Books

Book Review: How Technology Transformed Indian Media and Politics

Pamela Philipose's book 'Media’s Shifting Terrain: Five Years that Transformed the Way India Communicates' takes the media consumer backstage.

The media is pervasively present in our lives as we watch TV, read newspapers and share posts on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. Most of us, however, know little about how the media industry is structured, how that effects its content, affects our sensibilities and impacts India’s democracy.

For media consumers in an era of a hyper-visible media and a mediatized everyday life, it is not surprising that the backstage of the industry is neither seen nor heard of. It is this story that Pamela Philipose’s book, Media’s Shifting Terrain: Five Years that Transformed the Way India Communicates, lays bare. It is a comprehensive account of the changes in Indian media and its politics.

Media’s Shifting Terrain
Pamela Philipose
Orient Blackswan, 2018

The introduction delineates some of the key processes that changed Indian media. Economic liberalisation saw the majority of the country’s media houses adopt a business model whereby the target audience shifted from readers/viewers to advertisers. Soon after came the rapid growth in mobile telephony and digital media. Commerce and new forms of communication redefined India. The Internet could not breach the “urban-rich, rich-poor divide”. The “nifty phone could and did”.

The consequences of this new technological inclusion in an unequal society opened up both possibilities and challenges for democracy. There are two important points that the author makes. Firstly, in a variegated and unequal society such as India, the adoption of modular practices could “potentially hollow out democratic politics”. Secondly, that a “major conundrum inherent in mediatized societies” is that “technological inclusion is easier to achieve than social inclusion”.

Both points are deftly brought out in the book. We see this play out in each of the mass movements dealt with in the book: the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement led by Anna Hazare (2011); the Delhi gang rape protests (2012-13); the Narendra Modi election campaign (2014) and, finally, the Delhi election campaigns by AAP in 2013 and 2015.

The rise of social media

The focus of the book is on five years (2011-15). Philipose terms these years the ‘mediatized half decade’, with a sharp rise in the use of the internet and smartphones, coupled with the early beginnings of Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter.

Those were momentous years. India saw media convergence bringing together older and newer media in various ways. Today, we take it for granted that newspapers also set up their own interactive websites and Facebook pages. And that media campaigns are not just an integral part but often the central arm of political parties and social movements alike. This was not always the so.

The “five years that transformed the way India communicates” is a gripping story for the author is able to capture at once the details of backstage business-politics-media nexus; the “admixture of careful strategising and spontaneous response” that marked the four mediatised events; and the new assertions of the early digital respondents reflecting a new “intensity of public engagement”.

Tempers ran high. Old and new media competed for public attention. “Sensational headlines, musical accompaniments, shaky camera work” marked television coverage. Twitter campaigns – used in a limited way in the IAC campaign – grew bigger, more strident and directly politically aligned during the gang rape protests.

Not surprisingly, elections to the Delhi assembly in 2013 and 2015 and the general elections of 2014 saw an exponential rise in the use of social media, as chapter 4, aptly titled as “Scripts, Tweets, Posts, and Verdicts”, shows.

Social media platforms. Illustration: The Wire

Media’s role in these events

The book, even as it acknowledges that the media has been a crucial factor in the aforementioned events, is careful not to essentialise this role. This is a story, therefore, not just about new communication technology or about the new “media issue attention cycle”.

Nor is it only about a new political economy defined by “professionally managed, publicly financed companies” cultivating “market confidence”. It is also about an expanding Indian middle class and the ways that the youth emerged as a key cohort for commerce and politics alike.

The “campaigns” of both the BJP and the AAP in the elections “privileged the youth factor”, whether through the “Deployment of communication technologies through apps like Thunderclap, the uploading of selfies displaying the inked finger” or “catchy songs and skits”.

The book is remarkable in the manner that it weaves in these multiple processes and moves from online to offline events. Thereby, it captures both the larger economic, political and technological developments and the feel of the “raw, youthful mediatized presence” in the four events that it addresses.

Few examples may help me make this point better. Even as the author details the IAC campaign of 2011 (chapter 2), she locates the longer and larger focus on corruption in independent India’s mainstream media reportage driven by a “combination of public interest and self-interest, feeding as it did the everyday conversations of the media-consuming middle classes and buttressing the media’s own credibility” (p.29).

With regard to the Delhi gang rape protests, she at once conveys the “reverberations in the city” as well as “media convergence”. Whereas “in the pre-digital age”, a news item of this kind would at best make it to the “next day’s evening television bulletins and the local sections of newspapers in the following morning”, here, “within a few minutes of the story appearing on newspaper edition, it was being tweeted and commented upon in multiples of hundred”. Offline, it created a “mediatized empathy”. It touched people.

Accompanying this was a coarseness of a media-driven public call for an “eye-for-an-eye” response.  This promptness in demanding instant and vigilante punishment is now part of our public culture. It fits in well with a public discourse that flourishes in a technologically-enabled world of instant access, unequal knowledge and the deliberate, vile use of fake news.

The book could not have come at a better time.

Maitrayee Chaudhuri teaches sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University and is the author of Refashioning India: Gender, Media and a Transformed Public Discourse.

Disclosure: Pamela Philipose is The Wire’s public editor.

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