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Veteran actor Kamal Haasan said in an interview to this writer soon after the launch of his political party, Makkal Needhi Maiaim, that he planned to use Big Boss as a vehicle of political communication. He was responding to a question whether it is possible to do the sort of political messaging that former Chief Minister M.G.Ramachandran (MGR) pulled off with films, scoring a point for his AIADMK over the rival DMK.
“The reason I took up Big Boss is not to make money – I wanted communication. I will again do that if it is useful,” Kamal Haasan said then, in the interview published in The Hindu in 2018.
Today, Chennai, and much of Tamil Nadu, is watching the future of the annual monsoon with growing alarm. The focus is on an upwelling of citizen messaging using social media, while political parties, individual politicians and their IT cells are beaming down a range of messages in an effort to control the narrative.
Once again, the medium is the message to communicate the disaster with all its trauma, true to the media philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s prediction decades ago, and compel an official response. Tagging the rulers, bureaucrats, elected representatives and departments, and hashtagging key trends is now firmly mainstream. If governments are diligent, they can learn about what matters in real time.
Chief Minister M.K. Stalin has been maintaining a steady flow of SMS messages, videos and photos through monsoon 2021, showing him wading through flood waters in core Chennai and peripheral areas, in distant districts, often ceremonially giving away food and essential articles. A raincoat-clad Kamal Haasan is also seen similarly wading across, gumboot-shod, listening to people. He then travelled abroad, between rain spells, contracted COVID and went out of action for a few days. The local body polls, when they are held, will see a resurgence of such an outreach.
“The reason I took up Big Boss is not to make money – I wanted communication. I will again do that if it is useful,” Kamal Haasan said then, in the interview published in The Hindu in 2018
The camp opposed to the DMK, strongly rooting for the BJP, also floated its own boats on flooded streets to run down the official response. The AIADMK and its leaders Edappadi Palaniswamy and O Paneerselvam spun the narrative of the DMK regime failing to read the signals from weather forecasts accurately and causing the flood, although public sympathy after ten years of AIADMK rule was clearly in the opposite direction.
In the great deluge of 2015, Facebook had already come of age, while it took just a while longer for government, IAS and IPS officers and civic bodies to fully take the plunge on social media, mostly preferring Twitter. Social media, according to the Our World In Data project, covered 2.26 billion users on Facebook, 1.9 billion on YouTube, 1.33 billion on WhatsApp, one billion on Instagram and 329.5 million on Twitter in 2018. The use evidently has risen sharply during COVID-19.
The 2021 flood in Tamil Nadu and some districts of neighbouring States like Andhra Pradesh is only a precursor to regular boom cycles of intense rain in coming years, possibly with shorter intervals between seasons. And disasters will be broadcast in real time.
The specialists arrive
What sets apart the internet focus in the current year is the widespread use of scientific data to explain what is in store. Besides the official weather bulletins put out by the India Meteorological Department (IMD), Pradeep John, more familiar as the Tamil Nadu Weatherman, with 405,000 followers was followed avidly by flood-weary citizens on both Twitter and Facebook, while Raj Bhagat P, a remote sensing specialist, added a new dimension to flood interpretation using satellite imagery. With some careful study of flooded basins, it should be possible to see which areas of Chennai are the worst off, and avoid buying houses in these, besides preparing for future crises.
Social media led the other mainstream media forums. Raj Bhagat’s satellite images and analysis formed the basis for full-page coverage of why Chennai floods with rain a day later.
Raj Bhagat’s satellite images and analysis formed the basis for full-page coverage of why Chennai floods with rain a day later
But in the Network Society – as the sociologist Manuel Castells frames the Internet age – the big transition is the shift of real-time communications to the citizen. On Twitter, the medium that politicians like Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister M.K. Stalin seem to prefer the most (and have verified contributors unlike WhatsApp) there are sudden trend groundswells when a natural disaster peaks.
Evidently, this also skews attention in favour of highly networked and articulate urban communities. On the other hand, local city groups on Facebook have achieved stronger collaboration than in 2015, sharing information on the impact, and resources on services available – just look for the West Mambalam residents’ page on Facebook as an example.
There were sporadic rain havoc videos from Chennai localities as diverse as upscale Alwarpet – Seethamma Colony to middle class K.K. Nagar and West Mambalam. Residents of Padur in the IT corridor on Old Mahabalipuram Road hashtagged Stalin after their gated homes located in Chengalpattu were marooned by waters from overflowing reservoirs. Obviously, when real estate companies put out glossy advertisements of overpriced gated communities extending into the suburbs up to Sholinganallur, there is no hint of boats or lorries needed to reach OMR during monsoon.
A hashtagged universe
So what does this hashtagged universe portend for the future? One study of the 2015 Chennai flood by Meera R. Nair and colleagues showed that the majority of tweets during the peak disaster were in the category of Need for Help and Relief, and when waters receded, moved to expression of gratitude, complaints and others. Another study based on Twitter for a Great Lakes Institute of Management capstone project concluded that the National Disaster Response Force and the State unit should develop analytical capabilities to interpret social media, and extend their reach effectively.
Looking at the availability of several analytical tools to study disaster communication, based on hashtags, for example, governments can write their own programs to analyse future communications and intervene. This also makes it possible for official agencies to contribute to information analysis in real time. Official participation will also overcome the digital divide and reporting bias. Moreover, with more relaxed drone rules now, it should be possible to add an aerial visual dimension after an event, showing the worst-affected areas.
MGR delivered powerful dialogues and used songs to hit at his political opponents. Today, political communication must contend with a real-time citizen pushback during disasters on social media. Whether or not Kamal’s Big Boss or an Aamir Khan-inspired celebrity Satyameva Jayate type of programme in Tamil Nadu produces impact, citizen-led media will force the pace of change.
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