Gaslit on Twitter

Gaslighting is a catch-all term. I understand it as the act of relentlessly bombarding a consumer of information with a large amount of irrelevant statistics and facts to such an extent that the victim can no longer convincingly explain (even to themselves) their fundamental beliefs. There is a lot of talk of “gaslighting” in media environments where there is a single source of news. In India, nightly news shows are a great example. It is also relevant in environments where a news source is seen as biased. The biased news source’ reporting is criticized using a bunch of unrelated facts.

On the 28th and 29th of March 2022, there was a 2-day strike call in India. This news was reported by the New York Times, and crucially, it was included in the “Daily Briefing” newsletter’s Asia edition on 28th March, 20221. I had not heard about the strike. (Not surprising, as I don’t live in India and have been more out of the loop than usual lately.) None of the people I know in India mentioned it to me over the previous weekend. When I read about the strike, I did not think that NYT was reporting a lie. I accepted it as fact and went to a few Indian news websites to read more about the strike. Quickly, I started questioning what was going on and why real people (not “trolls”) were saying absurd things online. I am not the first person to go through this disorienting experience and I won’t be the last. I want to talk about why I felt disoriented, how I battled with this feeling, and how I managed to resolve my disorientation by doing some research.

Part 1: Is It True?

There is nothing quite so humiliating and disempowering as trying to prove the truth. – Masha Gessen on “Why obvious lies make great propaganda”

I started scrounging around the websites of some well-known Indian news websites. I checked the website homepages for NDTV and Times of India. These two did not have any mention of the strike on the homepage. A 2-day strike call across all of India is a big deal. It can potentially shut down the economy completely and significantly affect people’s lives.

(For e.g. Banking and public transport unions had called for a strike. This could have affected anyone who was planning to take a bus to the train station on one of those two days or was planning to withdraw cash from a bank for a crucial purpose such as the purchase of a home or jewelry.2)

This is very newsworthy. Even if these news organizations had information which suggested that the strike’s effects would be limited, this is front page news. Not being able to find the word “strike” on the NDTV homepage is confusing.

After a few minutes of searching around for the terms using a search engine, and specifically the query india strike, I saw that the strike was very much real and happening across India. It was being covered by both the news organization whose home page I had checked; However, the links to these specific pages were not included on the homepage. So, the only way to reach these pages was from an external search engine.

I had confirmed that the strike was indeed happening. To find out more about its immediate effects, I went to Twitter. I was hoping to find some people who were as stunned as me by the (ostensibly deliberate) under-reporting of this story. At the very least, I wanted to find some users complaining about or reporting some of the disruptions caused by the strike. I did not find that.

Part 2: Here’s The Thing About Twitter

Twitter is not very relevant when it comes to learning about what Indians are thinking. Looking at just the raw numbers, it becomes apparent that a very small percentage of the total population is on Twitter.

Statistic Count Percentage of Population
India’s population3 1.40 billion 100%
Number of people on the Internet in India4 624 million 44.5%
Number of people on Twitter5 34 million 2.43%

2.43% need not necessarily be unrepresentative. But clearly, the exclusion of nearly half the population that does not have access to the internet makes the sample of users on Twitter an unrepresentative sample of the population.6

There are some other biases when it comes to the segment of the population that is on Twitter. Namely, they are almost certainly literate and at least partially proficient in English. (This last assumption might not hold true for much longer, as Twitter seems to be branching out into regional languages.) These add up to a good assumption that most people on Twitter are not using public transport daily (either because they can afford taxis, have private transport, or do not need to go anywhere on a daily basis because they are working-from-home) and that they probably never go to brick-and-mortar bank branches, doing most of their banking online. So, their opinions about a strike which would affect these two segments of daily life are of little value.

Nevertheless, I went to Twitter because this is also the only platform where open discussion is possible, except for group chats that one is a part of. These group chats are generally echo chambers and seldom contain opinions that I forcefully disagree with.

On Twitter, I did not find reaffirmations of my belief that this story was being under-reported. Quite the contrary.

It became clear soon enough that a New York Times tweet, one that mentioned the article about the strike in India, had become a flashpoint for all strike-related conversation on Twitter.

A two-day nationwide strike in India, involving both public and private sector workers, has disrupted transport and other services across the country.

Workers are protesting the government’s economic policies, including a privatization plan.

General Strike Throws India Into Confusion

Twitter (March 28, 2022)

Around this tweet, there was much derision targeted at the NYT.7

Really ! When did this happen in my country ? Guys stop googling to write news , be on ground to write news.

– Twitter

There were some attempts at humor. But the meat of the derision clarified the biases of the population that is on Twitter.

Cars on the roads? There can not possibly be a strike of any kind.

Take a look at Kolkata today buddy. Wipe your eyes once again.

– Twitter

Traffic in Kalyan

– Twitter

Offices and shops open? There can not possibly be a strike of any kind.

Business as usual, shops are open, so are offices. Roads are jam-packed with vehicles.

Where is this so called bandh?

– Twitter

Why was I wading through all this? To find some mention of whether public transport and banking services were open, as the strike was targeting only those. One user reported that buses in Mumbai were on the road and plying as usual. This is the kind of useful discussion starter that I was expecting on the platform.

Where is the strike ? My kids went to school and are back . Even my maid came to work by BEST

– Twitter

Most of the tweets were just derisive towards the NYT; some mentioned articles about media biases against Asian and other lower-income countries; or about how the NYT did not have a reporting team in India and did not know what was going on on-the-ground. No one was engaged in any kind of real fact-finding about the strike and whether it was affecting someone else. Indeed, the self-centered-ness of some of these users is quite shocking.

Part 3: What Happened?

Reporting from the strike clarifies its impact. Here’s a catalog of the impacts with the relevant sources.

Banking services were affected nationally.

“As per our reports, in the Southern Grid functioning in Chennai, during our strike yesterday and today, about 6 lakh cheques/instruments worth about INR 5,000 crore could not be sent for clearance as branches did not function due to the strike,” All India Bank Employees Association (AIBEA) general secretary CH Venkatachalam said.

At the national level, about 20 lakh cheques worth about INR 18,000 crore could not be cleared, he claimed8.

The informal sector and small-scale industries were not impacted.

However, the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) said the strike called by a joint forum of trade unions has been a “total flop” in the informal sector.

In a statement, it also claimed there was no impact visible even in various industrial areas where small industries are having manufacturing activities9.

Kerala, a Southern state in India, seems to have been worst affected. This is not surprising; decades of CPI(M) rule in Kerala have created strong trade unions in the state. The same is true in West Bengal, where the Left Front was in power for 35 consecutive years between 1977 and 2011. (There is a common joke about West Bengal and strikes.)

State-run KSRTC buses did not operate while taxis, auto-rickshaws and private buses kept away from the roads across the state. Commercial vehicles including trucks and lorries are also not running expressing solidarity with the strike.

However, the essential services including milk, newspapers, hospitals, ambulances were not affected.10

Participation seems to have been significantly lower than the expected 200 million formal and informal workers that the unions were expecting.

Amarjeet Kaur, All Indian Trade Union Congress General Secretary, told PTI that they are expecting participation of over 20 crore formal and informal workers with mass mobilisation of workers across the country.11

Here’s what happened: A bunch of trade unions issued a strike notice to nearly 200 million workers across India. This notice was reported upon by various news organizations within and outside India. This reporting did not have any unusual bias in favor or against India. The strike notice was not as effective as the unions initially expected. The strike’s impact was felt by a segment of the population, especially those in the states where unions are strong and the history of strikes is long. However, the people online who were sharing their opinion and experiences on Twitter were mostly unaffected by the strike. This lead to a belief that there was no strike and that reporting was reflecting the foreign media’s anti-India bias. These people did not take any effort to confirm whether the anecdotal evidence they had at hand was representative of other population segments. Once people started railing on NYT, Twitter became an echo chamber where no other opinion could break through. Once this pattern took hold, the story was no longer “Strike notice not as effective as unions initially predicted.” It became: “NYT blows strike in India out of proportion.”

  1. I could not find the number of users who read this briefing. 

  2. India’s ATM withdrawal rules are strict and do not allow withdrawals of more than Rs. 25,000 per day. 

  3. India Population (Live) (Extrapolated from UN data) (Worldometers) 

  4. Internet usage in India (Statista) 

  5. Number of Twitter users in India from 2013 to 2019 (Statista) 

  6. By comparison, in the US, 68 million people are on Twitter (20.5% of the population) and in Japan, 26 million people are estimated to be on Twitter (20.8% of the population). 

  7. Going forward, I mention the text of a few tweets. However, I have decided not to publish the links to these tweets in this blog post. 

  8. Banking Services Impacted On Second Day Of Nationwide Strike 

  9. Nationwide Strike Hits Banking Operations, Transport Services 

  10. Two-Day Strike Affects Normal Life in Kerala 

  11. Trade Unions Call For Bharat Bandh Today, Tomorrow: Your 10-Point Guide