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Hashtag #StingOp: Truth, Low-Resolution and Post Social-Media Transparency

In this post, Shaunak Sen, one of the researchers who received the Social Media Research grant for 2014, introduces his proposed work.


On the morning of 21st march 2001, as the images made visible by Operation Westend raged across media platforms, a new template of what images  of ‘truth’ looked like was inaugurated. The low angle, low-resolution, fuzzy, barely audible images of Bangaru Laxman, Jaya Jaitley and  a set of ministers/bureaucrats made visible an oft speculated but hitherto ulteriorized zone in  Indian politics, thereby shaping definitively a particular video aesthetic that was to be associated with truth and transparency for the years to come. William Mazzarella connected the moment to the simultaneous rise of various digital infrastructures around information revelation/dispensation in India (e-governance, the struggle to introduce the RTI bill etc) and traced its proclivity towards a global discourse around the real that had just about begun taking shape at the time [1]. But the narrative around Tehelka.com as the unimpeachable X-Ray like weapon to visiblize the myriad opaque wrongdoings behind official corridors was only a fleeting one [2]. The sting as a form of journalistic exposition became increasingly popular in the following years, as hoards of TV channels clamoured cheek by jowl with their own exclusive breaking stings. As innumerable ‘honey-traps’, cash-traps, stage-traps etc  staked claims at snowballing into veritable media events, a whole new scopic regime of the real (in this case mostly collapsible with a moral axes of ‘the truth’) began to get cemented.

This project begins by considering  the various (ever-mutating) physiognomies that have been deployed for the manufacturing of these video documents. It sketches the techno-material history of the production of the sting – from the changing optical devices used beginning with the large camcorders concealed in satchels used during earlier stings like Operation Westend, Gujarat riot stings etc. right up to the latest high-resolution spy-cams disguised in eye-glasses, diaries, calendars, ear plugs and various other innocuous seeming subjects to the complex processes in post-production. I am deeply interested in the careful technical packaging of the sting video – these include meticulous breakdown of the stock footage that is to be used (shots of parliament, police forces, bureaucracy etc), text/supers used, the subtitles, filters used, title music commissioned etc during the whole sting assemblage). I am also interested in the various post-production effects often deployed to accentuate the sense of authenticity/truth to the sting footage. This sometimes entails using filters on the audio to make it sound lower quality than it actually is, muffled, distant yet legible. Similarly the videos are very often given a hazier, shakier low-resolution feel to imbue a greater a sense of ‘authenticity’ to them (stings for some reason, can never happen in HD in India, they work superbly with 240p, but never high definition. The enduring legacy of the documentary image, where grainy pixillated, handheld footage has always been construed somehow as a ‘truer’ image than the clearly contrived image of the fiction film. Resolution continues to have a strong relation with the putative ‘truth value’ of the image.) Conversations will be conducted with basic software editors, color correctors, graphic designers alongside longer interviews with the journalists who direct the whole operation. The staple visual lexicon of the real prevalent today is a product of a series of political and technical decisions taken during its production – and this project hopes to make sense of this complex ecology by a detailed run-through of its technical and production histories.

But the arena that concerns itself with the “visual capturing of a person committing a crime” (the Wikipedia definition of ‘sting operation’) has gotten infinitely more populated and complex since the broad-scale advent of video-equipped cell phones, easy video-editing and transfer technologies, social media platforms and various popular public exhortations towards developing a culture of citizen-journalists and ‘common man stings’ (circa Arvind Kejriwal 2013). In 2011, a 19 year old girl in Thane surreptitiously recorded a pani-puri seller surreptitiously urinating into a vessel in which food items were kept [3]. Within days the ‘pani-puri sting’ spread rapidly through the Internet, to the extent that local vigilante group Maharashtra Nav Nirman Sena began assaulting and damaging properties of paani-puri sellers and many other hawkers selling street food in Bombay, Pune and Thane in the following days [4]. A large number of street food vendors reportedly left the city in fear as MNS asked the people to expose more of such the ‘crimes’ by North Indian immigrants in the state of Maharashtra [5]. The conspiracy behind the video however didn’t end there -– a BJP leader publicly allegedly called the girl ‘characterless’ for recording “such obscenities,” while the girl in response claimed that she exposed what she did “out of pure concern for the general health and welfare of society” [6] and demanded damages worth 5 Crores instead. A range of different citizen sting videos like these have inundated video sharing platforms and social media sites in the last few years not just from the cities but primarily from B-centre towns like Lucknow, Meerut, Benaras and so on.

These videos are testimonies to a desire to inhabit time differently. They speak of attempts to pluck out individual moments from one’s procession of everyday quotidian time (one peppered with diverse instances of routinized corruption) and enframe them within the narrative of media events. These are, like Ravi Sundaram describes them “attempts to stage interruptions”, where a conjunction is abruptly formed between one’s ordinary life and the vocabulary of the large media sting on the electronic media. The Internet and the contemporary culture of frenetically traveling ‘poor images’ have made the possibility of such a radical overlap possible [7]. By staging conversations, and following the trails of some of these citizen stings journey from ‘going viral’ to the court-room, this project hopes to trace some of the outlines of this new sensorium at large.


[1] Mazzarella, William. 2006. Internet X-Ray: E-Governance, Transparency, and the Politics of Immediation in India. Public Culture. 18(3). Pp. 473-505.

[2] Tarun Tejpal contended that villagers in different regions in India had invoked the image of tehelka.com as something of a x-ray like machine situated in Delhi that could anyone’s corrupt doings as soon as they came in front of it [1].

[3] Kumar, Krishna. 2011. Political Pani Puri is Difficult to Digest. India Today. April 23. Available at: http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/column-political-paani-puri-is-difficult-to-digest/1/136087.html.

[4] PTI. 2011. Three MNS Activists Arrested for Attacking Vendors. Times of India. April 15. Available at: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/mumbai/Three-MNS-activists-arrested-for-attacking-vendors/articleshow/7989282.cms.

[5] 2011. Most Famous Paani Puri Walla Quits to Become a Watchman. Mumbai Mirror. April 22. Available at: http://www.mumbaimirror.com/mumbai/cover-story/Most-famous-paani-puri-walla-quits-to-become-a-watchman/articleshow/16120164.cms.

[6] HT Correspondent. 2011. Girl Who Exposed Pani-Puri Vendor Lodges FIR against BJP Leader. Hindustan Times. May 06. Available at: http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/mumbai/girl-who-exposed-pani-puri-vendor-lodges-fir-against-bjp-leader/article1-694049.aspx.

Sutradhar. 2011. Girl Slams Defamation Charges for being Called ‘Characterless’. eCharcha. May 05. Available at: http://www.echarcha.com/forum/showthread.php?t=38371.

[7] Steyrl, Hito. 2009. In Defense of The Poor Image. e-flux. Number 10. Available at: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/.

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