Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.
A few days ago, a Delhi newspaper called me up to ask for a quote on a controversy that had begun, as any respectable controversy these days should begin, on Twitter. Sagarika Ghosh, allegedly harrassed by right-wing Hindutva types, had unleashed a series of tweets against what she termed ‘Internet Hindus’. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5.) The phrase caught on and led to much outrage from many bloggers, a spirited takedown of ‘the Hindutva fringe’ by my fellow Yahoo! columnist Ashok Malik, and a vehement defence of it by Kanchan Gupta.
I was baffled by the controversy. Firstly, the phrase itself seemed ridiculous to me, and I suspect that all the main protagonists using that term would have defined it differently. Secondly, I didn’t see what all of them were getting het up about to begin with. Ghose was over-reacting to criticism; the rest were losing their sleep over someone’s tweets: how noob of them.
If Ghose was, indeed, bothered by trolls, she would have done well to keep in mind the old jungle saying, ‘Never wrestle with a pig. You get dirty and the pig enjoys it.’ The internet empowers loonies of all kinds by giving them a megaphone—but no one is forced to listen to them. The noise-to-signal ratio is way out of whack on the net (Sturgeon’s Law), and any smart internet veteran will tell you that to keep your sanity, you need to ignore the noise. Ghose, poor thing, had tried to engage with it.
We all know that people are more extreme on the net than they are in real life. The radical Hindutva dude who wants to nuke Pakistan on the net will, in the real world, sit meekly at Cafe Coffee Day arguing the relative merits of Atif Aslam and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. A commonly cited reason for this is the anonymity that the internet gives you. You get power without responsibility, and can say whatever you want without the fear of consequences. (This explains why so many comment trolls are anonymous or pseudonymous.)
But anonymity is just a small part of the story. Many people who take extreme positions on the internet do so under their real names. What’s more, they hold these positions in the offline world as well, though they probably didn’t believe in them so vehemently before they got online. What’s going on here?
I got an insight into this a while ago when I read a book named On Rumours by Cass Sunstein. In it, Sunstein cites an experiment he carried out with a couple of colleagues in Colorado in the USA in 2005. These guys gathered 60 subjects and split them into ten groups of six people each. The experiment was designed so that each group was homogeneous and fit a particular profile. Half the groups were liberal; the others were conservative.
At the start of the experiment, each participant was asked a series of hot button questions, including one on that most polarising of topics, global warming. Their anonymous answers were noted down. Then they went into a room with a group of like-minded people and discussed those issues. Fifteen minutes after the group discussion ended, they were again asked the same set of questions, anonymously and one by one.
Here’s how Sunstein summarised the results in his book: “In almost every group, members ended up holding more extreme positions after they spoke with one another. [...] Aside from increasing extremism, the experiment had an independent effect: it made both liberal and conservative groups significantly more homogeneous—and thus squelched diversity. [...] Moreover, the rift between liberals and conservatives widened as a result of discussing.”
This phenomenon is called Group Polarization. Sunstein defines it thus: “When like-minded people deliberate, they typically end up adopting a more extreme position in line with their pre-deliberation inclinations.”
This explains why the internet is such a polarised space. Let us say that someone believes, to pick an especially ludicrous conspiracy theory, that Israel knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance, and warned Jews who worked at the WTC not to go to work that day. In a relatively open society like the US or India, you’re unlikely to find too many people in your immediate circle of friends and acquaintances who would believe this. But on the internet, which serves the long tail of beliefs, you will find many like-minded people. There will be websites validating your view and bulletin boards full of kindred souls. The confirmation bias will also kick in, and you will ignore any potential source of disagreement, and hang around with your own kind. Information cascades will be in play, as your conviction will harden, and the vehemence with which you state your views will increase.
As Sunstein concluded in a working paper he wrote on group polarisation, it is “plausible to speculate that the Internet may be serving, for many, as a breeding group for extremism.”
Such echo chambers don’t exist merely on the internet, of course. Societies that aren’t open, including ‘illiberal democracies’, to use Fareed Zakaria’s phrase, also serve as a breeding ground for extremism. To look at nearby examples from Pakistan, the following could well be the condensed biography of the median Lashkar or Taliban terrorist: He was born in a poor family, and the only education he received was in a Madrasa, which was essentially a place of indoctrination; he came of age thinking of America and India as evil, infidel lands, and of himself as an underdog whose duty was to fight a righteous battle; he had little or no exposure to conflicting views, or even to cultural products from outside his immediate environment; and he was probably sexually repressed, which increased his resentment.
Also, he was surrounded by people just like him. So really, there is no other belief system he could have in such a closed environment. I suspect if you or I were in his place, we’d pick up a gun too. How on earth would we know better?
This is not a justification for his actions. When it comes to terrorism, I am a hawk. I believe we should fight terrorists and terrorist groups without mercy or hesitation, and destroy the infrastructure that supports them. This is necessary—but not sufficient. It would tackle the symptoms, but not the disease itself.
Terrorism in Pakistan is enhanced by a structural problem: their society isn’t open enough, diverse enough, and prosperous enough. As long as this remains the case, echo chambers will abound, and the supply of extremists will not dry up. What can we do about this?
To begin with, it would help if we didn’t talk about Pakistan as if it was one monolithic entity. Just because ‘they’ attacked us on 26/11 does not mean we prevent ‘their’ musicians or cricketers from coming to India—we are talking of different creatures here, which are opposed to each other.
Broadly, and with the risk of simplifying, I see three distinct kinds of forces in Pakistan. One, the jehadi groups, which grow larger and more extreme because of self-perpetuating feedback loops, but are by no means the whole country. Two, the military establishment, whose incentives, as I wrote in a column three years ago, are aligned towards continuing the conflict with India. They have supported the jehadis, and have waged proxy wars through them, but are now under credible pressure to withdraw this support. And three, civil society, which wants what people everywhere want: peace, prosperity and a good future for themselves and their children. This, I believe, is most of Pakistan.
The stronger civil society gets, the weaker the support for extremism, and the more tenuous the military’s hold on the country. This is why I support increased trade and cultural exchanges with Pakistan (which is mutually beneficial anyway, as it’s a positive-sum game). I don’t think it’s contradictory to take a hard line towards Pakistan’s terrorist infrastructure and a soft line towards their artists and businessmen. Both have the same end in mind.
I am not suggesting that this would be a panacea. Not all terrorists come from repressive societies or poor backgrounds, and extremism will always be with us. But it would reduce the amount of polarisation that takes place—and hey, some of it might even shift to the internet. Then the Internet Hindus can fight the Online Muslims, and Sagarika Ghose can crawl up in a foetal position under her desk.
Lest my column be misinterpreted, let me state the obvious by saying that I am not implying any equivalence between ‘Internet Hindus’, whoever they are, who may cause Ghose to tear out her hair but haven’t otherwise caused any physical harm to anyone, and the jehadis of the Lashkar and the Taliban. I have mentioned them here only in the context of the mechanics of polarisation. There is no question who I would rather have lunch with.
Also, I would request anyone who wishes to coin more such terms to at least alliterate. Blogging Buddhists and Joomla Jains sound far more musical than Internet Hindus, if a little more niche. No?
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