Narrating the Narrative
Written by Varun Modi
Let me review the Bollywood blockbuster ‘Sholay’ for you.
Sholay is a classic Bollywood movie that tells the story of the unparalleled friendship between Jai and Veeru, the two main characters. The film beautifully conveys that no matter how strong your opponent might be, one may still be victorious by bravely facing them. It highlights the possibility that if given a chance, even criminals like the two friends can choose to fight for a good cause and even sacrifice their lives.
Let me review the Bollywood blockbuster ‘Sholay’ for you again!
Sholay perfectly portrays the incompetent Indian Law Enforcement system that has repeatedly failed and continues to fail in bringing criminals like Gabbar Singh to justice. It also exposes the deep-rooted corruption and disregard for procedures in the ranks of the police. Sholay is nothing but a shameless endorsement of violence to deal with issues that should have been resolved by the system meant to deal with them.
You must’ve seen such contrasting reviews after the release of each film. What do you think is the difference between both reviews?
Of course, both talk about the same movie, but they present the movie's storyline in two very different ways, and the review that wins the popularity contest defines the narrative. If the first review becomes widespread, it will make Sholay a typical Bollywood film with a good star rating, high box office collection, and a must-watch tag on social media platforms. But what if the second review gains more popularity? For starters, people will start highlighting the widespread corruption in the country’s law enforcement system, blaming the government for its failure. #stopcorruption will trend on Twitter, activists pop up from within and outside the country demanding refinement of the law enforcement, and Sholay becomes the “Controversy of the Month.”
What you read above was an example of narrative warfare. Don’t confuse it with information warfare. They are not the same. While information warfare pertains to facts and data, narrative warfare is based on the interpretation and careful selection of the available information. The whole point of narratives is to make the common masses agree with your interpretation of the situation and not your adversaries’. One may deliberately hide some details or display only the ones carefully curated to achieve this. Another critical factor associated with narrative warfare is the medium of communication. In modern times, the most extensively used medium of communication in propagating narratives is ‘Social Media.’ Narratives have moved the masses numerous times, and with the ever-increasing reach of social media, they will continue to do so.
Speaking of social media brings ‘Big Tech’ into the picture. With 3.6 billion users, approximately half the world’s population is active on social media today. Internet celebrities and politicians who might not have the required awareness on the issue often comment on these. They tend to garner popularity while standing on the shoulders of sympathy. Their widespread fan following is quick to believe whatever they say without checking the facts. Remember how farmers protesting on the borders of the national capital took over the Red Fort on 26th January 2021, turning the day of national pride into a day of national shame, and the CAA/NRC protests that caused the Delhi Riots in February 2020 and embarrassed the country in front of the President of the United States.
Indeed, India has taken steps to curb the hostile narratives by introducing changes to its IT policy, but that’s not all. Deleting accounts and tweets is not even an atom of narrative warfare. Being able to dictate the narrative is a skill that is now a must with modern warfare techniques where narratives are manipulated minute by minute and post by post. To control the narrative, one must master the skill of putting out the content rather than controlling the one that is already in circulation. One section of society has been putting out content for a long time—the Media.
Narratives are manipulated even on words. This is no English lesson, but have you ever thought about the words ‘militant’ and ‘terrorist’? Most of us use these terms synonymously, but they are very different. Militant refers to a person who uses aggressive tactics to fight for something he believes in. On the other hand, a terrorist uses violence, especially against civilians, to spread fear. Most western media outlets refer to the violence in Kashmir and the northeast part of our country as militancy, disregarding hundreds of civilian casualties that occur each year in the affected areas.
“Gun battle erupts in Indian Kashmir, one militant dead,” published by Reuters on Dec. 14, 2021.
“Indian Army Attacks Militant Camps in Myanmar,” published by The Wall Street Journal on June 10, 2015.
“Abused by Soldiers and Militants, Kashmiris Face Dangers in Daily Life,” published by the New York Times on Sept. 15, 2019.
These actions of the western media outlets prove that they see a cause behind the instability in these regions and not acts of terror aimed at the submission of the people due to fear. The question arises: Are these headlines worded in the same manner when it comes to their home state? Simple answer: No, they aren’t. The very first thing that changes is MILITANTS become TERRORISTS. The U.S. Armed Forces never ATTACK a militant, excuse me, terrorist camp. They NEUTRALISE it. And the U.S. Army is portrayed as the one and the only guardian of the people's freedom in the world.
With its growing economy and military might, India needs to urgently develop and implement counter-narrative techniques to push its agenda to the people and governments in different parts of the world and gather their support. Indian media outlets need to realize their role in spreading the country’s message and take serious steps. While India has begun regulating the ‘Big Tech,’ it also needs to promote its homegrown platforms like Koo and ShareChat to a point where they can compete with the ‘Big Tech’ and take India’s voice to the people abroad. The golden rule of narratives is that the most popular one triumphs. To be successful in the ever-going narrative war, India needs to make its voice audible.