To what extent do narratives – often shaped by media – shape or escalate social, political or economic tensions in a short time period? A timely question worth asking and investigating, especially in context to the chain of events over the last few weeks, since the Indian Armed Forces made “a pre-emptive military strike” in Pakistan, triggering tensions between India and Pakistan at the border.

All this happened amidst a ceaseless display of slogan shouting by a few war-mongering dolts across social media handles and in television news studios. Mita Santra, wife of a slain Indian soldier, was trolled online for questioning the Indian failure to prevent the Pulwama attack, when she advocated for a peaceful dialogue with Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir issue.

The 24/7 televised display of “Armchair Jingoism”, as reported by Foreign Policy magazine, seemed to dangerously echo misplaced ideas about glories of war and battle amongst a generation of Indians, with little or no experience of witnessing/experiencing a war or a conflict-zone. Hashtags like #AvengePulwama and #SurgicalStrike2 dominated social media handles for days.

Amidst war-crazy media narratives, the Prime Minster and his own party left no stone unturned in giving fuel to such war-drumming sounds, labelling any temperate voices (on the subject) as “anti-nationals”. The sequence of these events and the current scenario makes one even more curious to understand the degree to which contagious media narratives play a role in triggering hyper-nationalistic, (often more masculinised) sentiments of chest-thumping amongst citizen-groups (and perhaps the government too).

Contagious media narratives

It is widely known how ingeniously publicised, popular media narratives – stories or news of particular interest to human emotion, have a tendency to significantly affect human behaviour in a short span of time. In economic history, there is enough evidence indicating how at times of a downturn in economic activity: projections of economic recessions are enhanced, leading to citizens spending less, or in reducing their aggregate demand, culminating in an actual recession. Stock market crashes witness such effects of herd-behaviour, as part of speculation and rumours, all the time.

Recent years further show how narratives floating around the electoral rise of Trump (Making America Great Again) and Brexit (Leaving the EU) are classic demonstrations of how media’s own visible hand (in controlling narratives) pushed individuals and groups to respond to hyper-nationalistic sentiments and subsequently changed their economic, social behaviour in a relatively short span of time.

For Brexit, a narrative-sensitive analysis, done by European think tank Bruegel, showed how citizen groups got mobilised for Britain leaving the EU – around the contagious spread of two narratives: a) immigration, surfacing from discussions around the refugee crisis that started grabbing public attention since 2015; b) once the pro-Brexit momentum gained attention, social media played a key role in beating all odds to keep the momentum afloat.

These qualify as cases of contagious narratives – having a contagion element present in a rhetorical tone to make them go viral and then change people’s values, beliefs over a short span of time.

Manipulating Identities

The more troubling aspect of contagious narratives is how they tend to manipulate an individual or group’s own perception about her/his (/their) own identity. In our own case, an aggressive media push to invoke one’s national identity somehow is attempting to underwrite other notions of identity (particularly those with a more global humanist shade). Mahatma Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar and Rabindranath Tagore respectively, saw a need to cultivate a national sense of identity to help one extend her/his self to the world with a set of core principles that citizens across the world may want to follow (or learn). Now, for some, it has become convenient to invoke a hyper-nationalistic sense of identity when there is tension at the border, but the exercise becomes less important, while deliberating other critical issues (say, lack of development, socio-economic opportunities, gender inequality), which are otherwise vital in cultivating one’s national identity.

As economists George Akerlof and Rachel E. Kranton argue, contagion (narrative) is deeply related with issues of identity, since a dynamic part of most narratives – describing past events involving people, fails people to imagine themselves as another group, or momentarily feel a shared sense of identity with someone else. Therefore, as some kind of causative innovations, contagious media narratives play a critical role in manipulating individual or group identities, while rapidly changing one’s own beliefs, perspectives (about themselves and others) in the very short-term.

The media’s quest to account for determinate and known causes to events in an extremely competitive news business environment, often clears a blur between fact and fiction, with serious ethical implications. But this isn’t restricted to India alone.

In case of the United States, where war has been historically seen as a cultural endeavour as much as it is a military undertaking, media narratives played a central role in the former aspect by developing support and directing the war effort. Most American wars had trigger events – the bombardment of Fort Summer, the sinking of the battleship in Maine, the attack on Pearl Harbour, the invasion of Kuwait, however, none of the wars (following these events) occurred in a narrative-vacuum space. Still, as Melvin Dubnick, professor of political science, University of New Hampshire, argues that wars in America are well paved “materially, politically and psychologically” over an extended period of time.

But a question arises here: Why do individuals respond to such contagious narratives the way they do?

One possible way to explain such behaviour, as discussed by economists Ernst Fehr and Simon Gächter, is to see how the human mind seems to have an in-built interest in conspiracies, say, in a tendency to form or shape one’s identity and be loyal to certain beliefs and social preferences that is built around perceived plots of others. Such disposition in narrative psychology, analysed by the American Psychiatric Association, amplifies incidences of brain damage (termed as “paranoid personality disorder”), which reportedly afflicts 2.3% to 4.4% of the U.S. adult population.

In India, studying psycho-social effects of contagious media narratives on behaviour and in triggering government response (to a certain event) remains a fascinating line of inquiry, particularly now, when the age of information technology has offered a cost-effective platform for wider (cheaper) dissemination of information across India (and the globe), in multiple forms of oral, textual and digital mediums.

David Hume once said: “… when any causes beget a particular inclination or passion, at a certain time and among a certain people, though many individuals may escape the contagion, and be ruled by passions peculiar to themselves; yet the multitude will certainly be seized by the common affection, and be governed by it in all their actions..”

Acknowledging the impact of contagious media narratives as major vectors of rapid change in culture, identity or in zeitgeist (as Hume argues), any objective analysis on India’s recent escalated response to Pakistan or vice-versa, shall recognise fermented forms of war-mongering tactics, as a result of the contagious media narratives shaped by the television “Gun patis” of war hysteria.

Views are personal.

Deepanshu Mohan is assistant professor of economics, and director, Centre for New Economics Studies, O.P. Jindal Global University.

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