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YouTube vs WhatsApp: Digital Mavericks Are Testing Dubious Election Narratives

Social media is playing a key role in the dissemination of both information and disinformation to the people.

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Amidst the heat of the campaigning for India's Lok Sabha elections this year, I was reminded of an old British saying: "The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton". It is a dialogue by the Duke of Wellington, who was referring to how a well-known public school like Britain's Eton College groomed the qualities of good soldiers.

The trigger for my recollection was a Facebook post by a friend, which said: "This election seems to be a battle between YouTube and WhatsApp." These are such profound words.

Unless you have been sleeping under a rock, you would know that campaigning this year is well beyond advertisements, shouting matches on TV news channels, and contentious speeches by political leaders.
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The Dhruv Rathee Phenomenon

Social media is playing a pivotal role in the dissemination of both information and disinformation to the people. But this time, nearly all major parties are tech-savvy and they employ memes, tweets, and posts that play up their positions and mock their rivals.

What is less noticed is that beyond official parties and the old/mainstream media, there are random podcasters, tweeters (users of the digital platform X, formerly Twitter), YouTubers and other digital mavericks, besides independent media brands, who are influencing public opinion.

They sometimes dwarf mainstream media news and bland reportage by often analysing or juxtaposing news with views in a manner that challenges loud narratives. They even seem to be setting the agenda in some instances.

The Dhruv Rathee phenomenon is the biggest of them all, but that is not the only point. Other digital-age agents, whatever their ideological or political affiliations, financial muscle or party link, are also part of a discourse that is increasingly providing viewpoints that blur propaganda, if not counter it.

Rathee, a 29-year-old Germany-based and Haryana-born engineer, is popular because he has done something to please seasoned media professionals who have been upset over fake news and dubious narratives. He takes up public speeches, rumours, innuendos, and disinformation, that do the rounds on WhatsApp or private messages, and turns them into investigative videos that mix reason, logic, humour, slick editing, meme-like twists, and hard data.

These videos call out contradictions, bluffs, and peculiar party positions on ideological and policy issues. Long known for his videos on everything from technology, global affairs and history to environmental issues, his videos of late focus on targetting the Narendra Modi government and the BJP's campaigns.

He does have a rival with a fan club in the spunky Ranveer Alahbadia a.k.a. "BeerBiceps" whose podcasts have also featured national leaders. Clearly closer to the BJP establishment in contrast to Rathee, Allahbadia won a "Disruptor of the Year" award in digital creation from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who told him, "People will say you are a BJP man."

Is he? How does it matter?

Like Rathee, his popularity is phenomenal. Allahbadia has more than eight million subscribers on YouTube, while Rathee has nearly 20 million. They stand way above a well-established dissident journalist, Ravish Kumar, who has 10 million. Their styles appeal more to youngsters as they break old rules and usher in new storytelling and interviewing techniques.

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WhatsApp University vs the YouTube Arena

Facebook was launched in 2004, YouTube in 2005, Twitter in 2006 and WhatsApp, since acquired by Facebook-owned Meta, in 2009, while Instagram, another Meta brand, was launched in 2010. In the tumultuous decade that followed, a whole new tribe of digital creators and influencers has emerged from these platforms. What is more significant is the way they have adopted these platforms with the help of increasingly smarter smartphones and apps, and the way content moves from one platform to the other to keep abuzz with a frenetic new media reality.

In the process, India's democracy has shown signs of maturing after initial years of tumult that saw rumours, abuse, fake news and other forms of misuse shaking up the old media order. The new digital mavericks stand shoulder-to-shoulder with fact-checking sites. There is still a long way to go in a world in which deep-fake videos and artificial intelligence are providing new challenges to news media, but in the current round of Indian elections, the new stars are keeping up the old spirit.

If Allahbadia is known for his spunky questions, Rathee has become a new-age sutradhar, an ancient Indian version of a media anchor, stringing together his own research with various narratives to ask hard questions to powerful people. His videos often have elements of didactic tuition, a slide presentation, comic memes, infographics, and caustic comments.

And it seems to work.

Ravish Kumar has a plaintive and illustrative style, and Allahbadia a spunky interviewing way of talking to celebrities, but Rathee is right in the heart of controversy because he seems to be addressing the anxieties raised by old-school mainstream journalists who are worried about rumours, propagandist imagery, and secret messages spewing bigotry. What Rathee does is turn old-world investigative journalism into a new-age package to expose contradictions, audacious claims and data inaccuracies with sarcastic punchlines that undo quite a bit of the damage done by hush-hush content circulated on WhatsApp.

He is ably aided by new-age digital media brands such as The Quint, Newslaundry, The Lallantop, and The News Minute among others that offer relatively sober, hard-hitting, or illustrative versions of the news that the old-world media has been reporting. Sometimes they turn the lens on the mainstream media itself, bringing evangelical zeal into journalism.

Controversial WhatsApp messages generated a pejorative and sarcastic expression — WhatsApp University — for rumours and propaganda material that violated the principles of journalistic fair play. You could call the new-age videos that challenge claims made on WhatsApp the YouTube Arena.

The arena is quite the opposite of the closed-loop of WhatsApp in which viral videos and messages went unchecked. The arena, as the name suggests, is an open space, like a stadium. Combined with Twitter-turned-X, the YouTube arena provides an interactive environment to discuss, comment, and provide counter-narratives. This has considerably brought down the initial appeal of sensational, often inaccurate, impressions generated by WhatsApp or one-sided high-decibel TV discussions and jingoistic speeches.

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An Alternative Media That is Waking Up to Both Threats and Possibilities

But this is not just about digital creators. There are sound reasons in the Indian demographics that make all this possible. After all, in any interactive business, both demand and supply are important.

India currently has more than 43 million students enrolled on higher education, which went up by two million in just one year. Even if half of them were to be discounted as sub-par, that is still equal to the entire population of Australia. With youth demographics in the zone, smartphones and Internet connections are exploding, triggering a new hunger for information and insightful narratives.

India now has more than 820 million active Internet users with more than half of them in rural areas. There are more than one billion smartphone users already. With this kind of digital penetration and demographic shift, it is difficult to keep an Allahbadia locked in a bottle like Aladdin's genie or rattle down a rational Rathee.

What makes the current round of elections exciting is that we have an alternative media that is waking up to both threats and possibilities generated by new technologies. This was largely absent in 2009 when social media itself was a new phenomenon. In 2014, the BJP took full advantage of this, along with its army of keyboard warriors. In 2019, WhatsApp played a major role in keeping up the campaign and its discussions in closed-loop forwards and rumours that went largely unchallenged.

The rise of independent media brands and digital native content creators, who are as big as media brands themselves, has dramatically changed the scenario. These creators are also aided by the increasing ability of smartphones to easily edit, splice, and share content. YouTube's "Shorts" version, for example, is a daring counter to WhatsApp forwards.

It is still a chaotic world out there, but what is emerging is an Alt version of the media and propaganda war in which the warriors of WhatsApp University can be challenged by Etonian-like soldiers of the YouTube Arena.

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on Twitter @madversity. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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