By Rouf Dar
In modern times, where advertising and media outreach define lives, it has become possible to talk of the “engineering of consent” by an elite of experts and professional politicians. This was professed by Edward Bernays as early as 1947. Consent that is engineered, in a subtle and disguised manner, is difficult to differentiate from ‘real consent‘. Bernays takes the USA as his case study; as a small room where a whisper is magnified thousands of times to popularise a particular opinion.
Noam Chomsky cites the example of consent of the public manufactured by media for the state during the Vietnam war. The war was unethical and uncalled for, but US media portrayed it in a clever manner and manipulated public opinion of Americans in support of the war. Along with Edward Herman, he wrote their magnum opus on this subject. In the book titled “Manufacturing Consent”, among other things, they talk of sourcing for news by large bureaucracies or state agencies which later on become routine news items. They acquire access to the newsrooms while non-routine sources have to struggle to reach them. That is exactly what the state in Kashmir has been able to do with success. Using force and coercion, it controls what is printed and carried by newspapers and media channels.
“Flak”, which implies the negative responses drawn by a media statement or program, is oft cited. It can be harmful to the media, either due to loss of revenue from advertisements or due to the costs of a legal defense. Flak can be organised by powerful influence groups. Eliciting flak can act as a deterrent to the reporting of certain facts or opinions.
Media in Kashmir
An example can be of the recent Khyber scam. Some newspapers continued to carry Khyber ads even after a Budgam court banned and fined Khyber for adulteration of food items. This is because they did not want the hefty checks that accrue from advertisements to stop.
Same is the case with sourcing of news items related to Kashmir University in major dailies of Kashmir. The revenue generated by dailies from the university acts as a deterrent for them to carry critical news items about the latter. These news items might damage the public reputation of the institution. So, in the garb of accrual of income, newspapers easily subside any such items.
In India, during the run up to the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, the now-ruling BJP spent around Rs 35,000 crore on media campaigns alone. These included addressing rallies on telescreens across miles of distance. Surveys showed that such a vicious media and advertising campaign actually lead to manipulation of public opinion, which had already been disgruntled with the Congress, and thus endowed Narendra Modi with a resounding victory in the elections.
When such a state is occupying Kashmir, how fair can the media reportage be? The Ragda of 2010 led the state agencies to tighten the noose on media channels. Newspapers were barred from carrying factual reports. Some local cable channels were barred from airing any programmes altogether. The media became the state itself. The censorship policy is still in place with newspapers always hesitant to report details with utmost precision.
Internet not an exception
The internet is also a rumour-generating machine. More than news and communicating happenings, rumours are easy to create and spread on the internet. After the devastating floods of 2014, every time it rains for a few days, people on social media start pouring out expertise as if they bring out their gauges and measure water levels. Or a more specific example might be of the recent Polio vaccination hoax when Kashmiri children were rushed to hospitals because someone on Facebook said that the vaccine had expired.
Robert Epstein, a senior research psychologist, in his forthcoming book, “The New Mind Control” finds something very interesting. Using preset search results in the search engine Google about Prime Ministerial candidates in India during 2014 elections, his team found that 95% of the people’s choices were altered by merely rating the search results according to their own standards. This, he called the Search Engine Manipulation Effect and is one of the largest behavioral effects discovered.
Epstein sees a clear sign that Google is backing Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US elections. In April 2015, Clinton hired Stephanie Hannon and Eric Schmidt, both part of Google, for the same purpose. Julian Assange, thus, dubbed Google as Clinton’s “secret weapon” in her quest for the US presidency. Epstein says they now have the power to grab 2.6 to 10.4 million votes on a given day without leaving a trail.
Technology has made possible massive alterations in opinions of entire populations, in a completely untraceable manner. Thus, the thing we so easily put our faith in for being a reliable source of information can so deceptively shift our opinions without our prior knowledge of this all happening due to some predefined agenda.
Our response : as it is
The change in opinions is media-driven. The consent is media-manufactured. And the media is state-controlled. This is all done at the behest of the state just because the state wants us to read a certain kind of news and watch some specific programmes. Control the media and create consent — that is the underlying objective of the state.
Why do we so easily believe it? Because, as Robert Epstein stated, this manipulation is so deceptive that we don’t detect it. They play with the psyche of common masses. They know that the only source of information accessible to the public, if controlled, can serve the state’s larger interests at will. That is what they have been doing.
Handwara can be thought as a classical example that has been going the same way, as have other such cases in Kashmir’s recent history. The circles of manipulation have been similar. Every crime is followed up by a cover-up process which involves bringing to the forefront such content which can alter our perception. The day of the crime in Handwara, the Indian army released a video of the minor girl saying that no army man tried to harass or molest her and no such incident happened. And what did we do? We believed it on the go.
I was home for a week of official holidays. Over the next week, every person I met castigated the girl. Abuses were directed at her. People blamed her for the five killings that ensued during protests afterwards. A person talked of how she would have to be answerable for the killings on the day of judgement. Other said that girls in Kashmir satisfy their “lust” through army personnel who murder their brothers and falsely incite Kashmiris to protest. Such rants were common, and maybe general.
I did not rebuke them or reply, or even try to defend the girl. I could not. The video had done considerable damage by manufacturing the views of the public vis-a-vis the girl. Consent had been created. An image of the girl was imprinted on people’s minds which was hard to erase, which could not be tampered with easily.
Our response : as it should be
Handwara exposed us once again, for the society we have grown to be — one which does not care about reliable sources and believes in state-sponsored news. The state knows the psychological affairs of our society very well. The video released, leave aside the authenticity, sharply turned the perspective of our society. And it raised some serious questions:
Why should we believe a media which sources its news from the state agencies? Why should we forget that, in the Shopian case, in the end Bar Association lawyers were prosecuted and not those who destroyed evidence? Why do we forget the Manzgam rape case where the girl was abducted, raped and later a similar confession absolved Indian forces of any crime? Why should such nonsense find acceptance time and again?
Why do we still have to read news prefixed with “alleged” for every broad daylight murder by the government forces? Why do we have to believe in the state version which has always been anti-Kashmiri? Why do we have to believe a police force that works in tandem with the army? Why do we have to believe IPS officers who gain medals with each fake encounter? Why do we judge the Indian army through the prism of the “lust” of our own girls; do we reason that a thousand rapes were due to “lust”?
Place any 16-year-old boy or a girl in a police station, arrest her father at midnight and consistently monitor the movement of her family members. Then terrorise her into confessing in whatever you wish. How on earth can you expect her to remain “honest” and blurt out the truth? Torture, physical and mental, has been used by Indian forces to break down Kashmiris inside police stations. It is a well known and documented fact now. Confessions can be extracted at will. Look at what happens to falsely implicated persons in jails. How do they confess to things they have no idea of? How did Afzal Guru confess to an act that he had no knowledge about? And in this case, the girl is a minor; a higher secondary student with the state directing all its ammunition towards her.
What needs to be done?
As a society, a community, a people tormented by state oppression, we should have stood by the girl. Her battle has just begun though. She needs us now as well. The dirty tactics of the government forces have repetitively been exposed. Even then we habitually ostracise the victims. I wish to see how those people who abused her in the first place react now when JKCCS has come out with facts that busted the botched-up ‘evidence’ of the police. We should do away with these instant responses and stop jumping to conclusions.
We should ask ourselves whom our actions are benefitting when we give in easily to, what is known as, the politico-media complex — a symbiosis between the state’s political and ruling classes, its media industry and any interactions with the law or police. That term signifies the clubbing of these institutions in an attempt to manipulate rather than inform people. And we easily tend to fall into this trap, intentionally or unintentionally.
Therefore, it is high time we begin to coalesce as a society, adhere to the principles of resistance while knowing well that India, and its proxies in Kashmir, are our prominent enemies. Our solidarity, our actions, our words have to side with our own people. We have to mitigate our sufferings, not worsen the pain by self-flagellation.
—The writer is a political science student at Kashmir University