The Online Media May be Anarchic, but Shows More Spirit than Mainstream Media

The diversity of voices and opinions on the likes of Twitter, WhatsApp and YouTube is a refreshing antidote to the stultifying conformity of the big media.

Credit: Reuters

Newspapers were once considered serious and credible. To the younger crowd, they now look timid and boring. Credit: Reuters

On the evening of Sunday, October 8, those watching Indian television channels would have seen Union railways minister Piyush Goyal holding a press conference where he said his party condemned the “defamatory and baseless” allegations in The Wire’s story about Jay Amit Shah’s business. He said that it was nothing but sensationalism on the website’s part to claim an increase in turnover of 16,000 times because turnover in the commodity business tends to be large.

Many viewers would have been quite mystified about this sudden press conference by Goyal, who was clearly speaking on behalf of his party and his party chief’s son. Till then, they had heard nothing about any such report by a website. Another press conference earlier in the day, by Congress leader Kapil Sibal on the same issue had gone uncovered and it is more than possible that these viewers were not on the social media, which was on fire with the story. (Incidentally, no major TV news channel has posted online a video of Sibal’s press conference.)

If they wanted further explanation of what exactly was going on, and had tuned into all the evening television shows, they would have been further confused. One channel had an exclusive interview with Hrithik Roshan and the others too were occupying themselves with similar matters of gravitas and importance.

The next day’s newspapers made the issue somewhat clearer – Jay Shah was planning to sue the unnamed website for Rs 100 crore for defaming him, and the Congress and the BJP were hurling charges at each other. But what had The Wire said? WhatsApp forwards, that reliable source of authentic news, may have enlightened them a bit, but so many different kinds of forwards were coming rapidly, so what to believe? And all this while the online world was agog with the biggest story in a long time.

It may sound completely strange in these times of media saturation, but there are those who may still not have read The Wire story and thus do not have a complete picture of the issues involved – their thoughts and impressions have been shaped by the mainstream media and here, the near uniformity in the way the story has been covered has ensured that a completely one-sided, if not distorted picture has been conveyed to the reader.

It will require deeper study to understand who gets their news from online sources and who from legacy media, but the fact that there is a huge digital divide has become more apparent than ever. One could conjecture that the divide is based on age – the older (above 45 years) rely on television and print and the younger, especially under 30, are digital natives.

Also read: The Golden Touch of Jay Amit Shah

The numbers give some idea, but not enough. The combined circulation of the top ten newspapers in India is over 25 million copies per day. Each copy is read by several people. No magazine comes close to the individual circulation of any of these top ten newspapers. On the other hand, no news channel, whatever their hyperbolic claims may be, is in the top ten list of most watched channels – all the slots in that list are occupied by entertainment shows.

On the other hand, the number of smartphone users in India is more than 300 million – it is safe to assume that they form the bulk of the over 200 million who have Facebook accounts and nearly everyone has WhatsApp on their phone, to say nothing of YouTube and Twitter. There are those who would overlap, and watch television, read newspapers and go online, but distinct communities are now emerging which occupy different spaces. Many younger Indians – and not a few older ones – have almost totally stopped watching television, including news channels, and have also stopped subscribing to newspapers. They get not just their news, but also analysis from digital sources.

Moreover, the digital world also offers non-traditional way of interpreting the news. Anyone and everyone with a smartphone is a journalist and has opinions which they are ready to share with the world. Hours and days after The Wire story broke, homemade videos popped up – in different languages – analysing it and giving it their own spin. The comedians got into the act – the tone ranges from the frivolous to the serious. Occasionally, the statements border on the misleading, even scurrilous; certainly, they go where a responsible media site wouldn’t. But who is to stop them? There are scores of cartoons, memes and jokes about the dramatis personae. All this does not find its way into newspapers or on television, which remain blissfully and perhaps strategically ignorant. It is WhatsApp and Twitter that have become the platforms of choice to share these and they reach every part of the globe in microseconds.

At the time of writing this, The Wire‘s story had been shared on Facebook from the site itself a whopping 147,000 times – this does not account for re-sharing on Facebook, tweeting and retweeting and passing around on WhatsApp and by email.

This is something that the traditional media cannot ever hope to emulate. It can take a considered look at issues – that is if it wants to – and the many filters in a traditional newspaper ensure that nothing outrageous and libellous gets into print, but it loses out on the urgency and often the creativity found in the digital universe. Newspapers were once considered serious and credible-to the youngster, they are looking timid and boring. As a newspaperman myself, I am not happy at this turn of events, but managements have to ask themselves why this is so.

Also read: BJP Reaction to The Wire Story on Jay Amit Shah Shows Loss of Moral High Ground, Says Yashwant Sinha

Minutes after The Wire story, the Indian digitally-connected community responded, by reading, commenting and then circulating it, giving it a life of its own. Politicians reacted swiftly too – the Congress got its team together to attack the BJP (it is another matter that the television channels did not consider the press conference newsworthy) and by the evening, the BJP had hit back. One would have thought that television channels would have got on top of the story but after Goyal’s presser, barring a few exceptions, they had other stories to think about, like Karva Chauth and Love Jihad. Thus a large segment of the population remained unaware of the story and its immediate aftermath.

Why did the mainstream media play it down to this extent, when every little whiff of a scandal and even non-issues get the channels hyperventilating? Why did the newspapers play the whole thing down or emphasise more on the threat of a legal case rather than the reasons for it?

We can speculate, but a conspiracy theorist may draw only one conclusion – that the big media does not want to provoke the ruling dispensation. One doubts whether any powerful person actually contacted editors and managements to ensure that coverage was as low key as possible – there is no need to, given that the media is house-trained and happy to play ball.

The digital universe, on the other hand, is now an anarchic beast. It would be a mistake to conflate online media portals, who practice their journalism with rigour and professionalism, and the free-for-all social media. There is much to criticise the social media for, and the threats and obscenities hurled at others, especially at women, need to be curbed, but within this anarchy lies freedom. At a time when many of our freedoms are being curbed and several more are under threat, the chaos and noise of the social media is a whiff of much needed fresh air. The diversity of voices and opinions is a refreshing antidote to the stultifying conformity of the big media. There are political implications of this transition, or more appropriately, churn, which are likely to register themselves in the coming years.

Anyone trying to control the narrative will, therefore, find it difficult, even impossible to do it. The bigger media may fall in line and those who only depend on it will not get the full picture, but these propaganda techniques are of limited value. Young India, whose opinion counts for a lot, is now fully digital and controlling that universe is now well-nigh impossible. Surely those like the BJP who used the social media to its fullest should know that better than most.

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