By Rajan Philips –
The 2010s have been too much of an eventful decade, so much so that nothing stands out in singular prominence. The decade has already been called, and not unduly, the social media decade. This is in due recognition of the extent and the manner of its impacting conventional politics and influencing social relations throughout the last decade. In the early 19th century, when the printing and mass circulation of modern newspapers was beginning in Europe, Hegel captured the significance of the new arrival: “Reading the morning newspaper is the realist’s morning prayer. One orients one’s attitude toward the world either by God or by what the world is. The former gives as much security as the latter, in that one knows how one stands.”
Two hundred years after Hegel and the advent of the newspapers starting in Europe, social media is pushing people everywhere, and not just in Europe, to different turning points in their orientations to religious moorings and the realities they face. What might be reorientation in one place could be disorientation in another.
In the 19th century, the newspaper era began in the context of debates within Christendom in Europe and in the context of colonial rule and religious conversion among non-Christian societies outside Europe. Mass circulation of newspapers began primarily as a political exercise by political organizations and became the medium of secular nationalism in the West and, more often than not, religious nationalism in the colonies. Popular newspapers and journals targeting the vulnerable sensibilities of ordinary people for profit making came in a later phase.
As against this, the trajectory of social media would seem to be moving in the opposite direction. It began with the purpose of providing easy access for personal touch and privileging personal connections in the bewilderingly impersonalized world of modernity and globalization. Social media has since morphed into a sociopolitical weapon that can be wielded not only by committed activists but also by anyone on contract, including automation, without any commitment whatsoever.
Social media’s current worldwide reach staggeringly surpasses the accumulated total reach of all the world’s newspapers, radio and TV over 200 years. Over a third (2.77b) of the world’s population (7.6b) currently have access to social media, and Facebook alone accounts for 2.4 billion users worldwide. But the universality of social media explosion sits atop a widely fragmented and factually competing multiple universes of news and information. The main social media devices had come into being in the first decade of the 21st century – Facebook in 2004, Twitter in 2006, and so on. However, there was little anticipation of what would unfold during the next decade, the 2010s.
The bang and the whimper
The decade began with the bang of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. It is ending with far flung protests from Hong Kong to Chile to India. In between, in 2017, sprang the Me Too movement that galvanized victims of sexual harassment to break their silence in the strength and solidarity of their numbers against their male harassers. Although the phrase had been coined by Tarana Burke in 2006, its 2017 breakout as a movement was like one in a thousand-year storm that shook the age-old patriarchy in its most glamorous contemporary citadel, the Hollywood.
To mark the end of the decade, the decadent American political system has provided the whimper of an impeachment. Trump’s impeachment is only the third in American history, but it really looks one too many. The fatigue is due as much to the unbearable heaviness of the Trump being, as it is to real time, universal, multi-sourced, and inseparably fake and factual – social media explosion. Social media has proved to be quite a catalyst and a weapon for spurring populism and protests of every ideological kind. Sri Lanka has had its share through the decade, but fortuitously and thankfully within manageable proportions and within presidential term limits.
In 2008, when Barak Obama won the presidency in the US, Facebook was basking in the glow of his historic win. The victory was credited to America’s ‘Facebook generation’ and Obama’s message of optimism: “Yes, we can!” Within three years, when the Arab world rose in protest against long established authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, social media was again saluted for enabling the mobilization of protesters in large numbers and at short notice. The internet facilitated the transnational ‘demonstration effect’ of protests – the instant sharing of non-violent protest experiences and methods across national boundaries.
The social media record through the rest of decade became mixed as its devices began to be weaponized by anti-government protesters as well as rightwing populists, by state intelligence agencies, and by digital mercenaries. If Obama was the first world leader to win an election on the Web, the positive effects of his stay at the white house for 70% of this decade were brought to naught and even reversed by the election of Donald Trump amidst all the allegations of Russian interference in the US elections using social media platforms. As the decade ended last week, it was being reported that ToTok, the popular messaging app in the Middle East with known links to the UAE government, has been designed to be capable of carrying out mass surveillance work.
The competition for social media dominance has been aptly described by Andrew Keen, the British American writer and publicist, as the new “digital Darwinism.” The fittest who survive are the “loudest and the most opinionated.” President Trump would easily win any global contest for being the loudest, the most ignorantly opinionated and the most obnoxious. He is proving himself to be more than capable of political survival by constantly transforming orderly politics into a jungle war. But no one, including himself, expected even on the day of the 2016 election that Donald Trump would win and set America on a Twitter course and take the world along for a bumpy ride.
Along with digital Darwinism, “cyber troops” and “computational propaganda” might be seen as social media characteristics that make it amenable for use in political manipulation. Oxford University academics, Samantha Bradshaw and Philip Howard define “cyber troops” as government and political party actors who carry out public opinion manipulation, and “computational propaganda” as the “use of automation, algorithms and big data analytics to manipulate public life.” The latter is the most untoward and dangerous consequence of social media that distinguishes it from any of the other modes of communication. Bradshaw and Howard through their research have found evidence in in an increasing number of countries where “at least one political party or government agency (is) using social media to manipulate public opinion domestically.” There were 28 such countries in 2017, when the research was started. The number increased to 48 in 2018 and 70 in 2019. Sri Lanka did not make the cut in 2017 and 2018, but is included in the 2019 list.
A decade of changes
The vast majority of the current world leaders were elected or otherwise assumed office during the decade that just ended. Apart from ceremonial and constitutional monarchs, other government leaders who have been in office from earlier years, include – Vladimir Putin, who has been virtually at the helm since 1999; Syria’s Assad since 2000; and Turkey’s Erdogan since 2003. Among the G-7 countries, Germany’s Angela Merkel is the only leader who has been continuously in power since 2005, winning three elections as there are no term limits for Heads of Government, Prime Ministers or Chancellors. In Britain, the Tories were in power through the entire decade, but lost two Prime Ministers over Brexit, David Cameron and Theresa May, and are now assured of having Brexit delivered under Boris Johnson.
China went through one of its usually long-term change of guard at the helm in the last decade, when Xi Jinping became the General Secretary of the Communist Party in 2012 and the President of the Republic in 2013. Xi is the first Chinese born after the second world war to be elected by the Party to these positions, and is also the first paramount leader after Mao Zedong to make his paramountcy status permanent by removing presidential term limits and by writing his (Xi’s) political thoughts into the constitutions of the Party and the State. He continues to preside over the uniquely Chinese socialist market economy and has added his own innovative concept of ‘internet sovereignty’ as a basis for imposing internet censorship and mass surveillance.
In South Asia, with the exception Bangladesh, where Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been office since 2009, every other country has seen a leadership change since 2010. Narendra Modi and the BJP have trounced the Congress Party twice in a decade in India, after the Congress and its allies had been in power for a whole ten years from 2004 to 2014. In Pakistan, Imran Khan was finally able to fulfill his post-World Cup ambition when he became Prime Minister in August 2018. Sri Lanka has gone through three presidential elections and two parliamentary election in ten years, and another parliamentary election is coming up in April 2020.
In the global scheme of things, the 2010 decade has been remarkably noted for the politics of populism and manifestation of protests. However, generalizations at the global level have somewhat overlooked significant differences between different regions of the world, as well as among countries in different regions. Even the economic underpinnings of the world have shown differences between countries at different times during the decade. For the western economies, the decade unfolded in the aftermath of the great recession of 2008 in the US and the sovereign debt crisis in Europe. Although the economy picked up through the decade to reach the rare combination of soaring stock markets, low unemployment levels, and low inflation, the uncertainty over the economy persists in the West thanks to the unpredictable Trump presidency and concerns and fears about post-Brexit Britain and Europe.
China, on the other hand, proved to be a bulwark of stability for the world economy during the early years of the decade, in the wake the great American recession. China’s economic position changed quite drastically in the last years of the decade, and tough times are predicted in 2020 and beyond. As The Japan Times reported, “2020, as well as the decade after it, will be fraught with difficulties for China.” While “a prosperous China would be good news for the world … an increasingly panting China, which is the likeliest outlook at present, is bad news — not just for Beijing, but for the global economy, too.”
India is in a worse slump. Its severity is not in question, how long will the slowdown last is the question. It is quite a turn of events for Prime Minister Modi and his BJP government after their record breaking second term victory. They survived the debacles of demonetisation and drought, and all the stimulus efforts to stem the current slide are not making any impact. Politically, the faltering economy will only add fuel to the growing protests against the Modi government’s arrogant and thuggish assaults on Kashmir’s regional autonomy and the citizenship rights of Indian Muslims. China has had quieter success in containing its comparatively miniscule Muslim population, but has not at all been able to put down, quietly or otherwise, the protest of the even more miniscule Hong Kong Chinese.
The upshot for developing economies has been falling commodity prices, export and overseas employment stagnation, and debt, balance of payment and currency crises. In many instances, as in Sri Lanka, the problems have been more home made than inevitable due to external forces. The scourge of corruption has continued unabated in many countries, with Malaysia and South Africa providing rare instances where corrupt government leaders were thrown out for good either through elections or leadership changes in the ruling parties. While the effects of climate change are felt everywhere, developing economies are particularly vulnerable to food shortages arising from alternating spells of droughts and floods. The 2010s have given enough warning of worse crises yet to come.