On social media, facts are less than sacred | columns | Hindustan Times
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On social media, facts are less than sacred

All of us with smartphones are now publishers of our own stories on social media, consuming, sharing, forwarding often to groups that think and feel like us. The truth must be out there, somewhere. But when we have a yarn to spin, does it really matter?

columns Updated: Dec 16, 2016 19:17 IST
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Just this past one week, a hacker called Legion accessed the social media accounts of two senior journalists. (Shutterstock)

The great truth about social media, it used to be said, was that it provided an alternative to mainstream media. Traditional media were almost pathologically biased against the BJP, or so went conventional rightwing lore, and, therefore, social media would right a historical wrong and open up a democratic space with ordinary citizens driving the narrative.

There is much that is wrong with old media. Paid news, where advertisers purchase news space, for instance. But the alternative narrative seldom, if ever, dwells on this. Instead, a vast spin factory that straddles geography, language, gender and, now, even ideology has come together to obscure the meaning of ‘truth’.

Read: Running away from the trolls

Just this past one week, a hacker called Legion accessed the social media accounts of two senior journalists. The story now making the rounds is that one of them had emailed an off-record conversation with Apollo management about the possible cause of J. Jayalalithaa’s death: Wrongly prescribed diabetes medicine. If true, it has larger implications, as details of the ailment that led to the Tamil Nadu chief minister’s death have never been revealed. Rumour, fact or innuendo? The journalist, news organisation and hospital aren’t talking, so it’s hard to tell.

The same week, faking news on demonetisation swung wildly from GPS-enabled Rs 2,000 notes to reports of bank lockers allowed to be opened only in the presence of income tax officers with thousands of retired officers being roped in. It doesn’t help that the government’s own demonetisation narrative keeps shifting from black money, counterfeit notes and terrorism to cashless society, or, well, not exactly cashless but nearly cashless.

Read: ‘Inactive’ BJP not digitally smart despite PM Modi’s social media push

In a post-truth world, facts are less-than-sacred. The political narrative is decidedly emotional. In Goa, voice choking with emotion, Modi speaks of how he ‘left my home and everything for the country’. In Delhi, Rahul Gandhi promises an ‘earthquake’ when he reveals the ‘truth’ about Modi’s personal corruption in Parliament.

The abdication of truth to emotion has, shamefully, crossed into some television news channels where ‘national interest’ often trumps the first journalistic rule of presenting facts. Taking its cues from social media, many old media channels now assume that it is against the national interest to question human rights in Kashmir, report on demonetisation’s pain, allow a Pakistani studio guest to speak without interjection, question a court order on the mandatory singing of the national anthem, probe any army action. Arnab Goswami’s new TV venture is reportedly, and unsurprisingly, to be called Republic.

To this mix of social media, traditional media, emotion and politics, add a fifth dimension -- monitoring. Algorithms on Facebook, Google and Twitter track consumer preferences. A great deal has already been written about media ‘bubbles’ and how we receive and forward views that reinforce the way we think, moving further away from an alternative point of view. “Social media enable members of such groups to strengthen each other’s beliefs, by shutting out contradictory information, and to take collective action,” notes The Economist in a September article, Yes I’d Lie to You.

Read: Face of Congress ad faces social media fury

The decline of media credibility – in large parts justified -- and the rise of social media comes at a time when technology in India is booming with 684 million unique mobile users, 370 million of whom access the internet. Each one is a potential news outlet, each one with the power to disseminate facts, spin or just rant. In a post-truth world, we don’t even need words; jokes, cartoons and memes will all do nicely.

As old media struggles to keep up and adopt many of social media’s tactics, especially its appeal to emotion, we find that both can spin, both can have agendas. Only traditional media remains (somewhat) accountable.

All of us with smartphones are now publishers of our own stories on social media, consuming, sharing, forwarding often to groups that think and feel like us. The truth must be out there, somewhere. But when we have a yarn to spin, does it really matter?

Namita Bhandare is gender editor, Mint

The views expressed are personal

@namitabhandare