Oh, Snap! Mob judgments can do without Evan Spiegel's app

Why let facts come in the way of a good outrage, right?

 |  4-minute read |   18-04-2017
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India is not a poor country, Evan Spiegel. You just need to remove the demonetisation filter and look again.

An undiplomatic comment that the Snapchat CEO may or may not have made two years ago has led to India’s pop patriots getting their knickers in a twist.

Among a litany of accusations against the photo-messaging and storytelling app’s parent company, former employee Anthony Pompliano says that multibillionaire Spiegel once shot down his suggestion to pursue growth in certain international markets. “This app is only for rich people. I don’t want to expand into poor countries like India and Spain,” allegedly said the Stanford dropout with a supermodel fiancée.

The sulky social media junkies decided they had the answer. No, not helping the poor. That’s a job for someone else. These keyboard combatants decided their time was better spent trending a #boycottsnapchat hashtag that called for uninstalling the app and leaving single-star ratings.

The official poverty stats suggest about 22 per cent of 1.25 billion Indians are poor. But human development indicators show that about 680 million people lack the means to meet their basic needs. Nearly 413 million citizens above the official poverty line are “vulnerable.”

snap-chat_041817044801.jpg Snapdeal isn’t Snapchat. Nor is Sonu Sood Sonu Nigam.

That’s not a pretty picture. In fact, the government is considering giving cash handouts, tactfully termed universal basic income, to pull people out of endemic poverty.

The situation has not been helped by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation gamble that has created fresh bad loans in agriculture as well as small and medium enterprises. Many economists — swiftly branded as “anti-nationals” by the BJP backslappers — have agreed that the radical step to abolish 86 per cent of India’s currency was not needed to fight corruption.

This is perhaps why the ruling party changed the goalposts from “battle against black money” to “ushering in a cashless economy”. That’s like digging a mountain to find a digital mouse.

Also, while Spiegel’s words may have been “poorly” chosen, the fact is that India with its low bandwidth, high data charges and poor iOS penetration (nearly nine in 10 cellphones here operate on Android) is not a lucrative market for his company.

The tech giant’s revenue model, like that of its peers, relies not on selling the app to users but selling the consumer’s attention to advertisers. And advertisers pay more for affluent consumers.

But why let facts come in the way of a good outrage, right? Facts like Snapdeal isn’t Snapchat. Or Sonu Sood isn’t Sonu Nigam.

Greek historian Polybius coined the word “ochlos”, which means multitude or throng.

It refers to the mob in its chaotic, tumultuous, messy, unpredictable character. Polybius used “ochlocracy” to name the “pathological” version of popular rule — in opposition to the good version, which he referred to as “democracy”.

Government by mob rule, by the “will of the people”, by intimidation and fuelled by ignorant voters and unprincipled demagogues. Sounds familiar? Sacrificed in an ochlocracy is regard for individual rights, constitutionalism, and the rule of law. Populist leaders appeal not to voters’ reason but to their passions. Peaceful assembly, petition and persuasion are uprooted by the scream, the curse, and the threat.

The mob sees no reason, needs no reason. It doesn’t differentiate between the guilty and innocent.

It will lynch a middle-aged Muslim man over suspicions of cow slaughter, threaten to rape a college student for suggesting peace with Pakistan is a possibility, assault a couple after alleging “love jihad”, or hurl stones at security personnel taking on militants.

Mass uninstallation of an app is a more civilised protest than physical violence or cyberbullying. But this collective lashing out at the mere hint of affront betrays a siege mentality that has become more apparent since the BJP took power at the Centre in 2014.

Its creed of Hindu nationalism manages simultaneously to exhibit a persecution complex and a prosecution complex. The system deals in religious symbolism, the politics of identity, nostalgia for a prelapsarian order and minority-baiting.

Snapdeal has been the unwitting victim yet again, after facing a similar boycott last year over then brand ambassador Aamir Khan’s comments on perceived intolerance in India. Amazon was hit by a backlash this year for selling tricolour-print doormats and flip flops with Mahatma Gandhi’s face on them, forcing it to pull the products.

Uninformed people are too easily misinformed, which leads to supporting erroneous causes.

The growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions in lieu of sober judgment, like suggesting police and military adopt extrajudicial measures against real and perceived offenders, is dangerous for India. Leaders stoking these flames must realise that when the mob rules, everyone is a target.

Also read: Why IITs can't match world-class universities

Writer

Pathikrit Sen Gupta Pathikrit Sen Gupta @pathikrit2sen

Sr Asst Editor @mail_today, @IndiaToday | Writer | Actor | Voice Artiste | Sofa Spud. At 6'3'', a bit of a stretch.

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