The Lede
The tussle between social media and traditional media
The tussle between social media and traditional media|Pic courtesy:

Social Media & Thought Control Part IV: Media Versus Social Media

How the traditional media is now chasing social media and the dangers associated with this 

Jeff Joseph

Jeff Joseph

The three social media strategies explaining the ways in which Twitter and social media in general is used to control thoughts and push agendas has to be seen in the context of social media today becoming the arena where the struggle for social, political and cultural hegemony has come to be fought.

When seen in isolation they seem like individual online tendencies far apart from each other. But when taken together, they have a significant effect in defining reality in general. To understand, one needs to first look into how social media has come to influence reality through mainstream media.

Social Media Through Media

The influence of social media on media today is such that even those who only consume TV news would actually be tuning into social media trends. TV being the more easily consumable medium, this comes with repercussions.

“TV and social media is constantly engaged in a mutual dance of death,” says senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, referring to the influence social media has come to have on TV news in particular. “I don’t look at what is trending to decide what should be deemed important, but I know others around me who do.”

He gives an example of how direct a relation online trends share with content carried on TV. “At a time when the country is facing acute water shortage, many news channels were discussing whether Dhoni should be allowed to play with the insignia printed on his gloves or not.”

Dhoni and his gloves had trended online and one anchor had gone to the extent of asking Sunil Gavaskar why he was not giving voice to the issue when people online were calling for the team to be called back from the World Cup.

“What appears on social media often is half-truths and lies. Yet, mainstream media picks them and runs them as they are lazy,” is how senior journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta puts it.

Such tendencies have made mainstream media and social media inseparable. What trends online appears on TV. The relationship at times is as simple as that.

And this is well understood by the influencers of the major silos on social media and their cohorts who have now become so emboldened as to try to trick media into discrediting itself by carrying what they want to by laying out baits.

Most recently this was seen when the gruesome murder of a three-year-old child in Aligarh was put up as bait to the media through a campaign which was inherently communal and blamed the media for being biased. And when the media did carry the news, it was criticised for ‘hiding’ the religion of the victim and being partisan towards Hindus. Such tendencies expose the minefield that social media presents in this “parasitic relationship” as Sashi Kumar Menon calls it.

“Earlier, social media was the backyard of journalism. Today, journalism has become the backyard of social media,” opines Sashi Kumar Menon, senior journalist and chairperson of the Asian College of Journalism.

The problem with such a co-existence is the overlooking of the duplicity of social media and the manipulative possibilities it offers.

Why Social Media Trends Are Not Reflective Of Reality

Firstly, the segregation of users into silos of shared interests makes it an extremely naive starting point to believe in anything that appears as trends online as genuine.

With alternate realities pushed to each respective silo by the algorithmic design of the platform, it is usually the silo with the largest number which dominates trending topics.

To be noted is also how social media user base is not necessarily genuine and includes a wide array of automated and fake accounts tweeting and re-tweeting content repeatedly. Add in the many agencies providing such services at a cost and one can see why it is naïve to take trends at face value.

Online trends and outrage have to be seen as representative of a dominant or more vigorous group acting in tandem with or without vested interests. Some of the methods that are used by them to run campaigns and gain traction online has been shown in our first part of this series - Social Media: Thought Control & How To Do It.

Secondly, what may seem like the dominant opinion online could be the result of the segmentation of users segregated together by the algorithms and the concentrated attacks that it leads to.

For example, as has been shown in the article Social Media & Thought Control: The Carpet Bombers, incessant attacks on a journalist and media in general can mask reality and put pressure on them to believe it to be the dominant opinion. This results in them either toeing the trolls’ line in the future or deciding to not breach controversial topics; instead focusing on, say, what is trending.

“People generally tend to play safer,” says Kiruba Shankar, social media expert based in Chennai. “Sad thing though is when a small group becomes so vociferous that they cloud a journalist’s judgment and it starts to affect their work itself.”

This accomplishes the carpet bomber’s primary objective of exerting pressure on any genuine voices of dissidence by discrediting them relentlessly. Hiding behind anonymity, the trolls are afforded the luxury of absolute freedom of speech which allows them to say whatever they chose to, from vile abuse to vitriol.

The journalist on the other hand, governed by ethical considerations required of the profession and the civility expected of a public personality does not enjoy free speech. They are supposed to be factually correct and required to speak with proof. In this flawed power structure, the odds are acutely skewed in the troll’s favour.

By the absence of any means to separate facts from opinion posted by journalists the trolls often attack the opinions, which are always subjective conclusions, and by pointing out the flaws discredit the fact in itself.

Seen in this context the question that arises is whether journalists should at all be using the platform like other users. Twitter needs to do more to ensure the use of the platform without discrediting media.

A colour coding to differentiate factual and fact-verified content posted by media professionals and their opinions on the same could do a lot to lend weight to the credibility their fact checked opinions actually bring.

The line between the multitude of opinions online and verified facts have been blurring beyond recognition and this could help put the lines back in place. Journalists on their part could do themselves a favour by keeping their opinions as citizens to a minimal or as comments under the factual information being put out.

Even if Twitter were to not act on the above, journalists putting out clear disclaimers marking “OPINION” in caps every time they post opinions would help differentiate facts from opinions for lay readers.

It is time someone drew the line. The loss of journalism’s credibility today has been a direct result of opinion masquerading as news.

Thirdly, the predominance of influencers with large followings who guide the discourse online and who are now veering these discussions towards extremes has to be viewed with alarm.

“Social media has made reality subjective. It lets you choose the reality you want to live in,” says Kunal Kamra, a standup comedian from Mumbai who has been a victim of severe troll attacks. “For example if you follow certain accounts which are pro-establishment, you’d think India is progressing and going to overtake the west soon. But if you follow the anti-establishment accounts, you’ll end up thinking India is doing the worst it has ever been,” he adds.

And it is true now more than ever.

After the elections of 2019, many a liberal was left perplexed as to why the reality as they saw it was invisible to the rest. No issue of policy was ever raised, no visions laid and yet the results were all one sided, not just in favour of the BJP.

The states where online counter campaigns were effectively run such as in Punjab, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, a wave in the opposite direction surged. If not looked into, such separated realities can be dangerous for democracy. There is a growing realisation that work doesn’t matter, only perception and mind control does.

When an IAF plane went missing with (still) no clue, driving the debate towards a glove and an insignia certainly helped take the heat off the issue. This is the lived reality today. Another concern is how the media itself lends credibility to extreme opinions and ends up discrediting themselves.

Often times, the so called online thought influencers end up being invited to panels on TV channels owing to their loud and garrulous dispensation and their tendencies to say outrageous things. When back online, they discredit the same media from the high pulpits of social media when it suits them.

In such a scenario it is but incumbent on mainstream media to not feed on online trends, campaigns or troll influencers thereby legitimising the alternate realities they preach whose very existence is based on discrediting media discourses and journalists in general.

When fake campaigns build on fake news and trends make it to the news cycle they do more harm to media themselves than anything else. It lends credibility to the many other fantastic stories which are circulated dime a dozen online, every day, thereby making these inseparable from reality for the lay person. This blurring of reality is the real affliction of our times.

“It really is an Alice in Wonderland kind of a situation. There is no guarantee that whatever comes on media is true,” is how Sashi Kumar Menon puts it.

“The market model of TRP driven journalism is making journalism gravitate towards populist tendencies on social media,” he adds. “Today social media has started ordering what the media should be carrying.”

“More and more, infotainment, reality TV and entertainment is getting blurred now,” says Rajdeep Sardesai.

“The struggle is to identify what is information for me to consume and whether it is real. It is something I am still trying to find out,” says Kunal Kamra when asked about how he keeps track of reality.

The Way Ahead

The one solution would be for Parliament to legislate laws to govern the social media platforms and hold them responsible for the content. This is already being done in Europe.

Selective use of state apparatus to take vindictive actions to silence those holding opposing opinions cannot be the way forward.

“Government of India doesn’t want to control the vile online as those in power have weaponised social media and are themselves misusing it,” Paranjoy Guha Thakurtha says. “We now have an entire generation growing up in this completely toxic environment which is dividing societies by creating false binaries.”

“There is no point anguishing over this,” says Rajdeep Sardesai. “They are not going to stop on their own,” he says, referring to the dominance of the right wing and their misuse of the platforms.

“The right wing in India has monopolised social media to wage a poisonous fight against the so called enemies of the state,” he says.

Describing individuals or communities as enemies of the state is a manifestation of political repression and we in India have crossed the stage where such identification is still new. Any opposing opinion is today characterised as coming from supporters of Pakistan - the numero uno enemy state. And a normalisation of such taunts has already set in.

“Right wing outlets have always been presenting an alternative fake reality,” says Anirudh Bahal, editor of Cobrapost. “It has bought them great success.”

In such a climate, the onus is on the media, the traditional gatekeepers of social reality, to rise to the challenge and dispel such tendencies says Rajdeep Sardesai. “I have no solutions to offer other than asking the journalists why did they become journalists.”

Any which way one looks at it - what happens online can only be seen as a struggle for social, political and cultural hegemony - to win over, convince or defeat those professing reality and to force them into silence. To this end alternate realities are constructed, fake news spread and misinformation is replacing facts.

Creating alternate truths through information suppression or creative manipulation has been in keeping with the trend under the present dispensation.

When the leaked NSSO survey report revealed that the 2017-18 unemployment rate at 6.1% was at a 45-year high, it was brushed aside as a draft report, although it had been approved in December 2018.

When the media took it up, social media narratives painted NSC chief PC Mohanan and independent member J Meenakshi who quit the statistics ministry over non-publication of the figures as Congress stooges out to show the government in bad light just like the media.

Prime Minister's economic advisor Bibek Debroy soon reassured the silos when he said, a new survey “will show that there has been substantial employment and substantiated job creation,” Their nerves calmed, the silos awaited new truths.

A lot of noise on social media in the build-up to the elections held that employment generated under MUDRA scheme had shown that all was hunky dory. The basis for this was a statement by Interim Finance Minister Piyush Goyal who said that "job seekers have now become job creators", referring to the MUDRA Yojana, a scheme to promote lending to small businesses.

Hiding mediocrity behind high flying statements is nothing new for ruling dispensations but making them lived truths is. The actual statistics by the way are yet to be released.

The same is the fate of country’s GDP figures which were tweaked to paint a pleasant picture. In 2015, the base year for all calculations was revised from 2004-05 to 2011-12, and the methodology changed, giving India a magical jump in GDP growth from 5.5% to 7.4% thus surpassing China. For the silos this was cause for celebration. Post the election though, the former CEA Arvind Subramanian admits that the GDP growth rate was inflated by 2.5%.

When at the peak of a massive intelligence failure, the country lost 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel in Pulwama, instead of questioning the intelligence failure the rhetoric online was turned to praising the Veer Jawans who sacrificed their lives for the country.

A cross border operation conducted in the aftermath managed to down our own chopper in friendly fire – again, a fact that was admitted only after the election results were announced.

In the remains of the day, it is perhaps time that the media started speaking truth to power and left social media behind.