Shashidhar Nanjundaiah: Sudden Impact & Small Nudges

12 Nov,2020

[We incorrectly published an earlier column by Prof Nanjundaiah… apologies – Ed]

 

By Shashidhar Nanjundaiah

 

 

Amidst the din and excitement of US election last week, most of us missed out on Philanise White and Theresa Raborn, two Republican candidates from the Midwestern state of Illinois for the 1st and 2nd Congressional District. These women were never going to win, given they were contesting two incumbents in the largely African-American neighbourhoods of southside Chicago.

 

White and Raborn are conspiracy theorists, and that is what sets this little-reported news story apart. They are both followers of QAnon, a bizarre-sounding theory that could be unsettling to many faithful believers in innate goodness of American values. As many of us may be aware, QAnon is a conspiracy theory whose followers believe that Washington is infiltrated by members of a “deep state” and that Trump is waging a secret battle against Satan-worshipping paedophiles who run a global child sex-trafficking ring.

 

But in contrast to the two Democrats’ easy win in southside Chicago is the opposite phenomenon in Georgia, where Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, who spoke favourably of QAnon, won her US House of Representatives race. As the Chicago Tribune put it, a conspiracy theory has found its way to the corridors of Washington. This should worry Americans, but I know we are already, in our minds, comparing it with the Indian context.

 

When I asked someone in the US over the long counting-and-recounting process over the weekend whether they were following the election results, they retorted, “No. It’s all rigged.”

 

This year, I find that more Indians on social media than ever before are invested in the American election. This could be a combination of factors. One, it is the nature of the social media to globalise. Two, an Indian-Jamaican-American is poised to be the Vice President of the most powerful country in the world, and our chests have swelled in ethnic pride. Three, it is vicarious: one section of the social media finds it suitable to assume that somehow, the whole process makes America look worse than us. The other section is laughing at the abject failure of the well-documented refrain from Modi at Houston, Abki baar Trump sarkaar (Lame translation: “This time, it will be Trump administration”).

 

Just how invested Indians are in the US election has been a revelation to me as another acquaintance in India told me that it’s all a conspiracy and basically the US is run by the Rothschilds and the Fords, so it’s all a big fraud.

 

Donald Trump’s claim of “large-scale voter fraud” is neither new nor limited to his Republican party. Both Democrats and Republicans have made similar claims when the truth is inconvenient. But founded on Q-Anon-promoted theories, the story of a deep, nefarious force that is puppeteering our world actually made sense to a large proportion of his core constituents. A Republican commentator mentioned on television that the legal action his party was taking to recount and “stop the counting” was largely to complete the loop of the theory they themselves had spun, taking the story to its logical conclusion—perhaps that the courts wouldn’t allow it, so hey, what were we telling you earlier about the whole world being against us Republicans!

 

Perhaps the observation that a conspiracy theory can be effectively tied to anecdotes and fake news to create a public movement. Someone actually took photographs of UFOs, and seeing is believing. So the theory around that undisputable news story works great. As a simulation of news, fake news has immediate anecdotal impact, while a conspiracy theory takes time, patience and elaboration. But because most conspiracy theories are based in some fact, the fake news work beautifully to embroider the narrative into chewable spin. So fake news creates an immediate impact but leaves the question “why” unanswered, and that’s when the theory takes over, telling us “why”.

 

The widely publicised story that Tablighi Jamaat congregated in India to spread jihadi bio-terror through the coronavirus. Its “twin” is the conspiracy Hindu khatre mein hai (Hindus are in existential danger).  The “news” that Pakistani MPs chanted “Modi Modi” in their parliament finds a similar twin. Many fake news items have a backstory—a theory. It is the theory that sinks in deeper with the spread of individual stories. If I spread the theory is that many ordinary Muslims are actually terrorists, people may laugh at me. If I concocted a news story, though, the theory sinks in much faster. That is why we have conspiracy theorists like Kapil Mishra or Akbaruddin Owaisi who openly call for violence against a community, while fake news stories all around the theory help to justify the anger.

 

The combination of the sudden-impact stories founded on the bedrock of Chinese Whispers and nudging of the actual theory we want to promote has a long-term effect, and one that won’t go away because, like all theories, it can neither be conclusively proved nor conclusively disproved. We have all grown up with conspiracy theories, and what’s scary, most have some basis in truth. How corporate America runs that country is no longer a secret; the presence of UFOs, long laughed at, is suddenly a declassified topic of public interest even among the sceptics. How much we believe of one theory while ignoring the opposite or converse theory perhaps defines our level of absorbing conflicting theories and stories that defy common observation.

 

So the US election 2020 was a sort of a referendum on how influential fake news and conspiracy theories are. The answer is too influential, obviously. It was not enough to keep a dangerous hatemonger in office—but only just.

 

As the founder of BeingResponsible, Shashidhar Nanjundaiah is attempting to build media awareness among school- and college-goers via Responsible Media Literacy. Prof Nanjundaiah has led media institutes to positions of repute and leadership. You can reach him at shashi.nanjundaiah@hotmail.com. His views here are personal.

 

 

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