Digital form of mobocracy on the rise: Why is it harmful to democracy?

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Prasun Sangroula

  • Read Time 3 min.

Kathmandu: After KP Sharma Oli was ousted from the post of prime minister two weeks ago, supporters belonging to his faction of CPN-UML have taken to the streets and the internet in display of force. They have revived the party’s youth wing, Youth Force. They burned the effigies of Madhav Kumar Nepal, whose faction voted for Sher Bahadur Deuba in a floor test in parliament, and protested by wearing monkey masks. They have been staging frequent bike rallies and lately, an “IT Army”, which aims to “counter misinformation” against KP Oli on the internet, was formed, under the leadership of Prabhu Shah.

The formation of the so-called IT Army was announced at a function in Bhaktapur on July 20.

“The government can spread misinformation among the public through information technology,” reads the newly-formed body’s manifesto. “The IT Army is formed to counter those misinformations.”

The other motives of IT army, according to its manifesto, include the end of corruption, maladministration, political chaos, and all types of oppression and discrimination. The IT army will be in operation across all the spheres–local, provincial and federal levels.

Prior to this, the UML had formed a “Cyber Sena”, under the leadership of Mahesh Basnet, in-charge of National Youth Federation Nepal, a youth wing of the party. The body was formed “to tackle criticisms” against the Oli-led government.

Political analysts argue that these cyber forces are used as a medium to show that the Oli faction is still powerful, despite Oli’s disgraceful exit from the government.

“In politics, when someone feels powerless due to a lack of public support, they look to other alternatives,” Krishna Khanal, a professor of Political Science at Tribhuvan University, said. “IT Army and Cyber Sena are its examples. This is also one of the ways to mobilize cadres.”

With such organizations, Khanal added, they are also desperately trying to prove that their every deed is right and ethical.

“Such practices can’t stay for long,” Khanal went on. “Earlier too, CPN Maoist had YCL but it could not work effectively and was terminated (revived on March 18). Sooner or later, these organizations will also turn out to be futile, if not outrightly detrimental to the country’s democratic health.”

Political analysts argue that these cyber forces are used as a medium to show that the Oli faction is still powerful, despite Oli’s disgraceful exit from the government.

Security researcher Narayan Adhikari also condemns the formation of forces like the IT Army and Cyber Sena. He also expressed his displeasure with the “misuse of the word ‘army’ in the name of sister wings of a political party”.

“There is only one army in Nepal and that is the Nepal army,” said Adhikari. 

“It is an unethical act by political parties to form a sister organization with the word ‘army’ because the word can create confusion among the people whether it is associated with the national army.” 

UML leader Prabhu Shah speaks at the launch of “IT Army” which aims to “counter misinformation” against KP Oli on the internet.

Cyber security challenges are increasing every day and in times like these when political parties create organizations like cyber armies, it can create terror among the masses, Adhikari said, adding that so-called cyber sena can be used to assassinate the character of political opponents, further raising the risks of cyber crime.

“This also poses a great threat to the rule of law in Nepal,” said Adhikari.

Analysts have argued that these bodies mirror the tendencies of leaders across the world with authoritarian tendencies. In India, the ruling BJP’s “IT Cell” is criticized for spreading disinformation and misinformation. Meanwhile, after Donald Trump was charged for inciting his far-right base into violence and was subsequently restricted from using Twitter, he went on to found his own social media platform.

While forces like the IT Army claim that they want to counter misinformation, their actions tend to be just negative, as the case from India illustrates. Instead, they spread fake news and disinformation themselves, argue the analysts contacted for this piece. Moreover, they also play a role in defaming people with different ideologies and compel the critics to lower their voices.

“The formation of these bodies also seems to be very illogical, their motive is yet unclear, as to for what and whom they are doing it,” Khanal said. “In a democratic nation, acts like these must be discouraged.”

It should be noted that youth wings likeYoung Communist Leagues (YCL) and Youth Force (YF) lost their credibility after they started to verbally, even physically in some cases, attack their political opponents.

The IT Army and Cyber Sena look bent on defending and justifying every act of their political leaders while deliberately spreading misinformation, disinformation, causing deliberate harm to the reputation of opponent leaders, ultimately posing threats to democracy itself, according to the experts.