media, information, the contemporary

Viral Geographies and Violent Publics: Police, Legal and Media Archive for Northeast India

Sagorika Singha

January 2020 to July 2021

My research project titled Violent Publics: A Viral Media Collection (January 2020-July 2021) is part of the ICAS:MP, TM7: Media and the Constitution of the Political Project in collaboration with The Sarai Programme, Centre for the Study of Developing Studies, Delhi (CSDS). The work investigated the emergence of viral media from the purview of the local, specifically through the geographic location of Northeast India. Between 2007 and 2018, multiple media events emerged from the state of Assam that were outrage-inducing and highly graphic. For this project, I focused on four such events:

  1. Laxmi Orang Case (2007): A young Adivasi student was publicly disrobed and assaulted in the heart of the city.
  2. Kokrajhar riots and subsequently, the Northeast (NE) Exodus (2012): Following the communal riots in Kokrajhar district in Assam in July 2012, several cities in India, including Bangalore, Pune, and Mumbai, witnessed riots and circulation of fake rumours threatening the public from the NE of retaliatory violence for the atrocities committed in Assam against the Muslims.
  3. Guwahati Molestation Case (2012): In July 2012, a mob of around 20–25 men molested a young teenage girl when she returned from a birthday party. A local journalist recorded the entire episode, which was very violent and visceral, and it became part of the day’s prime-time news.
  4. Karbi Anglong lynching (2018): The incident occurred on June 8, 2018, where a local mob of around 200 people attacked two young men—Nilotpal Das and Abhijeet Nath believing them to be child-lifters based on WhatsApp rumours.

The first part of this work (January–December 2020) traces the development of early ‘viral media’ objects and the associated media events originating from Northeast India during the mid to late 2000s. This collection includes material from media news archives, personal blogs, interviews of media practitioners and the public associated with these cases, news articles, media reports, crime reports, court testimonies, social media archives, videos, social media comments, legal archives, and academic articles. Between December 2020–March 2021, the collection shifts to contemporary platform economy and culture, spotlighting Assamese influencer Dimpu Baruah. This transition was owing to identifying the growing nexus between emergent social media businesses (local influencers) and regional media. It engages with understanding the relationship between creative practices, contemporary publicity, community dynamics and platform economy—how they play out within the local and social media ecology, often spurring the flow of viral media objects through their revamped circulatory system which we see was an outcome of the earlier viral phase as chronicled in the first subseries. Through the context of the local geography, this compilation establishes the emergent local attribute as a critical conduit for the proliferation and apprehension of such viral media objects and its structuring of the political.

For this research, I documented the media material of a pre-WhatsApp era (pre-2010) to reveal how the patterns of contemporary viral culture were materialising during this period, with the then-growing regional news media as an important element. I conducted digital ethnographic and archival research related to this project. The study shows the local as the new digital habitat/cesspool, giving mileage to affective intensities of viral media for which the ‘local’ becomes a critical reference.

While working on the ICAS:MP project, I published the paper “Vote for Visibility: Talent Hunts, Networked Infrastructures, and the Emergence of Northeast India’s First Reality TV Star” in BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies, 13(1), 2022, 74–93. The main article section of this issue focused on media technologies and publics by discussing contemporary screen cultures which witnessed the new formation of publics and audiences brought about by the transformation of media technology. In this paper, I examine the arrival of early mobile communication technologies and the subsequent emergence of reality television contestants from the Northeast region, particularly Assam. I trace the correlation between infrastructures (both telecommunication and media) and their relation to media visibility.

I developed the Violent Publics research into an academic paper, Viral Geographies: The Circulation of Violent Viral Media in Assam. In this paper, I detail the preparatory ground for the viral manifestation in the early 2000s in India with viral media from Assam as a case study. I argue that the establishment of the viral mode is more organic and reliant on the organisation of social, technological and geographical constituents. A revised version of the paper was submitted for consideration in the Special Issue of the Journal of South Asian Film and Media in August 2021. I further developed the second strain of this ICAS:MP research which focussed on contemporary platform culture and publicity, spotlighting Assamese influencer Dimpu Baruah, to my current postdoctoral project which looks at the Indian regional YouTube content creators’ impact on local creative industries, media materialities and transnational/national geographies. I wrote the paper “Mutating YouTube: The Remaking of YouTube by Local Influencers in India” which has been submitted for publication to a peer-reviewed journal.

My broader research addresses the changes that digital media brings to geographies, specifically contested geographies. I am particularly interested in understanding the formation of new cultures, aesthetics, and socio-political repercussions. In my postdoctoral research ‘Embodying the Local: Assam’s Growing Youtubers and Shifting Media Infrastructures’ through an ethnography of Assamese YouTubers, I study the changes on the platform incurred by these local content creators often marking itself as subversive and leaving its signature on this large-scale transformation of both the history of the media and the region. I am currently an Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) postdoctoral fellow at the Sarai Programme, CSDS.

Peer-Reviewed Articles:

“Vote for Visibility: Talent Hunts, Networked Infrastructures, and the Emergence of Northeast India’s First Reality TV Star.” BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies 13, no. 1 (2022): 74–93.

"Mutating YouTube The Remaking of YouTube by Local Influencers in India." Contemporary South Asia, (September 2022). [Submitted]

“Viral Geographies: The Circulation of Violent Viral Media in Assam.” South Asian Film and Media, (November 2022). [Revise and resubmit following peer review]

“Digital Expression from the Shadow States: The in-betweeners in the Late-capitalist Era.” South Asian Popular Culture, (2023). [Article forthcoming]

Book Chapters:

“5 Meme Collectives and Preferred Truths in Assam.” In Social Media and Social Order, edited by David Herbert and Stefan Fisher-Høyrem, 52–66. Warsaw: De Gruyter Open Poland, 2022.

Other Activities:

Invited to present at the workshop on Media Infrastructures: Informalities and Marginalities held at OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat, Haryana, on February 13-14, 2020. Paper titled, “The Rise of the Invisible Publics: Reality TV as Visibility Infrastructures in Northeast India.”

Invited to deliver a special lecture virtually on Cinemas of the Northeast, to the Fourth Semester MA students (2019-2021) of the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU as part of their Regional Cinemas optional course on April 11, 2021. Lecture titled, “Northeast India and Cinema: A Mediatized Overview.”

Invited to deliver a special lecture (recording) for the Mediated South Asia: Film, Media and Public Cultures paper in Spring 2021, organised by the Department of Communication Arts, University of Wisconsin, Madison. Lecture titled, “The Local Meme Machine: Digital Objects and Social Experience in Assam.”

Paper presented at the Second International Conference (virtual) on Memory and Past in South Asia organised by South Asia Research Centre, Soka University, Japan on November 26-27, 2021. Paper titled, “Memorializing Violence: The Circulation of Violent Images and the Imagination of Northeast India.” Panel Title Cultures of Memory: Media, Representation, and Performing the Archive.

Research Collections

This archive was built between February 2021 and August 2022 and supported by the collaboration between The Sarai Program at CSDS and ICAS: MP on thematic module 7 entitled, ‘Media and the Constitution of the Political’. This project details how truth-telling is transformed after widespread media proliferation with a focus on public commissions of inquiry into the Northeast Delhi Riots in 2020. The project seeks to understand the nature of political, humanitarian, and legal claims made in the presentation of witness speech and evidence; how to assess the temporality of the report in negotiating these often-competing claims; and what the handling of media evidence discloses about the politics of caution, care, and self-care. In detailing how investigations assemble evidence and articulate the evidentiary value of media, special attention is given to practices associated with open-source investigations, online publication and archiving, and the management of risk associated with such human rights media work. Research collections include fact-finding reports and books, documentary films, collections of film and photo documentation, news reports, web archives, and social media threads.