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‘India Social’ book review: How social media has shaped many facets of Indian democracy

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Ankit Lal’s book takes the reader on a chronological journey of major events that took shape on social media platforms.

Two pages into Ankit Lal’s India Social, one finds some staggering numbers. Since 2008, internet users around the world have grown from 1.5 billion to 3.8 billion, Facebook users from 200 million to 1.8 billion, and Twitter users from six million to 328 million. This kind of unprecedented growth is what has completely altered the context of operation for businesses, civil society, and governments alike.

It is a much-needed book documenting the way the social media revolution has shaped the spheres of policy, politics, pop culture, disaster management, among others, in India over the past decade. In its own simple way, the book introduces the reader to the most successful social media campaigns the country has seen in the past few years.

Skilfully weaving gripping anecdotes and short interviews with well-researched facts, Lal takes the reader on a chronological journey of major events that largely took shape on social media platforms. He begins by recounting the 26/11 terror attacks, describing them as the defining moment that kick-started the steady growth of real-time communication with millions through social media.

He then proceeds to narrate his invaluable experience of helming the social media efforts of the historic India Against Corruption movement, and the subsequent elections fought by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). With minuscule promotion budgets, social media was the only weapon at AAP’s disposal to combat the BJP and the Congress, both of which had daily budgets that equalled, if not exceeded the AAP’s total budget.

Apart from this, the author also offers an insight into how the BJP, especially Narendra Modi, used Facebook and Twitter as a tactical resource to alter his narrative for the 2014 elections, from the 2002 riots to a hard-line development agenda.

Politics aside, the book also highlights the essential role of citizen-led activism in demanding justice, shaping public policies, and mitigating loss of life and property during disasters, with examples of the Nirbhaya rape case, #SaveTheInternet, Chennai Floods, among others.

Lastly, it describes the way social media has come to dethrone conventional media platforms as the primary source of pop-culture. The author recalls the social media campaign for the movie, Ship of Theseus, which breathed life into an otherwise small-budget film that was destined for obscurity, but instead ended up raking in nearly 2.2 million viewers and Rs two crore in revenue.

However, India Social falls short on two major counts: for one, it fails to sufficiently address the growing problem of fake news and vulgar trolls. Needless to say that fake news creates unrest in the country. For instance, the #SaveBengal protests were instigated by a fake picture of the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Another sore point is that the book fails to highlight the importance of WhatsApp and YouTube. Messages floating on WhatsApp – both text and multimedia — determine the ‘virality’ of content.

YouTube, on the other hand, has managed to create an economy of its own with an ever-increasing mass of people taking to the platform to set themselves up as successful content creators — be it news, comedy, drama, or ‘vlogging’ (video blogging). It has truly been one of the pioneers of the democratisation of content creation, with close to 1.5 billion users visiting the site every month.

India Social is a one-time read that serves as a primer on online movements that have shaped India from 2008 to 2017. It is peppered with minimal analysis and focusses more on chronicling events. Although the book has nothing unique to say, Lal has made it interesting enough for millennials who have witnessed these movements first hand.

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