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Modi's FB townhall: Internet.org PR stunt or hysteria victim?

30-September-2015
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Modi's FB townhall: Internet.org PR stunt or hysteria victim?

The Modi juggernaut continues to roll on. After charming the who’s who of Silicon Valley, the Prime Minister visited the campus of the world’s largest social network for a townhall moderated by Mark Zuckerberg.

It was an event many were looking forward to and Facebook’s public relations team spared no expense or effort; especially flying in people from India as well as across the US to be a part of the audience.

The official reason for the meeting was supposed to be a platform where people could query the prime minister on topics ranging from ‘Make In India’ and ‘Digital India’. Zuckerberg, himself, had earlier expressed interest in learning more about how India planned to improve the digital infrastructure.

However, some were more cynical, especially as controversy over Zuc kerberg’s pet project Internet.org still rage in India. In an interesting move, Facebook announced, just days before the townhall, that Internet.org would now be known as Facebook Basics.

As someone on Twitter pointed out, was there more to the name change?

But are criticisims of the Prime Minister’s participation in the townhall justified? There are those who feel that the entire affair was stage managed to present Facebook in the role of an altruistic organization. But there are also those who feel that the issue is not getting an unbiased representation.

 

Here is one example, of how two issues can be seen from different prisms. Post the townhall Mark Zuckerberg changed his DP to a tricolour tinted one; a feature that was made available to Facebook users later with quite a few going for it thinking it expressed support for the Digital India initiative, something similar to the rainbow coloured LGBT one introduced sometime back.

However, hell broke lose when someone on Reddit posited that there was a hidden agenda and changing the DP would be taken as support for the controversial Internet.org initiative. The poster shared screenshots of the code behind the DP, which had a line—’InternetorgProfilePicture’. Understandably enough it went viral with the critics taking as proof that the entire event was just a way to tricking Indians to pledge their support.

But, a simple understanding of HTML code would have shown that the part mentioning Internetorg was just a descriptor of the image file; nothing more.

The incident shows how uninformed opinions are created and it should worry Facebook that there is still such a mass hysteria about the initiative. By extension, even the Prime Minister and his advisors should take cognizance of the fact that there are many who are still not convinced about the whole initiative and want clear answers.

The Prime Minister, himself, started off with a mention of Internet.org, in which he showed the political eruditeness that he has become known for. ““Facebook's initiative to connect the world will not be only a way to increase its bank balance but will be a means to become the voice and medium for the aspirations of crores of people. I am very appreciative of it in this respect and I thank you for it,” he said; in the same statement expressing support while acknowledging the critics.

The townhall, itself, had all the hallmarks now associated with our Prime Minister’s public speeches—charismatic delivery, patriotic anecdotes, witticisms, optimism-filled predictions about the country’s future, allusions to his humble origins, even a bit of watering of eyes on being asked about his mother by Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg played to the gallery too. Starting off with an anecdote about Steve Jobs advising him to visit a temple in India before deciding on the future of Facebook, he ended with talking about the importance of family, prompting the afore-mentioned tears. He even changed his DP with a tricolor-filled mugshot; a feature now available for all Facebook users. But all the talks about needing “highways and i-ways” still could not sway the cynics and within hours Twitter was filled with critics of Internet.org or Facebook Basics.

Many have, and rightly so, expressed pride after another successful tour of the US, which saw the PM meeting, apart from Mark Zuckerberg, the biggest leaders in the tech industry, including Google’s Sundar Pichai, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and investor/inventor Elon Musk.

Perhaps it is incorrect to mix the two issues as some have pointed. Maybe, the meeting between two of the leading men in their fields does indeed bode well for India’s digital future. However, the PM might do well to realize that the cynics of internet.org have some valid concerns and want answers to them.

Here we bring you some of the reactions on Twitter post yesterday’s townhall:

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