Saturday, 3 June, 2023

Social Sites Turn Simulacra

Dr. Kundan Aryal

Jean Baudrillard, a French sociologist, had described the different media outcomes as simulacra around three decades back. His idea is instrumental in examining the present scenario of the pseudo-interactions between the elected and electorates in the Nepali context. The actors of political communication have lost creativity and dangerously indulged in the world of simulation. As Baudrillard presents an allegory with the precision that the map precedes the territory, politics in Nepal has been confined within the pseudo-environment, the social networking sites (SNS). He describes simulation as the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. There are so-called IT Army and Cyber Sena whose members push their political agenda via social media instead of facing the real public.

Information and communication technology has enabled individuals to be informed every moment and to express an opinion without interruption. It has become a widespread common knowledge that people from every walk of life have benefitted from the ICT. Likewise, one can explain the uses of social networking sites to improve the lifestyle of the common people. Internet-assisted social media have enhanced human capability to control the surroundings unprecedentedly. However, with the creation of communication superhighway, the general public is facing the risk of being misinformed or disinformed as well. Nepal is no exception when it comes to abusing the social media for unhealthy political tug of war, damaging the potential and credibility of the digital public domain. Across the globe, most of the manipulations in social media have been induced by the political factions.

Media convergence
Media convergence, caused by the development of the internet, has created an environment where people are concerned not just with relaying information or stories but with interpreting most private selves for them. People around the world approach each other through the lens of these media images. What another French philosopher Guy Debord terms as the Society of Spectacle. He also argues that the spectacle that falsifies reality is nevertheless a real product of that reality. Today the internet-based media especially social media are being mishandled for the sake of political propaganda. Debord's observation seems to be relevant in the Nepali context. He asserts that in a world that is really upside down, the truth is as a moment of the false.

Systematic and organised use of social media with ill intention and to defame the political opponents is not only disturbing the way for free flow of information but such attempts have been encouraging especially the youth for malaise practices, such as destruction and manipulation of others words and images. Since today's news matrix is under omnipresent domination of digital enthusiasm, the unfair practices in social media also hampering the way for the edited contents and institutional media as well.

The internet-based online news portals that are running by untrained and unprofessional persons are churning out the fake news. Writings of Baudrillard signalled the traces of fake news back to the 19th century with the introduction of mechanical production of contents. His idea needs to be understood as a reference to the general trend of postmodernity. His concept of hyperreal, illustrated through a wider range of cultural products, from advertising and architecture to cinema and universities, is now fit to the functions of social media to a greater extent.

The so-called IT Army and Cyber Sena are examples of the attempts to disrupt sensible political communication. The term ‘cyber syal’ (cyber jackal), has recently gained currency in Nepal. It refers to the group of aggressive political cadres who don't listen to others and try to make others unheard by making noise. Cyber jackals serve their masters who are happy with the map that Baudrillard refers to. They don't differentiate between map and territory. Baudrillard mentions the Borges fable in which the cartographers of the empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up covering the territory exactly. Then he writes that it is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory. He further explains the concept of simulacra by stating that today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there.

Artificial reality
In Nepal, the social networking sites have become the platform of political communication, but without the involvement of the real public. It has turned into an echo chamber of ‘jackals’ who amplify the partisan rhetoric of their masters. As a result, the masters fail to see the things through critical lens. The Nepali politicians of that category prefer simulacra, an image created by the cyber jackals, to real life, a wider range of public. They are obsessed with simulacra because they run after applause and sycophancy. For them the cyber world is truth and the real world of people is an illusion. They rely on social media so much that that they lose all contacts with the real world that preceded the map of the real world. They don't know that they are living and interacting with the world of artificial reality.

Those, who claim that they are countering misinformation and disinformation, actually undermine the due process of political communication. They are not in the street, not in the rural and remote parts of the country, to interact with the real public. They are polluting the social networking sites with envy, hate, anger and insensitivity. Political communication in Nepal is being taken on the wrong track by a section of politicians. In the name of publicity, such an effort to establish monologue is against the quest for the culture of discourse and pluralism.

(Dr. Aryal is associated with the Central Department of Journalism and Mass Communication of Tribhuvan University.)