Us vs Them

Outlook’s repor­ters have travelled thousands of kilometres across India to talk to people who can shatter the walls of echo chambers that keep us fortified and isolated

Illustration: Siddhesh Gautam
Photo: Illustration: Siddhesh Gautam

“The issue is not merely one of false stories, incorrect facts, or even election campaigns and spin doctors: the social media algorithms themselves encourage false perceptions of the world. People click on the news they want to hear; Facebook, YouTube and Google then show them more of whatever it is that they already favor, whether it is a certain brand of soap or a particular form of politics. The algorithms radicalize those who use them too. If you click on perfectly legitimate anti-immigration YouTube sites, for example, these can lead you quickly, in just a few more clicks, to white nationalist sites and then to violent xenophobic sites. Because they have been designed to keep you online, the algorithms also favor emotions, especially anger and fear. And because the sites are addictive, they affect people in ways they don’t expect. Anger becomes a habit. Divisiveness becomes normal.”

—Anne Applebaum, historian, journalist and author of Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism

It has been worrisome to see mutually exclusive political camps and these strange fabrications by the highly partisan media that needs to undergo a refresher course in journalism to know that facts are sacred and democratic dissent isn’t a crime. Journalists, secularists, atheists, liberals and rationalists have faced everything from defamation to imprisonment. Self-censorship is the norm and questioning the ruling party and its leaders is seen as being anti-national and you might face consequences. I shouldn’t be saying any of this, but one gets tired of being too careful about everything while we witness the extreme polarisation that has become the norm with the disenfranchisement of religious minorities in this country, particularly the Muslims, who have been accused of everything—from giving birth to more children to altering the demographic composition of India and marrying Hindu girls under the ‘love-jihad’ project. This rhetoric has been picked up by the media, further legitimised and disseminated.

Public discourse has reached new lows with social media that acts as echo chambers that emerge from the collective behaviour within these networks where the media become agents of spreading information and disinformation and people surround themselves with the media that share their political opinion and, in the process, get even more polarised.

Now, we live in a time of “us versus them,” where the willingness to even engage with anything that doesn’t echo our sentiments makes us more complicit in the erosion of democratic values.

At a rally in Rajasthan recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed the Congress manifesto says that if they come to power, everyone’s property will be surveyed, it will calculate gold belonging to mothers and sisters and then redistribute it.

He added that they won’t even spare the mangalsutra. There is more of such rhetoric aimed at communal polarisation.

That’s where we have reached in terms of inflaming basic divisions. The damage is real. Polarisation adversely affects everyday relationships, creates distrust and erodes tolerance and moderation. Polarisation then becomes self-perpetuating. There is no middle ground. One is to choose sides and the political opponent becomes an enemy who is a threat to internal cohesion, which rests its case on who is the legitimate citizen of India and who can represent these citizens. That’s why we have many enemies now. These enemies can be anyone, from external to internal, who don’t agree with the leadership. Radical positions then dominate the discourse and politics, that sometimes turn violent, as we have witnessed over the past few years.

Anger and fear dominate. We click on the news we want to hear. The sounds within an echo chamber are hollow, where we find justification for our most terrible acts.

These elections are in two realms. Online and offline.

And it is the offline that can resist being trapped in the hollowness of the echo chambers of our own making. Outlook’s repor­ters have travelled thousands of kilometres across India to talk to people who can shatter the walls of echo chambers that keep us fortified and isolated. In Kashmir, the people are talking about breaking the silence. In Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras, people are talking about dignity and justice, years after a young Dalit girl was allegedly gang raped by upper-caste men and her body was cremated by the police in the wee hours of the morning. In Bihar, there is a story of hope from a town called Sasaram, where Hindus and Muslims reside side by side and blame outsiders for the communal riots. There are many such stories. Offline and outside the echo chambers. That’s where healing will begin. On the ground and from the notebooks of reporters.

And out there, it is us and them. Together.