Paresh Rawal’s controversial tweet saying, “Instead of tying stone pelter on the army jeep tie Arundhati Roy” raises important questions about the role of social media in public life. The sequence of events leading to the tweet throws lights on the extent to which the fake news ecosystem intersects with mainstream media and influential public figures. Expressions of moral outrage at Rawal’s presumed ignorance (or innocence, as some would insist) is easy. What is more difficult, and necessary, is taking stock of our immersion in what a prominent academic called the “networks of outrage” and the larger contexts in which such networks thrive.
Paresh Rawal has a modest but respectable 262,000 followers on Twitter where the unit for measuring those seriously famous is a million followers (or even a dozen million: Indian Prime Minister has over 30 million followers and Amitabh Bachchan 26.9 million). Rawal’s tweets typically include a combination of gracious acceptance of his fans’ greetings, links highlighting the Prime Minister’s latest achievements, praise to nationalist icons dear to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the odd blessing to younger admirers, or their children. These are routinely interspersed with his comments (or responses to followers’ tweets) attacking Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), and other political opponents of the BJP. He also participates in Twitter exchanges in which assorted enemies of the state, including the news media company NDTV and individual Indian nationals, are named and shamed for their presumed loyalty to Pakistan.
No one spreading the reports of Roy’s interview, or reacting with outrage to it, bothered to verify the news
It is the last category of exchanges to which Rawal’s tweet on Arundhati Roy belongs. As is well-known by now, the tweet was triggered by a fake news report claiming that the writer-activist had given an interview valorising Kashmiri separatists. The false report in question had several news websites repeating the claim without verification and television anchors going one step further by expressing outrage at Roy’s anti-nationalism. The nation wanted to know why her passport wasn’t revoked, and so on.
This entire flash media storm is regrettable on many counts. For starters, no one spreading the reports of Roy’s interview, or reacting with outrage to it, bothered to verify the news. The story has now been traced to a report in the Times of Islamabad, and other media outlets in Pakistan who in turn had not verified their sources. These stories were picked up, among others, by a dubious Indian news website Post Card but also the television channel Republic TV. Paresh Rawal’s most likely source was a link to the report in Post Card shared on a Facebook page titled The Nationalist. Rawal can derive some comfort from the fact that no one is accusing him of making up the story.
No doubt, Rawal’s online conduct was hasty and in poor taste. But that is the least of the problems. His tweet on tying Roy to an army jeep as a human shield has the potential to cause the government some embarrassment in international forums. After all, he represents the BJP in parliament. Further, as some commentators have noted, the incident he was referring to is under investigation by the army.
Perhaps sensing trouble, BJP sought to distance itself from the tweet with Smriti Irani saying that the party does not support violent messages by anyone. On the face of it, it would appear that the party had indirectly reprimanded Paresh Rawal for his faux paus. In fact, Rawal was silent for a few days after his Tweet and was also reported to have deleted it. This was about as close as we could have got to a happy ending to this saga.
For someone who overreacted to a fake news report, Paresh Rawal does not seem embarrassed at all
However, this is the season of sequels. Paresh Rawal proved to be anything but repentant. He resurfaced in the media with a letter to his supporters stating that he was “coerced” by Twitter to delete his tweet. Curiously, for someone who overreacted to a fake news report, Paresh Rawal does not seem embarrassed at all. How do we understand his response and also that of his supporters—including a few film personalities—who insist that he is the offended party here?
For starters, we should not be surprised. Rawal is only following the example set by no less a politician than the President of the most powerful nation on earth. President Donald Trump has been uncivil, offensive and belligerent on social media before and after his election. That’s not all. He is known to rely on dubious sources known for creating fake news for his “information.” After his election, investigative reporters revealed that several of his offensive and racist tweets during the presidential campaign were made with a view to pandering to the preferences and prejudices of certain constituencies. Trump’s tweets were aimed at giving those constituencies what they wanted to hear and he couldn’t care less for the views of those who were not going to vote for him anyway.
Back home, what we are witnessing is the increasingly cosy relationship between media producers who specialise in news that people want to hear (regardless of its truth content), mainstream media houses which whip up controversies and public figures who willingly suspend disbelief when pet themes and enemies are involved. And Arundhati Roy is an old frenemy of the BJP’s supporters. She is a convenient peg to hang anything that enemies of the party are likely to say. The issue is one of plausibility (could she have said something like that?), not whether or not she actually said it. It is against this backdrop that the Paresh Rawal drama played out.
Although some people might be under the impression that the actor has made a fool of himself, there is no denying that this is a big moment for him. It is unlikely that he’s ever been as famous as he is now. At the time of writing this piece (late morning of 25th May), Paresh Rawal was the most trending topic on Facebook. Between 24th and 25th May, he acquired 3000 new followers on Twitter. Now, why on earth would he regret being where he is?