A relook at the rumour-raining media

Ranen Kumar Goswami

In scene III of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Friar Laurence says: “Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied,/ And vice sometime’s by action dignified./ Within the infant rind of this weak flower/ Poison hath residence and medicine power/……………. Two such opposed foes encamp them still/ In man as well as herbs, grace and rude will;/ And where the worser is predominant,/ Full soon the canker death eats up that plant.”

No wonder, social media is not an exception. It is also infested with its due share of vice. Unsavoury developments like Cambridge Analytica in international arena, and closer home, poisonous spread of hate mongering in the aftermath of Dokmoka lynching have stripped it of some its glamour. For some, it has become a favourite whipping boy. Yet some are just short of saying it should be  denounced altogether. We beg to differ. We would lean back on Friar Laurence and say, two “opposed foes” virtue and vice, “encamp” the social media. Right at the moment, “the worser is predominant”. Even a great scholar like Socrates was hostile to the alphabet or written script as he believed it would demolish man’s capacity to memorise ideas. Cut to the present,  thousands of years later, what have we seen? The written text has carried the wisdom of centuries or “virtues” to us and also the vices like religious bigotry, caste hatred, superstitions and pornography. How we use it, the choice is ours. With its great potential and reach, the social media just cannot be ignored. Let’s accept it, times are a-changing. Post social media, even journalism is no longer the same.

The great wave of web innovation since Google in 1998 has been in social media. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism says social media is about networking and communicating through text, video, blogs, pictures, status updates on sites such as Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp or microblogs such as Twitter. What makes social media of particular interest to journalism is how it has become influential as a communication and news-breaking tool. The Institute’s Digital News Report 2016 informs that 51% of  the people covered by its survey use social media as a source of news. The first quarter report for the year 2017 of the Global Web Index further informs that 94% of digital consumers aged 16 to 64 have an account on at least one social media platform; one in every three minutes spent online is devoted to social networking and messaging, with digital consumers engaging for a daily average of two hours. And at least 78% of the Internet population aged 16 to 64 is now networking via a mobile. Against this backdrop, it is only natural for the publishers to go where the audiences are, for the sellers where the customers are and the politicians where the voters and their target-people are.

In another report, Journalism in the Age of Social Media, the Reuters Institute says: “News consumption today is not the same as pre-satellite news when people waited for their morning papers or sat down at an appointed time for the evening news on television. News consumption today is not the same as pre-Internet news when people tuned in to events happening around the world through 24-hour television news channels. More recently, a growing number of readers, viewers and listeners are going online for their news. Television, newspapers and radio are still here but there is a growing competition from interactive online media.”  If the press is the Fourth Estate, William Dutton of the Oxford Internet Institute, in a 2009 interview, termed social media as the emergence of the Fifth Estate.  Did the legacy media meet a roadblock? No. From the year 2000 onwards, all major newspapers began setting up their online versions and many readers turned their back on the printed copy and set out on a hunt for news on the papers’ websites. Online editions are the rule now, not an exception.

Reuters reports point out that old media like publishing used to require a printing press. Circulation was limited to a fraction of a geographical location. Broadcasting via radio and television relies on expensive equipment to transmit signals around a country, regionally or globally. Now, once a user connects to the internet, he has access to a platform that is at once global and free. This means that one may propose or explore new models of communication and coordination without needing to get anyone’s permission. Maybe, this is why it is personalised, and since interactive, the door for discussion and debate remains open. Another real competition for traditional media outlets is news aggregators. Many different news aggregators exist, those run by search giants such as Google and Yahoo and others. For media organisations, convergence is the common strategy now, not competition. In May 2009, the New York Times hired its first social media editor to expand the use of social media networks. The BBC and the rest followed.

We come back to the vices issue. The Reuters Institute conducted a snapshot survey some years ago, where the respondents were media controllers, bureau chiefs, managing directors and editors of renowned news organizations. As for the main risks with using social media for news gathering and news distribution, the answers were unanimous about concerns regarding accuracy, the need for verification and the loss of control over the information. For instance, Nic Newman, Future Media and Technology Controller,  BBC said: “For news gathering: trust, accuracy and identity are the main risks.” If a lack of these pre-conditions has the potential to take professional and trained journalists off their guard, what can happen to the  hotheads, religious bigots and champions of chauvinism, eager to believe and spread unverified news against those sections of the society they cannot tolerate? These factors create a fertile ground where hate and rumour mongering flourishes. Dokmoka happens, many more already did, and in absence of proper precautions, many more will. A police cyber cell can an answer, but we need much more.

Some people, including some members of the media have said crimes creep in as there are no gatekeepers on the social media. Gatekeeping is a layered system of checks in the legacy media through which a news report gets filtered. But can it ensure cleanliness? How come all these scandals of paid news, fake news, underhand deals have taken place despite the gatekeeping? Despite the gatekeeping, how come some big media outlets spread communal and caste hatred, parochialism and misinformation? When gatekeeping is deliberately designed to be porous, dirt receives an invitation. The solution lies elsewhere. A regulatory mechanism can be a way out, but it should cover not only the social media, other sections of the media too should fall within its jurisdiction. Moreover, this mechanism must be armed with autonomy, with legal teeth and should be free from government control.

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