Does the controversy over Surf Excel reflect a polarised society?
An advertisement for the detergent sparked a boycott campaign on social media.
Surf Excel seems to be in a spot these days. Their advertisement, hoping to cash in on Holi, is in the news for the wrong reason. At the first look, it seems innocuous enough. But take one look at the social media, and it is in the centre of a toxic maelstrom.
The advertisement seems to have opened a pandora’s box, with a lot of hate directed towards a detergent. The hate has reached such proportions that it has spilled over, something Microsoft discovered uncomfortably. Microsoft Excel was mistaken to be Surf Excel and was at the receiving end of abuse and bad reviews, accused of being ‘anti-Hindu’. While this is highly amusing, it is a sad commentary on our society.
In the advertisement, a young girl is seen riding a cycle in a lane, daring everyone to throw colour at her till they run out. After she reaches the end of the street and the colour has run out, she asks a boy dressed in white with a skullcap to come out. She then gives him a ride to the mosque so he can offer namaz.
While the message is of inclusivity and social harmony, Twitter users who espouse a right wing saffron world view lashed out, accusing the advertisement of ‘targeting Hindus’. As is their wont, they quickly made #boycottSurfExcel trend on twitter, drowning out all meaningful attempts of starting a conversation. They also accused it of promoting ‘love jihad’, asking why the girl couldn’t be Muslim and the guy Hindu. The hate campaign, in its frenzy, spilled over the Google Android Play Store. Here, Surf Excel was not available, so MS Excel would have to do. Users gave it bad reviews and some even wrote that MS Excel was “anti-Hindu”.
While this has caused much amusement and mirth, it raises a larger and disturbing question. Is Indian society so completely polarised that an advertisement can expose fault lines? If so, these are dangerous times with national elections due to start in April. If these divisions are so out in the open, they can be exploited at a terrible cost just for electoral dividends. There is a precedent of using communal tensions for electoral gains. The current ruling dispensation has been accused of it time and again.
However, another question needs to be asked here. Is the outrage around the Surf Excel advertisement real or is it manufactured? According to a Twitter account which goes by the name Elliot Alderson, the outrage was manufactured. According to an analysis by Alderson, #boycottSurfExcel and #SurfExcel were used by the IT cell of the BJP as a “weapon of disinformation”. After capturing a number of tweets related to this, the Twitter user found that of the six accounts most involved in tweeting these accounts, four were dedicated promoters of pro-BJP posts. At their maximum reach, they were responsible for 10 per cent of tweets. The detailed analysis has been posted on the Twitter Account in a series of tweets.
On the Twitter page, Alderson claims to be a French security researcher. The researcher is known for exposing Aadhaar leaks.
Even if the analysis is correct, it is disturbing. This would mean that there is a concerted attempt to polarise society before elections. This would be the first of many attempts that would be required to keep society polarised over seven phases of elections, from April 11 to May 19. While a certain dispensation may benefit electorally from these attempts, in the long run it may damage the syncretic fabric of our society on which this nation rests.