MSM Versus Social Media
The MSM versus SM debate
The mainstream media (MSM) versus social media (SM) debate is currently one of the hottest topics of the time.
MSM including print media are predominantly a one-sided medium. Online newspapers were supposedly open for receiving comments but even here, dissenting voices can be stifled and those questioning facts or disagreeing logically often found that their comments never made it to the public domain.
- SM are popular for expressing oneself on all issues including political ones since these media are perfectly democratic unlike MSM: all voices are heard equally.
- Additionally, SM are interactive unlike MSM which is a one way street.
These are the obvious factors that can be cited for the growing popularity of SM over MSM.
As elsewhere in the world, in India too, SM has gained as a medium of political discourse, for dissemination of politically relevant information, and as a forum for exchange of ideas between people who share political interests.
The rapid rise of SM as an increasingly popular mechanism of discourse on political content is set in a context.
History of MSM
Historically, print media in India have represented a spectrum of ideologies, with different English language and vernacular publications representing different ideals and ideologies (and consequently representing parties that espouse these ideologies). Many mainstream publications were daringly anti-establishment even during trying times such as the Emergency. While some publications steadfastly espoused one ideology all the time, certain other publications were seen to change their positions and leanings as editors changed and may have had phases of pro-establishment and anti-establishment content.
Additionally, print media content in each publication can be varied and may cover a wide range of ideologies. When one speaks of pro- or anti-establishment content, one refers to the predominance of such content in that specific publication.
The story with television or audio-visual media has been diametrically different, more so, with the English Language Media (ELM). To begin with were the days of Doordarshan, openly a government mouthpiece. Since the Congress party has been the ruling party at the center for 55+ years out of 65 years of independence, one can use the term government controlled media and Congress controlled media interchangeably.
After independent channels were created in the mid to late 1990s, it was felt that television as a medium was now free from the shackles of control of the ruling party. This was why in the first few years, even politically savvy citizens tended to mistake independent cable channels as representing the voice of the watchdog.
The biased tone and one-sided tenor of reporting by television channels went unnoticed initially and seeped into public consciousness only gradually, but eventually individual citizens began to increasingly notice that the discourse on these channels was biased. Perhaps individuals did not systematically categorize or analyze what was wrong in the reportage but it became increasingly clear that there was a bias in favor of the Congress and against Hindutva forces:
- Bias against BJP’s definition of seculraism “equality for all appeasement of none”.
- Depicting Hindutva as bad.
- Representing Hindu groups as the sole villains without providing a logical basis for such representation.
- Vilifying Hindu groups and yet not condemning blatantly communal verbiage and actions from Imams and Mullahs.
- Vilifying BJP as communal while labeling Muslim appeasing parties as secular despite such parties blatantly seeking discriminatory policies
Thinking citizens who regarded themselves as secular began to notice this blatant double standard.
Mechanisms for demonizing and vilifying individuals from the Hindutva side or the party as a whole, included:
- Framing stories based on distorted definitions.
- Excessively covering stories that project BJP and its members in a bad light and not covering or barely covering stories that expose Congress mal-governance or misdemeanors.
- Holding debates and discussions on issues and topics that help demonize individuals from BJP or the party as a whole.
- Not covering certain topics (such as the Kashmiri Pandit ethnic cleansing of the 1990s and the increasing radicalization in local mosques and Madarsahs) for debates.
- Inviting panelists who lie about facts and figures and not correcting the falsehoods.
- Inviting panelists who provide distorted or one sided definitions (for example, of secularism) and not providing the counter view.
- Inviting panelists who provide distorted or one sided definitions (for example, of secularism) and holding this definition as the correct one and basing all arguments on this.
- Often the representation of different views is skewed, more so since the anchor is an active participant for one side instead of being the moderator of the discussion.
Innumerable such instances of biased reporting and biased debates have been systematically analyzed at www.mediacrooks.com
Just as in TV reporting, biases in the print media may be gauged by the number of articles that oppose one point of view and promote another, types of stories covered, placement of such stories, etc. A recent measure for example could be by determining how many polemics were written to “debunk” the Gujarat growth story or to condemn Modi and the 2002 Gujarat riots.
Loss of Credibility of MSM
People continued to buy untruths peddled by the MSM for quite some time, perhaps due to the lack of a mechanism to know otherwise. SM has provided this very mechanism through providing a forum where people learn that there are many others who think what they think. Additionally, SM is a source of information and exchange of information helps disseminate it multiple fold.
Loss of credibility of MSM happened when citizens began to notice that the spin was neither random nor co-incidental. The spin was consistently such that the Congress party gained while BJP was at the receiving end.
MSM has been accused of being anti-Hindu but some critics of MSM claim that even that would be worthy of at least some respect if it was merely based on ideology. Critics claim that, on the contrary, what the MSM does is in fact pure business, as it is funded by entities (foreign or domestic) that support Islamism and/or cultivate Muslim vote banks.
MSM Anchors in the arena of Social Media
Until the advent of SM, MSM anchors were complacent in their knowledge that they were gatekeepers of information and perhaps major influencers of opinion as well. These anchors entered the SM arena in the belief that they could similarly dominate this medium and manipulate it as a means of influencing people.
Safe in their studio one-way ‘journalism’ where unpleasant feedback and dissent were kept out, MSM anchors had begun to mistake ‘journalism’ minus fact checks for freedom of speech. They had of course forgotten that like themselves, other citizens also have the right to freedom of speech and expression.
Entering the arena of SM, MSM anchors were in for a jolt. Words that they had forgotten: “accountability” “feedback” “questions” “fact check” “criticism” came back to haunt them. Such has been their suzerainty in TV studios that on SM, any person that expected accountability, provided feedback, asked questions, expected a fact check /correction, or critiqued/criticized began to be blocked on Twitter and such behavior was conveniently defined as abuse. That sections of people on SM spread across different political ideologies actually engage in abusive language is certainly true, but citizens seeking clarifications or pointing out factual errors politely cannot be painted with the same brush as such abusers and trouble makers.
MSM junks its watchdog role
A heavily critiqued administration in many democratic countries would address criticism by discussing governance failures. Policies would be brainstormed and an action plan put into place to address the lacunae. The UPA dispensation is however not worried about its infinitely poor governance record or even for that matter about its looting coming to light. Such issues are brazened out and shrugged off. As long as the government can continue to remain in power through means fair and foul, they are not much concerned. As long as individuals who participate in scams can stay safe from the arms of the law, all’s well.
The role of MSM in aiding and abetting this approach to governance is considerable, but with the focus on MSM’s BJP bashing and creation of faulty narratives of secularism, MSM complicity in UPA’s undermining of institutions remains largely ignored. We have such low expectations of the MSM that we rarely ask them what they were doing while mega-billion scams were being perpetrated under UPA rule. We almost take it for granted that investigative journalism as a preventive check to corruption and looting is not a part of the MSM function.
Just as we castigate MSM for fabricating stories (especially those of the anti-Modi anti-saffron variety), we also need to condemn them for abandoning their investigative role and letting UPA perpetrate scam after scam. Using ploys such as labeling the PM or the Defense Minister as “honest” despite massive scams happening under their noses, or focusing on “perception” and perception management, rather than on effective action and factual truths, like here, the MSM deftly abandoned their watchdog function. In doing so, they rang the final death knell of their credibility which had already been lost with their anti-Hindu anti-BJP biases during reporting.
This loss of credibility now extends to almost any luminary who espouses the carefully crafted MSM narrative. Not to mention that on close inspection, many such luminaries presented as ‘objective critics’ have a finger in a government doled out position or pie…almost always.
With MSM’s near abandonment of its watchdog role, the undermining of institutions has been an ongoing process by UPA and over time, scuttling investigations to safeguard kingpins and chief beneficiaries of mega scams of unbelievable proportions has become routine. Name the institution and it appears to be compromised or to be controlled by compromised elements in cahoots with the government. Institutions such as the CAG that stand up to the government are accused of being allies of the opposition and are undermined through an adamant refusal to act on their suggestion.
The Congress party and SM
This strategy has suited the Congress party thus far, but with the inevitability of elections either later this year or in early 2014, among Congress rank and file and Congress-supporting MSM entities there’s trepidation regarding the growing influence of SM to vent and inform against Congress corruption and mal-governance.
To counter the growing support for BJP, and to contest citizens that voluntarily support BJP, the Congress party began an exercise of looking for paid volunteers as seen here and here. For enlisting support for this endeavor, registration was sought (see this).
After all, desperation is the mother of changing the status quo.
The I&B Minister Manish Tewari said: “the ministry hopes that engaging people in dissemination of government policies and programs at various social networking sites and other spaces on the internet could give much better results.”
Parallels are bound to be drawn in this approach of paid SM volunteers for propaganda with the routine allegations of paid MSM.
It was the thousands of falsehoods propagated a thousand times that prompted a spontaneous citizen’s movement on SM. Surprisingly, even this fact that BJP support is largely spontaneous and constituted by individual elements not officially affiliated with the party is now being distorted.
An important principle of selling is that one must believe in the product one is selling/promoting, which is why social media has been effective for BJP/Modi. Therefore, it remains doubtful how much benefit the Congress party can reap from this strategy.
MSM outreach to SM
This brings us to the recent outreach effort by NDTV’s Vikram Chandra which resulted in this episode of the Big Fight.
Was this outreach effort in the nature of a “Know thy enemy” (Know the Congress’ enemy) exercise? Only, the “enemy” here is the common citizen.
Those representing the BJP point of view on the debate were so effective in exposing Congress falsehoods that they could even be role models to some of the ineffective BJP spokespersons on TV debates. Makes one wonder: Is the BJP top leadership using social media to influence citizens or is the converse true?
To conclude, it appears that SM activism is here to stay. How much it affects electoral outcomes in the near future remains to be seen, but we are at the threshold of history in the sense that a major entrenched establishment, the MSM has been shaken from the status quo.