The message is the medium
Historians have pointed out that the reason for Nepal’s political dysfunction is that although it is South Asia’s oldest nation state, it is also the newest to open up to the world.
Another upheaval of similar magnitude is now buffeting Nepal with the rapid spread of information technology. This revolution is happening at lightning speed, much faster than changes since 1950.
And once again, Nepalis are having to adapt to a hyper-real world of social media platforms, viral videos, disinformation and an alternate universe of premeditated fakery.
At the beginning of the pandemic, there were about 8 million Nepalis with Facebook accounts. Today, the figure is said to be close to 12 million. There are millions more posting videos on TikTok. Thousands of YouTube channels with sensational graphics vie for audience and Adsense revenue. Twitter trails, but has a following among opinion-makers and shakers. It is the preferred medium for political influencers and the media, and this amplifies its impact.
The content on these platforms rides the spread of mobile telephony. Nearly all Nepali households now own at least one handheld device, and 60% of them now are smart-phones. The number of mobile cellular subscribers is now 43 million – more than the country’s total population.
As Internet speed increases and cellular towers bring more parts of the country under at least 3G coverage, we can expect to see an even greater consumption of social media platforms – especially video-based content like YouTube and TikTok.
The fact that 15% of Nepalis work, study or live abroad means that connectivity has allowed them to stay in close touch – a fact that was of vital importance during the pandemic.
Most online content can be classified as ‘entertainment’, but it is also ‘politics as entertainment’ with Nepal’s parties jostle for power.
This migration of eyeballs from the 'mainstream' to digital media is having a profound impact on how Nepalis connect with each other. The influence of the legacy media in agenda-setting is now replaced by non-journalistic content providers.
This has transformed how Nepalis access information, in how they communicate with each other, how society functions, and ultimately in how Nepal is governed.
These media trends are not unique to Nepal. The reach of Big Tech globally has transformed the relationship between rulers and the ruled. Journalism has gone from vertical to horizontal.
But it has also warped the democratic process as disinformation and the propagators of ‘alternative truths’ manipulate the medium to stoke populism and intolerance.
We have seen increasing evidence of what this means for news consumption. The filtering function of journalism is bypassed so that raw, unverified, deliberate disinformation sways public opinion. Algorithms allow biases to be reinforced in echo chambers with increasingly radical content.
It is not all negative. Internet activism has shown that it is a powerful medium to mobilise support for causes like caste- and gender-based violence, citizenship issues, and for making national heroes out of high achievers like Kulman Ghising, Sanduk Ruit or Mahavir Pun.
But, as the organised disinformation campaign against the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) shows, it can also be an effective way to interfere in the political process, whip up populist hyper-nationalism, stifle rational voices and undermine economic progress.
The preponderance of fake news about the Americans planning to build military bases in Nepal has polarised politics and society, even dividing families, friends and colleagues.
With elections around the corner, this phenomenon of demonising political opponents through abuse of social media will have far-reaching consequences for our democracy. If countries with a long history of democracy and free press can have both so easily undermined, we in Nepal need to be on alert against such threats to our hard-won freedoms.
Umesh Shrestha, editor of Nepal Fact Check tells us: "Media literacy has not kept pace with the spread of the Internet. People think the falsehoods on YouTube and TikTok videos are legitimate news, and it forms public opinion."
Shrestha adds, "This increases responsibility for journalists. Just like when experts and the mass media helped quash rumours about Covid-19."
Disillusionment against Nepal’s established parties and distrust of politicians is at an all time high. They deserve it, but we cannot let that translate into disenchantment with the democratic process itself.
Nepalis value democracy and harmony. We have pulled back from the brink many times before. It is time for the silent majority to speak up and drown out the fake and phoney in the cybersphere.
Read also: The Alchemy of Angst, Elif Shafak