Understanding digital politics
I practice, research and teach media and can understand that populism clouds the process of democracy. I see populism in the movement of Imran Khan and that the exclusivism prevailing in the corridors of power is feeding this populism.
Khan’s movement relies on projection of simplified and generalised complexities of a system that has been under attack since its inception. Not by coincidence does his approach strike a chord with the media; and so Khan continues to carry his message on sound bites and mercury lights.
It seems that the social mobility experts of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) owe a lot to India’s Anna Hazare for making their jalsa star-studded and full of oomph. This, definitely, is about lifestyle – the lifestyle of the new generation that is eager to become the engine of ‘change’.
Nobel Laureate Joseph E Stiglitz in his book ‘Making Globalization Work’ pressed on acquiring “an engaged and educated citizenry” if we look for “another world”. The media has taken on the job of keeping the citizenry ‘engaged’ while politics is about keeping them ‘educated’.
Frank Esser of the University of Zurich and Stig Hjarward of the University of
Stockholm have identified these functions of media and politics as media logic and political logic, respectively.
The problem arises when politicians, in most cases under the ‘influence of presumed media influence’, begin adopting media logic. Instead of reforming the system with hard work, they launch drives to transform the system shouting catchy slogans and resorting to hyperbole. They resort to the adoption of media logic, which calls for simplification/generalisation of complex matters – for example, measuring rigging in elections or output of parliamentary proceedings. This ultimately leads to conflict and controversy. The total submission to media logic by politicians is a phased process, identified as mediatisation of politics.
This process is seen as a threat to democracy in Europe. Some conservatives also equate mediatisation with Americanisation of politics.
What we see at D-Chowk is the manifestation of mediatisation of politics. We see that Imran Khan tells his supporters on live camera that the system is rotten, missing the point that people of this country had sent him to parliament to remove the rot. He tells them that a few political families are to blame for the decaying quality of democracy in Pakistan, missing the fact that unparliamentary powers have been active to weaken parliament all along.
He issues a sweeping statement that the polls were rigged, missing the point that the devil lies in the details. He says he managed the World Cup success, missing the point that there was also a team with him in this effort.
I do not say that Imran is unclear about the point he misses or any other conspiracy theory. I, rather, admit that his message is unstoppable. He repeats this message daily and the media relays this repetition many times a day. Hence, its impact is magnified to cosmic proportions. Nobody cares any more about parliamentary process or the missing points.
What Khan says is the reality and he has society mobilisers, who further simplify and generalise his message in the form of songs and other means of expression.
It becomes so popular that even a media researcher who does not get carried away by populism could not but enjoy hearing his minor stammer, ‘Go Nawaz Go’.
The media researcher becomes a sort of outcast in his own living room if he tries to explain to his family and friends how the positioning of mercury lights and placement of cameras serve to magnify the crowds in Lahore on our TV screens. It is because nobody is interested in understanding these things when they watch these images live.
I teach students that society has gone digital, and has in fact become a networked society and we should learn to live with it. A student once asked what the cure to digital insecurity or media manipulations was – I said the cure is understanding it.
The writer is a PhD candidate in media studies. Email: Hassan.firstname.lastname@example.org