The Online Front: Kashmir Conflict Spills Onto Social Media

“Social media is biased, not to the Left or the Right, but downward,” writes Jaron Lanier. “Negative emotions are being amplified more than positive ones.”

One of the features remarked on by political commentators has been the degree to which India’s ruling party has rallied its Hindu nationalist supporters around the country to support its actions in Kashmir. The conflict has spilled over onto social media around the world, including Canada. When Nabila Qureshi tried to raise awareness on social media about what her family was going through, she was shocked at the aggressive response she encountered.

“A lot of people on our Facebook and a lot of people in our country started posting celebratory remarks, saying that this is a momentous moment for India, what previous governments weren’t able to do in the last 70 years, this government has been able to do,” Qureshi told the Independent. “‘Praise to the current government, may you live forever!’ It’s adulation, it’s worship, it’s jingoism. And I’ve been trying to make sense of that.”

“I said: do you guys have glasses on? Do you guys have cataracts? Can’t you see that this is wrong? You are praising something that is hurting someone else. How can you call this a historic, celebratory moment? I was very upset. My first reaction was immense. I was hurt. I was hurt to see that friends who I have known for many years and friends that I have met over the past months were posting things that were attacking me, and they were bullying me.

“I just could not understand how some of these friends or acquaintances that I know, living here in Canada, studying here in St. John’s, in a country that gave them that right—how can they hold this view?”

Support and Solidarity

Sophia Solomon has also encountered the social media backlash. Solomon is Indian, but she is not from Kashmir. Originally from Bangalore, a city in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, she came to Newfoundland in 2014 to pursue an undergraduate degree at Memorial University, and has chosen to remain in the province.

When she heard about what was happening in Kashmir, she was horrified.

“When I heard about it I was pretty shocked, and the most shocking part was that I felt like I was the only one who was shocked at what was happening, until I met people in the Kashmiri community here,” Solomon told the Independent. “It’s surprising how many people back home support what is going on. For me personally, it just comes down to the people who are being affected by it.”

“Seeing the Indian government—especially when we are so proud of our democracy—going against that and literally using methods that were used when we were colonized years ago by the British, that’s what it reminded me of, to be honest. And that is something that I absolutely do not support. I think people are just forgetting their humanity and forgetting that these are normal people, common people who are being affected by this and they think it’s okay. So that’s really what shocked me.”

When she made some posts on social media to try to raise awareness about what was going on, she was also shocked at the aggressive response from some of her friends.

“Some of the people who commented on it are Indians who are living in St. John’s, and it shocked me… for educated people to take that stance. Of course I love my country and I’m patriotic as well. But if you’re going to use that as your stance to justify what’s happening, that was really shocking to me.”

The Social Media Monster

A growing body of research has taken aim at understanding the ways in which social media fuels and perpetuates hate. Sociologist Jen Schradie argues in her 2019 study The Revolution That Wasn’t: How Digital Activism Favors Conservatives that “the very nature of the internet and digital activism favors conservatives.” Long associated with progressive-minded, utopian computer scientists, the liberating potential of the internet proved a brief-lived phenomenon before it caught the attention of society’s entrenched powers.

“The reality is that throughout history, communications tools that seemed to offer more voices are eventually owned or controlled by those with more resources. They eventually are used to consolidate power, rather than to smash it into pieces and redistribute it,” Schradie writes

A real-world example from her research was the role of social media in fueling the rise of the Tea Party and other white nationalist groups in the United States. For a progressive-minded person to challenge powerful institutions places that person at risk of being targeted by the institutions they confront—they could lose their job, face arbitrary arrest or attack, and other forms of discrimination. But for a reactionary or racist to sit in front of their computer and post hate messages requires little effort and little risk.

On American social media activism, Schradie writes: “White Tea Party activists, for example, did not have the same fear of retaliation that African American public workers faced…. [C]lassism—and racism—were stronger forces than any revolutionary power of the internet to overcome inequality. This individualized internet cannot combat institutional marginalization.”

Schradie’s research focused on the rise of populist hate and intolerance in the United States, but clear analogies exist in other populist authoritarian contexts—for instance, contemporary India.

Jaron Lanier, an early pioneer of virtual reality and other computing tech, has also spoken out vociferously about the unforeseen dangers of social media. The monetization of social media has driven a concentration on commercial and technological models premised on crude behaviorism. To solicit ads, social media companies need to show they can influence users, and make them ‘engage’ with the product or idea for sale. And negative emotions have proven far more effective in behavior modification than positive ones.

“You can’t pay social media companies to help end wars and make everyone kind,” Lanier writes in his recent book Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. “Social media is biased, not to the Left or the Right, but downward. The relative ease of using negative emotions for the purposes of addiction and manipulation makes it relatively easier to achieve undignified results…. Information warfare units sway elections, hate groups recruit, and nihilists get amazing bang for the buck when they try to bring society down. The prime directive to be engaging reinforces itself, and no one even notices that negative emotions are being amplified more than positive ones.

“Engagement is not meant to serve any particular purpose other than its own enhancement, and yet the result is an unnatural global amplification of the ‘easy’ emotions, which happen to be negative ones.”

Pushing Back for Peace

Schradie notes that the growing intolerance unleashed through social media may even be starting to escape their creators’ control. There is no consensus on how to effectively combat hate and intolerance on the Internet. While sincere efforts to engage the intolerant might not overcome social media mobs, one argument holds that it can be effective in one-on-one exchanges.

It’s an approach Solomon is trying. At first shocked by the response to her posts, she’s now started reaching out to her Indian friends and engaging them about what is happening.

“I told them: imagine if this was your family being surrounded by armed forces, with guns at their heads, threatening your brothers, your sisters, your parents, that if you step outside they’re going to shoot you,” she explained to the Independent. “Imagine being inside your house locked down for the last twelve days, you don’t know what’s happening outside your house with your other friends and your other family members, you’re scared, you’re terrified, and you’re not able to contact anybody.

“Say for one moment you did contact them. I ask: what would you say to them, to their faces, during that one minute that you have? Everything that you said to me in those comment sections? Would you tell them that you support what the Indian government did, and you agree with what they’re doing and you don’t care how they feel and what they’re going through because it’s better for the future, or whatever? Would you tell them when they’re crying to you, that it doesn’t matter?

“That is really what I’m trying to tell these people who give me all this political background and everything. People are really forgetting that we’re all people at the end of the day, and if this was your family, you wouldn’t be saying this.

“In India we’ve seen so much violence over the years, I think we’ve normalized it. But I think that’s really not okay, that’s what makes it even more scary.”

The backlash she’s received from Indian nationalists encouraged Solomon to reach out to the Kashmiri community, and help organize the support rally which is being held on August 24.

“I think it comes down to my core values, and what I believe in. I feel for the Kashmiri community here who are living in that fear of not knowing what’s going to happen. I really feel for that. It’s hard enough being away from them, and knowing that your family back home is not safe and you can’t do anything about that—if I was in that situation, I know that would be the worst thing that could ever happen to me. So I just couldn’t not say anything. Because tomorrow if something happened to my family, I wouldn’t be okay.”

“I hope that the Indian leaders and the Indian government realize what they’re doing and listen to the people of Kashmir, because their voice is currently being silenced,” Solomon concluded. “I hope that people are able to step back for a moment, step back from all the politics, step back from their patriotism, and really step back and at the end just really look at it from the perspective of a human being, and be able to see how what’s happening is wrong.

“No matter for what reason, no one should go through this kind of suffering and this kind of fear and torture and everything that the Kashmiris are going through right now. I really hope people are able to take that step back and look at it from that perspective.”

For more information about the Solidarity With Kashmir rally, taking place at 12:00pm on Saturday August 24 at the bandstand in Bannerman Park in downtown St. John’s, check out the Facebook event.

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