place in the public sphere.

So you don’t have to be an academic, you don’t have to be a politician, you can be an ordinary person; your story may not appear in the mainstream but it also might. And I think there are a few young new producers, on Netflix, for instance, who are making programmes about India, about rural India, about minority communities. And doing so in a way which is challenging the mainstream. And they have been subjected to terrible trolling. I mean they have been subjected to awful reviews, consolidated attacks by the adherence of the BJP regime — saying that they are against India. But they do demonstrate the power and the hope of a different media narrative, of the different use of new media and social media connections. And I think from that one can say that nothing has died, but democracy is on its last legs, and we need to do something to support it. We need to do something to support all of those people in those movements. And I think the Rodriguez book, Citizens’ Media, is one which I recommend to a lot of my students because she is a very hopeful person. And as we know, Colombia has been through decades of terrible violence and civil war. If they can do it, we can do it! 


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