Propaganda and Perversion in the Digital Age

Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar took to the stage in Fatehabad, Haryana, recently and decided to shock us with his comment that with the abrogation of Article 370, the way has been cleared for Haryanvi men to bring Kashmiri girls as their wives. He was speaking on the “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” Campaign! Even after being accustomed to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) sorry standards for the past five years, this act still had the capacity to shock us. But what prompted the Haryana CM to utter such atrocious words? Was it simply his individual perversion expressed in typical BJP style arrogance and insensitivity towards minorities and women, or as some have suggested, is this a reflection of his Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) upbringing and the misogyny that it entails? The usual sarkari scribes have come in his defence saying that his comments were misconstrued and what he said and what he meant were different. But in reality, what Khattar said was not a one-off joke by a perverted individual. It is part of a devious and carefully constructed propaganda campaign.

Khattar wasn’t the only BJP leader to have made such distasteful comments, neither was he the first. On August 5, the same day that the government announced the revocation of Article 370, Vikram Singh Saini, BJP’s MLA from Khatauli Assembly constituency, Muzaffarnagar district, UP, talking about the government’s decision said that, “BJP workers were excited by the change as they can now marry fair girls from Kashmir”. And he was not the only one. According to this Huffington Post report, a wave of videos were posted on social media site TikTok on the same day with men asserting victory by claiming they can now “get girls” from Kashmir.

Another article in titled “A whole new sub-genre of songs emerges about getting Kashmiri bahus” talks about several songs in Haryanvi and Bhojpuri posted on YouTube referring to getting Kashmiri girls as wives. Clearly, all these are not acts of perverted individuals spontaneously getting triggered by the government’s decision to revoke Article 370 but part of a well planned and coordinated campaign by BJP’s IT Cell. BJP, currently, has the best data team money can buy and so they probably have already done the surveys and focus group studies and concluded that selling Haryanvi or Bhojpuri (regions with low sex ratio) men the fantasy of marrying fair Kashmiri girls was probably the best vehicle to market their decision to abrogate Article 370. This is how devious it gets.

Also read: How Kashmir’s Reality is Being Masked by the Language of Propaganda

What the news articles have reported and what is posted on social media sites like YouTube are probably just the tip of the iceberg. These and many even more offensive videos and speeches would have already done the rounds of the lakhs of WhatsApp groups that BJP/RSS maintain in each state. But sitting in metropolitan centres of Delhi or Mumbai, don’t be surprised if these videos didn’t appear in your WhatsApp groups. The groups have all been analysed and segmented along demographic and socio-economic lines. These videos would be targeted at young men in the rural and semi-urban parts of North India. The rich in Delhi and Mumbai would be targeted with material about development and lucrative real estate opportunities which are about to open up in Kashmir. This data-driven micro-targeting is how propaganda is delivered in the digital age.

BJP is well versed with these techniques and has used them relentlessly for the past few years. For example, we had seen similar tactics in 2016 during demonetisation. When economists, the Opposition and every reasonable person was talking about the economic nightmare demonetisation would unleash, how it would be ineffective in tackling black money or how this was a ridiculous way of going about digitising the economy, the BJP IT cell was pushing the narrative how it would eliminate terrorists and naxalites. While it would appear as an absurd defence of demonetisation, it actually worked! People were convinced that terrorism had ended due to demonetisation and so their own individual sacrifices were a small price to pay for the greater good of the nation.

Clearly, there is a science behind the BJP’s propaganda machinery. There are two aspects to such propaganda techniques which are by no means unique to the BJP but have being successfully used by various right-wing parties across the world, including the Trump and the Brexit campaigns. One is the use of data analytics, and demographic and psychographic profiling to micro-target voters made known to the public at large by the infamous Cambridge Analytica. The other lesser understood aspect is the use of behavioural psychology to target the minds of people. It is now understood in the field of behavioural psychology that people can be persuaded through two paths. The longer route is to convince the audience through a detailed presentation of facts and logical arguments. This clearly takes time to win the audience over and is increasingly challenging in a world where people’s attention span is very short. The shorter route is to appeal to people’s emotions and existing prejudices. This can give instant results, especially, when appealing to negative emotions such as fear, anger, vanity or greed. All these have been known to advertisers and marketing people for decades and have been used to sell everything from soaps to cars to guns. What is recent is, with the advent of social and digital media, these techniques are put to use to sell candidates, parties and policies.

Also watch: How Social Media Influence Political Preferences and Electoral Outcomes in India?

We have seen the use of these techniques by right-wing parties to essentially “hack” the minds of people by selling fear and greed – their basest emotions, thereby endangering our democracies. Most of us lash out in anger and disgust at these repulsive methods. But we do need to understand that merely reacting to these almost daily absurdities is not enough to counter them. An effective long-term counter requires an understanding of how these propaganda techniques work and then to build movements on the ground and as well as creative campaigns in the digital space to inform people about the things which really do matter to their lives and livelihoods.

The author is the founder and chief technology officer of VirtunetSystems. The views are personal.