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The Social Republic: The Soft power of India’s Digital Media Space


23rd June, 2021

Written by Kuber Bathla
Illustrated by Suryansh Srivastava

In the past few years, millions of people have built and grown their businesses on social media platforms, adding to the breed of ‘local businesses’. Some of my friends benefited from this boom too, with one of them establishing herself as the best bakery in town, while another one has been delivering pieces of art to happy customers for almost a year now. The rise of such businesses has been phenomenal, and has penetrated almost every economic sector. 


A sharp rise in the number of social media users in India enabled such businesses to flourish,  as internet access became cheaper and many companies began to enter the smartphone market. From 295.3 million users in 2016, the number stood at 574 million at the end of 2019, which is more than the entire population of the United States. As a result, the centre of global attention is shifting towards India, with the potential to make billions by targeting a single population. 


While social media has fuelled the businesses of large companies by a huge margin, it has also provided necessary support to local businesses run by people living in remote areas. Social media, quite literally, has taken the world by storm, from being the centre of communication for all brands alike to being a dimension run under the rules of a Panopticon, giving permanent visibility of everything to everyone in the world. 

A multi-billion-dollar industry with the potential to grow bigger, digital marketing has propelled some brands and ideas to success and drowned the others who could not catch up. For instance, famous dine-ins of London which failed to embrace food-delivery apps faced serious losses during the lockdown. In India too, digital marketing has gone a long way to help in blooming local businesses and established brands alike. 


But the Indian social media market has become even more important now, with a rapidly rising number of users and people from the outside eyeing it for long-term profits. With a large youth population, Indian social media demographics are a delight for any digital marketing professional. On top of that, our penchant to engage with the west -- driven by a belief that they are superior -- invites active engagement from them.  


In the 20th century, cricket teams from countries like Australia and England would regularly refuse to tour India, seeing it as a bizarre nation filled with a billion people. Fast-forward to 2021, you have Kevin Pietersen, former captain and one of England’s best batters, tweeting in Hindi to deliberately engage with the Indian audience. Chloe-Amanda Bailey, an Australian commentator, has her entire social media audience based in India, and her tweets testify this quite well. Even on the rare occasions when she tweets about her own country’s team, she does it with an Indian flavour

This phenomenon is not limited to cricket. Creators like Amanda Cerny hopped onto the bandwagon long ago, and other artists too have added some Indian content to the mix, to engage with India’s active social media youth. Clearly, such creators and celebrities see a lot of value in engaging with the Indian audience, not just because of higher levels of engagement, but the possibility of making healthy profits from Indian markets. And even though such people claim that they love India and Indians, it is hard to believe the same. 


But does this mean that Indians collectively hold more ‘soft power’ now, given that social media has become a dimension of life in itself? A reason why such celebrities have successfully been able to engage with Indian social media users might simply be India’s obsession of getting validated by people from the global north. Whether it is Indian streets or social media spaces, we have a tendency to huddle around the unknown – the white, the ingloriously charming, the colonizers of the past. Their success, in the end, might just be a result of a colonial hangover and a lingering obsession with all things west (streets of Kolkata, I am looking at you!). 

Perhaps our perception of such personalities might have changed or might change in the future. Satviki Sanjay, a student journalist and an avid social media user, thinks about this phenomenon in two ways. “Wherever there is a large group on the internet with common interests, there will be collective engagement with a certain kind of kind. However, being a larger and more collectivised entity, the power is always in the hands of the group rather than such creators.” In the context of India, however, she says, “While western influencers get engagement from India due to our obsession with a foreign race and our colonial hangover, a lot of influencers do not target Indians as they see no longevity in the same. Until such creators engage with a particular niche of Indians, they do not have longevity as people eventually recognise that they are being baited.” 


What Satviki says at the end is particularly important to understand the growing soft power of Indian social media – that people eventually recognise that they are being chased for clout alone and that there is no benefit for them in this engagement. If Chloe-Amanda continues to talk about Indians on Twitter but people see no benefit in engaging with her, she might start losing followers soon. However, it is imperative to note that this recognition and withdrawal are contingent upon people’s perception of these personalities – when the Indian audience begins to perceive them as ordinary content creators and not a representation of the elite, the content that they create becomes the most important thing. 


The Soft Power 30 index does not include India in its rankings of 30 nations with the highest soft power. Digital Media might not push India into an index like this, but it will definitely improve business outcomes for the country at large. With millions of creators of our own, the humongous Indian audience has to assume importance and support the personalities and brands which truly care about them. Race superiority and colonial hangover need to take a backseat in Indian social media circles, and for that matter, everywhere else too. With half a billion active users on the internet, there is no country more powerful than India on social media.