On April 20, Abhishek Mishra tweeted that he had cancelled an Ola cab because the driver assigned to him was Muslim. Mishra is a member of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a Hindutva group affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. His tweet created a storm, as scores of people criticised his “flaming bigotry”. But as the controversy swirled, Ola maintained its silence.

It took the cab company two days to eventually send Mishra a homily: “Ola, like our country, is a secular platform, and we don’t discriminate our driver partners or customers basis their caste, religion, gender or creed. We urge all our customers and driver partners to treat each other with respect at all times.”

That a taxi company had to put out a public statement affirming its faith in a principle that is the bedrock of Indian democracy was unusual. It was not the only instance either of a company having to make a political statement: driven by social media advocacy, corporations in India and across the world are having to take positions to satisfy consumers.

Political corporations?

This phenomenon is just reaching India. In the West, corporations have been forced to take political positions to please their consumers for sometime now. In January 2017, for instance, the app-based taxi industry had to deal not with rising fares or striking drivers but an entirely new factor: their response to the American government’s travel ban on people from select Muslim-majority countries. Uber, the market leader, was seen as pro-ban while its closest competitor, Lyft, was perceived as opposing the ban, not least because it had donated a substantial amount to the organisation fighting the ban in court. American liberals responded by issuing a call to outrage: #DeleteUber. Within a week, more than 200,000 Americans had removed the Uber app from their smartphones.

Uber scrambled for a response, with the company’s CEO tweeting that the travel ban “is against everything Uber stands for” and announcing a large fund to fight the ban legally. The company’s alarm was well-founded: American technology news website Recode noted that “the biggest decrease in Uber’s market share happened during the week of January 30, when the #deleteUber campaign was in full swing”.

This is far from the only example of consumers demanding that corporations not only deliver goods or services but also reveal their political ideology. In 2012, an American fast food company donated money to anti-gay rights organisations. The decision led to protests but also to people voicing their support and, as a result, the company’s sales rose. Gay rights activists, though, won another battle as the chief executive of the software company Mozilla was forced to step down for donating to groups opposing same-sex marriage.

Social media factor

This is an unusual trend. In an earlier age, consumers judged a corporation on, say, the quality or the price of its offerings. The political ideologies drove a company or its executives were considered while hailing a taxi or buying a sandwich. Jerry Davis, a professor of management and sociology at the University of Michigan in the United States, writes that “traditionally, corporations aimed to be scrupulously neutral on social issues. No one doubted that corporations exercised power, but it was over bread-and-butter economic issues like trade and taxes, not social issues. There seemed little to be gained by activism on potentially divisive issues, particularly for consumer brands”.

What changed this was the rise of social media. “Social media and the web have changed the environment for business by making it cheaper and easier for activists to join together to voice their opinions and by making corporate activities more transparent,” Davis argues. It is this “intense pressure from social media”, the American journalist Mike Allen points out, that has forced US corporations to take political positions on issues as diverse as immigration, gay rights and restricting the sale of guns. A 2018 study reported two-thirds of American consumers as saying it was important for brands to have a position on socio-political issues. More than half wanted this to be communicated via social media.

Global phenomenon

Social media has meant that even China, where political speech is tightly regulated, has seen consumers express outrage and force companies to take political positions. For instance, nationalist outrage swept Chinese social media early this year after it was found that a number of international corporations had listed Taiwan and/or Tibet as separate countries. Most of the infractions involved the mere presence of “Taiwan” on pull-down menus to determine location or, in the case of the hotel chain Marriot, “liking” a tweet by a group campaigning for Tibetan independence. “Political stance is the most important part of the brand awareness when foreign companies do businesses here,” Zhu Guangyu, a 44-year-old consumer from Shanghai told the South China Morning Post. “I will never buy those brands or use their services. Marriot was quick to “sincerely apologise”, with the CEO himself clarifying that his company did not “support anyone who subverts the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China and we do not intend in any way to encourage or incite any such people or groups”.

As elsewhere, corporations in China had to echo their customers; romantic notions of self-determination stood little chance against the might of China’s highly lucrative market.

Social capitalism

India has had its own moment of nationalism-driven social media outrage. In 2017, social media users discovered doormats with an image of the Indian flag being sold on Amazon in Canada. Outrage followed, given that touching something with your feet is considered disrespectful in many of India’s cultures. With the Indian government getting involved, Amazon was forced to remove the product from its Canadian website. Even more, the online retailer carried out a global audit for any other products that would be seen as insulting in India and, according to the technology website Medianama, the company even made Indian laws on national symbols a part of its global compliance process.

Earlier in 2016, another online retailer, Snapdeal, had dropped Aamir Khan as a brand ambassador after the actor’s remarks about feeling unsafe in India as a member of a religious minority set off a social media firestorm, with users expressing anger that Khan had attacked the ruling dispensation.

Some thinkers have described this as a new system of “social capitalism”. Writing in the American business magazine Forbes, Chris Ladd characterises this system as one in which commerce competes with politics as a “means of expressing public values”. Consumers, who earlier only cared about choosing the best product at the best price, now also take into account a corporation’s social or political position when conducting a transaction. In India, this means a company must not only offer the best product or service, it should also have a brand ambassador that broadly agrees with its customers’ political views. So, of course, any taxi service that people use should profess a belief in secularism. As internet penetration increases in India – currently reaching a third of the population and growing fast – and social media expands, expectations for corporations to step into the political arena will only grow.