An article by zerohedge.com, being widely circulated on social media, makes interesting reading. It is a scathing attack on what the author refers to as ‘corporate media’ in the US. Zerohedge points out that, despite its outrage about president Donald Trump’s administration, the US media actually has no problem with America’s economic policy being ‘outsourced to Goldman Sachs’ or its close alliance with ‘terrorist’ kingdoms or even its ‘unprovoked militarism’. He argues that the US ‘corporate media’ is ‘deliberately’ not focusing on things that really matter to people and diverting mass attention to what is still just a conspiracy theory (about Russia). It also seems to be propping up Hillary Clinton for another bash at the top job, but may only end up ensuring a second term for Donald Trump.
Doesn’t that sound almost like India? Is it a coincidence that two major news channels boast ‘exclusives’ and ‘stings’ on Lalu Prasad Yadav and his family on the eve of major action by enforcement agencies? Why is it that issues that occupy day-long debates on television, often find barely any mention in mainline newspapers the next day? Who pulls their strings? Why do issues that affect ordinary persons never receive proper discussion or aggressive follow-up by mainstream media? Isn’t it because powerful corporate houses and advertisers dictate decisions? Let’s not forget that the government (Central, state, municipal, and public sector undertakings under their control) is a major source of revenue for every mainstream media organisation. It is advertisements for government jobs, tenders, tombstones, inaugurations and commemorative advertisements that keep regional media houses alive. And, yet, we expect them to be unbiased and hard-hitting, or curse them as ‘presstitutes‘.
The big media houses now have another revenue stream through mega-events, policy conclaves, summits and conferences. These are essentially networking and lobbying platforms whose financial success depends on their ability to attract Union ministers, industrialists and a sprinkling of socialites and film stars for the glamour quotient. Over the past decade, media houses have wrested this space from the once-powerful industry associations such as the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) because of their ability to attract a larger audience by broadcasting the proceedings. This has further eliminated the Chinese walls separating editorial and advertising. Today, management ‘evaluates’ everything that is fit to be aired or published and, often, involves covert and overt deals. It is a matter of survival. Most large media houses are listed entities that need to be conscious of quarter-on-quarter numbers and many have been reporting losses for a long time.
We, the people, also need to take some responsibility for this state of affairs. If most of us refuse to pay for news (which would allow us to demand unbiased news that covers a wide range of issues), there is little room for independent media to survive, gain significant size or be profitable. Consequently, we get the news coverage that is dished out to us by what zerohedge calls ‘corporate media’.
It is a bigger fallacy to believe that social media is the answer. Social media does, indeed, provide a flood of information and can expose egregious cases of misreporting and doctoring. But it has a limited ability to provide regular, unbiased, curated information and analyses on a range of local, national and global issues. On the other hand, social media is even more prone to manipulation at multiple levels. Genuine analysts and bloggers who dare to expose issues are threatened and harassed. This is especially true of business issues and listed companies with dubious management. We know of at least two specific cases. In one, a renowned management professor who wrote about a Chennai-based education company was threatened with a fake criminal complaint and the cops even landed at his door with an arrest warrant. Naturally, he backed off; it was not his job to turn into an activist. In the second case, an analyst was threatened by a large brokerage firm which has been touting a dubious stock. Ideally, the fact that we have market regulators with enormous power and sprawling infrastructure ought to have ensured an effective system to ensure protection of such whistleblowers. But we have a unique system where the government and its regulators, simply refuse to engage with ordinary stakeholders, either individually or through NGO platforms. So there is no way to report wrongdoing officially or be guaranteed protection.
Then there are large corporates, movie stars, political parties and other powerful people who have let loose image management teams on social media. They provide every kind of service—from trending a non-issue, to wrecking reputations, or conducting a campaign to push a point of view. In the past fortnight, at least two such handles have been exposed on Twitter. In one case, Alt News exposed how the so-called news site Hindutva.info, which peddled fake news (it allegedly passed off a Mexican video as that of an RSS member being killed in Kerala; passed off a Bangladeshi video as one showing a Hindu being killed by Muslims; planted a story that a popular TV anchor’s sister was suspended for corruption) is run by one Rajesh Jindal who has created a network of websites, Facebook pages and groups to drive huge traffic to his website and monetise it though advertisements.
The other exposé was about how Sharad Sharma, head of Product Nation and a well-known tech evangelist, was trolling and defaming techies who were anti-Aadhaar through an anonymous handle (@Confident_India ), which is part of iSPIRIT Foundation (ispirit.in)—a policy think-tank with deep links to the tech world and the creators of Aadhaar. Kiran Jonnalagadda (a tech enthusiast and Internet freedom campaigner), who was the butt of Sharad Sharma’s anonymous attacks, has gone on to post a detailed account of Mr Sharma’s work at iSPIRT Foundation. The Foundation has a project, named Sudham, that apparently runs “an officially sanctioned trolling program where the trolls coordinate on WhatsApp and attack together on Twitter.” He has also been posting rabidly nasty tweets from the ‘safety’ of his anonymous handle.
This exposé is even more worrying than the fake news one. Mr Sharma and projects like iSPIRIT Foundation have the blessings and patronage of the powerful team behind the Unique Identity Authority of India (UIDAI) which runs the Aadhaar project and will have access to our biometrics and database links to every aspect of our lives due to mandatory linkages ordered by the government. This ought to ring serious alarm bells everywhere. After all, UIDAI is one of the most ambitious technology programmes in the world and the government is forcing us to link every aspect of our lives to the Aadhaar number, which is in its ‘safe’ custody. Unfortunately, few will be alarmed, because this will not find editorial space or merit a prime-time discussion.
Social media, which is now the main source of information people consume, is even more polarising. Since it is impossible to curate the vast ocean of news and views (a job that used to be done by the media) being generated every micro-second, we end up consuming views that reinforce our beliefs and biases and spreading it around. This only foments intolerance, and poisons public discourse, leaving no room for nuance, questioning or even dispassionate criticism. This has dangerous portents for society. Each of us needs to think about its long-term implications and what it means to our individual freedom and future.