Is social media hijacking the narrative, impacting governance and policies?

The adverse influence of uncontrolled social media in the relations between India and Maldives is a case in point. Social media poses an existential threat to the conventional methods of conducting governance, diplomacy, and warfare. 

Representational Photo

“Social media disrupts our elections, our economy, and our health,” says Sinan Aral, who is the David Austin Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. The inundation of “fake news” and the proliferation of doctored narratives that are spread by humans and bots online are dictating social behaviors and even the approach to the reportage of mainstream media. A dangerous trend by any standard. Spreading lies and misinformation on all media by default or by design is threatening to disrupt the national psyche and adversely affect international relations

Fake news and false stories are very much more likely to attract reactions and also be forwarded or retweeted than true ones. The reason is simple enough.  False news has greater appeal compared to the truth and provokes indignant reactions — especially disgust and surprise. This is not a new phenomenon in the media. The mainstream media also traditionally gives more prominence to tragedies than everything else, for the “shock and awe” TRPs. As such it could be that, for more eyeballs and revenue, the social media companies tacitly encourage fake/false news on their platforms.

The recent India-Maldives narrative

Very recently the social media takeover of national affairs in India and its tango with the mainstream media was starkly in focus during the recent tensions in relations between India and its long-term friend Maldives. Relations between India and Maldives were already going downhill after the Maldives' opposition candidate Mohammed Muizzu triumphed in the recent Maldivian presidential election, winning over voters on a predominantly “India Out” campaign. Muizzu said after his victory that voters had chosen to "win back Maldives' independence." Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent his congratulations, writing on X that "India remains committed to strengthening the time-tested India-Maldives bilateral relationship and enhancing our overall cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region." In the past decades, India had come to the rescue of Maldives on multiple occasions during natural disasters and also saved it from an attempted coup in 1988. 

In such an environment, a pre-planned and unrelated visit to Lakshadweep islands, off India's southern tip, by PM Modi was perceived by some in the Maldives as an attempt to draw tourists away from that archipelago in the Indian Ocean whose economy is heavily dependent on tourism.

 In the wake of immediate developments in the Maldives, as a reaction or pre-planned exercise, three Maldivian ministers, who have been since suspended, made derogatory comments about Modi on social media. The Maldives foreign ministry said the comments – later deleted – were made in a personal capacity and did not represent the official government view.

India on its part summoned the high commissioner of Maldives over the derogatory posts made by the three junior ministers about India and its prime minister and in flat four minutes conveyed its objections. This was the only official reaction to the comments by the Maldivian ministers. 

Social media went gaga over these developments. The mainstream media made hay. A few examples: -

The Guardian. “A row has erupted between India and the Maldives after the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, visited the Indian islands of Lakshadweep to promote tourism.

The BBC wrote “Maldivians debate India’s “boycott” of their Nation”

The NYT headlined: “India and Maldives trade barbs after Modis beach visit.”

None of the reported actions by India was an official reaction but comments by individuals and independent non-government organizations. I am in the USA these days. For those who live in these parts who devour - most read only the headlines - the traditional and digital media, the message comes through distorted, to say the least. The whole narrative of news and commentary that reached a majority of the world population on this issue is false and distorted.

The war of narratives in social media

This growth of interest in the role of communication technologies has afforded more people to participate in discussions of national and international interest. This is a very positive outcome as digital media can act as a harbinger of global connections and a cosmopolitan belonging among societies. This development in the digital space has also facilitated a more discernible form of emotional nationalism very different from any other seen. The wider exposure also spawned greater fragmentation and polarization in diverse societies most vividly evident in democracies, where dissent and varied views on matters are only to be expected. In some cases, it has given rise to a trend furthering the already evident growth of economic and consumer disparities besides societal divides. The cause is not helped by political parties in democracies, which use social media for a direct connection with their constituents. The sole aim of politics in democracies is to cultivate a voter base mainly appealing to their emotions. Political leaders are using digital platforms to influence the sentiments of voters. This indiscriminate use of influence has resulted in the propagation of false information, hate speech, and manipulative content transforming the world of social media into a cauldron of hate and desperation.

 Propaganda or so-called ”psyops” is an age-old phenomenon in diplomacy and warfare to shape opinions and influence outcomes. The creation of strategic narratives is at the core of modern strategic communication strategies in business, politics, and even warfare. The battle of narratives has become the bedrock of international politics, and social media is a powerful tool to fight this battle. The unique characteristic of social media has muddied this approach as it empowers and enables assorted individuals to engage in ways unseen before. The infiltration into this space by inimical elements in society has posed a further challenge to policymakers, diplomats, military leaders, and intelligence agencies struggling to keep pace and adapt.

The adverse influence of uncontrolled social media in the relations between India and Maldives is a case in point. Social media poses an existential threat to the conventional methods of conducting governance, diplomacy, and warfare.  Some feel that technology will help in curbing fakes while others see technology as an aid used by scheming and wicked minds, as fake news preys on some of the deepest and basest instincts of humans. This questions the readiness and capabilities of the human brain to be content with fast-paced advancements in technology. Yet, we have to believe that the human intellect will rise to the occasion and harness technologies to contest the problem of fake media representations.

(The author is an Indian Army veteran and a contemporary affairs commentator. The views are personal. He can be reached at 

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