India @71: Challenges before the Media

Challenges to the free media arise out of the depths of the internet with sensational fake news replacing the old-style of media 

On October 7, 2017, News Corp., one of the world’s largest media houses, stopped printing the European and Asian editions of the fabled WSJ (The Wall Street Journal), citing two reasons: editorial restructuring and declining revenues. The writing on the wall was clear. The world media had moved away from Gutenberg (1395-1468) to Mark Zuckerberg. Comparatively speaking, India’s print media market may appear to be in better shape than its counterparts in the West. But we must accept that just as Wikipedia cannibalised the encyclopaedia, the new media, whom some have dubbed the Fifth Estate, will soon cannibalise the Fourth Estate or the old-style media.

Where algorithms rule the roost

In the new media world, the algorithm-driven Internet has become the motherlode for all media platforms. But Tim Berners–Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, has confessed to feeling very worried by the ideological polarisation of the Web. “ I am,” he writes, “still an optimist, but an optimist standing on top of the hill with a nasty storm blowing on my face, hanging on to a fence.” All the vital information bundles we are accessing now are being chosen and edited not by human hands but by algorithms and as the recent developments related to our famous UIDAI show, algorithms are a mixed gift, highly vulnerable to deliberate and clever digital manipulation .

The new media consumers’ media preferences are driven by three main considerations: mobility, portability and personalisation of news to suit their tastes. The old credible information space where importance of a product was driven by professionally trained and experienced media hands, where news dissemination was an extensive time consuming exercise in painstakingly gathering, verifying information before making it public, is dying. So the new business models for commercialised mobile social web, smart phones and social media, are first creating narrow lanes for individual consumers whose tastes they have assessed through data accessed through questionable means and then slowly pushing them into a lane where the traffic moves in a direction favoured by the market forces and profitability.

Time has come when the mainstream media itself should studied the young consumers and their media consumption habits. They are ambitious, upwardly mobile and far more willing to multitask to earn more and live better.

So the basic challenge to free media, as Tim Lee foresaw, arises out of the dark depths of the Internet itself. A speedy consumption of sensationalised fake news masquerading as real news by unsuspecting millions proves the old adage correct about bad money ultimately driving out the good one. It is even more sinister that political parties, with deep pockets all over the world, are beginning to employ and fund faceless sites for fake news to dupe and divide the voters, tarnish their rivals and the professional players in the mainstream media. Such fake sites now have technically savvy handlers who can block certains users or certain types of vital public information and even replace them with doctored videos and audios. Researchers in the USA have uncovered some 2,800 fake sites that can also clone legitimate news organisations by tinkering with their web address. This dark underworld now has its own profitable business model and offers services for creating and planting fake news, morphed pictures and disinformation in cyber space starting at under US$10.

So should the media just learn to live with what media scholars (Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakashan) have described as “information pollution” at a global scale? As a nation we all agree that planted, paid news and trolling are harmful illegal activities. But we also know how often carefully embedded unverified untruths and paid cells of trolls are creating havoc in the media. Mostly instead of examining the flaws and the unaddressed national concerns that the professional and responsible section of the media is highlighting, the system sees to it that the truth tellers are eased out of their crucial jobs. There have also been numerous physical attacks on investigative journalists and 45 media practitioners, most of them in small towns and rural areas, were murdered. Most of them were working on investigative stories on corruption and various kinds of mafia operations that hurt the poor and the weak.

In the long term, this weakens a government’s own vital need for objective and verified information from sources outside its own, and creates a permanent crisis of trust and credibility between the media, the public and the government. Time has come when the mainstream media itself studied the young consumers and their media consumption habits. Research so far reveals that the consumers of news in India are mostly (nearly 80% of our population) below 40 years of age. They are fairly tech savvy and can handle digitised news better than the older generations. In their personal lives, they are highly mobile, moving from small towns and big families they have grown up with, to bigger towns and newer jobs. They are ambitious, upwardly mobile and far more willing to multitask to earn more and live better. They obviously prefer to get their news and entertainment not sitting on couches but while on the move 24x7, often in between texting, surfing Facebook posts and chatting up friends. Media companies must now think of reaching them through multimedia platforms simultaneously.

The old and the news

At a time when older media consumers opt out, either by choice, oftener by default, from the new media platforms the young have opted for, question arises: what of these older consumers of media who have different ideas about news and how it should be served by professionals. They complain, and often rightly so, that the media in this rat race for more hits and eyeballs, is becoming increasingly crude, loud and querulous. It is trivialising news by acrimonious debates that and missing the real issues that affect daily lives of people like them: land and mining rights, farm pricing, farmers’ suicides, poor civic infrastructure and increase in crimes, especially against women and children. And they are right.

If data is the new oil as Mukesh Ambani says, not style, but content, remains the king. The main strength of this media of future will lie in maintaining trustworthiness while introducing new dimensions and reshaping news with help from new technology. Interestingly, the core competencies of the multimedia industry are still largely situated within and linked to the mainstream print media outfits. And for the TV news channels and e-portals, the richly talented news gatherers and skilled hands at the desks in the print are a gold mine for all information that is fit to disseminate.

A recent study carried out jointly by Harvard, Florida University and the MIT reveals that the new social media portals, though smaller in size, have begun to show a major impact on driving the neglected “national conversation” on vital issues like race, immigration, policies on food, water and power distribution and reproductive rights raising public awareness up to 65 per cent and a spurt in individual participation in public discussions. Can we allow such valuable platforms to be hijacked by inexperienced players with little historical sense and even less moral sense?

If data is indeed the new oil as Reliance supremo Mukesh Ambani says, not style, but content remains the king

The primacy of the corporate-owned English media

Next comes the question of ownership patterns. There was a time when some public-spirited citizens with idealistic leaning of a certain kind towards some tall leader of the day, would launch newspapers. The Birlas, the Goenkas and several others, guided towards acts of philanthropy by Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and JP, were looked upon as such. As India completes 71 years as a democracy, this version has turned largely nostalgic, irrational and inaccurate for our offspring, and for good reason.

We may market India as the world’s second biggest democracy but truth be told, we are still a nascent democracy learning how to stand on our two feet and guard the freedoms promised by our Constitution. Our media is now more or less entirely controlled and funded by major corporate houses with multiple business interests. And most corporate houses, with media properties, consist of and benefit the upper caste and upper classes.

The power structure of media companies, even those with several spectacularly successful vernacular publications, remains women and vernacular deficient and English-centric. We may be a country that communicates in multiple tongues, but inside our media, lies a tale of two cities: one rich, the other poor. One is based in large metros and houses English language publications inexplicably called ‘national dailies’ even though less than 10 per cent consumers buy them. The other city which has a majority of consumers, comprises small towns and rural communities using regional languages. The second one consumes 90 per cent media content couched in Indian languages, mostly in Hindi.

The young, nerdy amoral consumer

Generation Facebook in India consists mostly of the officially young and it is no longer limited to metro cities. The ideal inhabitant of this virtual world is a nerd who is socially autistic with poor communication and language skills. Why do the Indian nerds do what nerds do? Mostly to flaunt looks, to get popularity, earn likes and influence other nerds and arrive at a nirvana called ‘Celebrityhood”. We know that having 2,000 Facebook friends is nothing like having 20 real life ones. But the pack mentality of the young is constantly being nudged by secret data gatherers in the direction of the herd, away from individual choices. Ultimately, you find most of them remain insecure and lonely and feel misunderstood, betrayed and humiliated by the older generation (read their families). “What more can I do?” and “How swiftly can I impress others?” are the dominant questions among them who are part of TV audiences that impale themselves upon inane debates between political party spokespersons and the Panna Pramukhs each day.

It is this kind of amoral media consumer whom a falsely jolly, fake-friendly dark side of the Internet world is pulling into a dark nursery for trained trolls paid by a political party. Questions fed to them are not nuanced seeking nuanced answers, but come with their own algorithmic binaries. When a young mind becomes a set of data on a website, he or she is reduced. Individuality, real life friendships, messy counter questions and arguments based on a different kind of logic - all shrink and slowly fall off. The result is: One nation under one format. Nightmares never were that real.

To conclude, there are no heroes or villains in this story, only a mad scramble of a young democracy to survive amid a sudden shifting of earth’s crust, challenged by the new digital speak and a steady degradation and warming up on a global scale. The media, the governments and the voters must perfect their game to suit this volatile era. The challenges, it is obvious, are not just media’s problems. They are part of a broader crisis of a global decline and reformation of democratic and social institutions and information.

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