Social media is killing democracy
Last week, Uddhav Thackeray was forced to deny reports that Mumbai would be re-imposing a lockdown on June 15. The reports had made such an impact that all over the city, people were stocking up on goods and wondering whether they had made a mistake by resuming work too soon.
In Delhi, where reports of a similar June 15 lockdown had also surfaced — though they had not been as widely circulated as they were in Mumbai — the health minister, and subsequently the chief minister, had to issue a similar denial.
Here’s the thing about these reports. They had not come from a single credible source. Nor had they been attributed to anyone in a position to either make that decision or to know the truth. They had not been carried in newspapers or on TV channels.
Instead, they had come from Facebook and WhatsApp forwards.
And on Facebook and WhatsApp, you don’t need to quote anyone or provide any sources. People just tend to believe what they read on their phones. And even if they don’t fully believe, it still nags away at them inside their heads.
The WhatsApp news phenomenon is not new. WhatsApp has regularly been used by political parties and partisan groups to circulate photo-shopped pictures and false news. Riots have broken out as a consequence of WhatsApp forwards and people have been killed on the basis of fake news.
But over the last few months, there has been an important escalation in the ability of social media — not just WhatsApp but Facebook too — to set the agenda. In the United States (US), Facebook posts have been used to stoke emotions and circulate bogus information in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Fortunately, this has led to a national outcry against Facebook in the US and a systematic debunking of the lies by TV channels and newspapers. In India, alas, we don’t have the checks and balances that they have in the US.
There was a time when TV news was interested in what was happening in India. It tried to tell the truth. Its stock in trade was facts, not emotions. Over the last few years, however, TV has lost interest in news. This is particularly true of many regional news channels, though most commentators only focus on the national Hindi and English channels.
TV is a commercial medium so it makes sense to cut costs and increase revenues. Covering news costs money; so, many channels have settled for a low-cost formula of studio debates. The only major costs are the anchor’s remuneration and the studio expenses. In the old days, channels paid for camerapersons who went and shot debates with guests outside the studio. But now, with Zoom and Skype, the cost of getting the guests on air is virtually zero.
In the 1970s, the media pundit, Marshall Mcluhan, wrote that while radio was a “hot” medium which could inflame sentiment (as Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill did when their speeches were broadcast on radio), TV was a “cold” medium better suited to reasoned analysis.
We know now that he was completely wrong. Today TV is the “hottest” medium of all, used mainly to arouse emotions and create outrage or fear. It functions best when there is conflict in the studio and so it chases emotive issues rather than the real news.
Not only does this keep costs down, it also raises revenues. The truth is that viewers like this sort of thing. It engages and entertains them and it doesn’t matter if the content has all the credibility of a WhatsApp forward — or even less.
In such an environment, the one medium that still felt committed to provide real news was the newspaper. All over the world, newspapers are in trouble but the big ones have managed to survive, their commitment to the news intact. I had always imagined that something like that would happen in India.
But Covid-19 may have changed all that. Though all research suggests that the virus does not survive for very long on paper (and there is research that suggests that it doesn’t survive at all on newspapers), the great Indian middle class has taken it into its head that newspapers can be a major source of infection.
In some states, governments have banned the circulation of newspapers. In other places, housing societies and residents welfare associations have banned them.
Often, there is no need for any kind of ban. There are enough WhatsApp forwards suggesting that delivery boys are Covid-19 positive and that they might even pass on the virus deliberately. I know otherwise intelligent middle class people who believe this classist nonsense and have opted out of having papers delivered home.
This has led to a situation where much of India gets no newspapers at all and gets no news from TV (because apart from a couple of channels, nobody cares about the news) either. The primary sources of information become social media platforms. Yes there are news websites but few of them have the impact that social media does.
In essence, therefore, we risk becoming a society that never finds out what’s really happening, that never knows what the news is, and is at the mercy of anybody who wants to plant fake news or lies on social media.
There can be no democracy without truth. And there can be no truth without facts. And yet that’s the situation India now finds itself in.
I hope things will change once the pandemic passes. But by then it may already be too late. We will have become a society that is blind to reality and at the mercy of anyone who knows to manipulate social media.
It is the surest way to smother democracy.