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Opinion

Social media is killing democracy: analysis

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Last week, Uddhav Thackeray was forced to deny reports that Mumbai would re-impose a blockade on June 15. The reports had had such a huge impact that throughout the city, people were stocking up on produce and wondering if they had made a mistake. resuming work too soon.

In Delhi, where reports of a similar shutdown also emerged on June 15, although they had not circulated as widely as in Mumbai, the health minister and subsequently the prime minister had to issue a similar denial.

This is what happens with these reports. They had not come from a single credible source. Nor had they been attributed to anyone in a position to make that decision or to know the truth. They had not been carried in the newspapers or on television channels.

Instead, they had come from Facebook and WhatsApp forward.

And on Facebook and WhatsApp, you don’t need to quote anyone or provide any sources. People tend to believe what they read on their phones. And even if they don’t fully believe, it still bothers them inside their heads.

The WhatsApp news phenomenon is not new. WhatsApp has been regularly used by political parties and partisan groups to circulate fake photos and news. Riots have erupted as a result of WhatsApp forwardings and people have been killed on the basis of fake news.

But in recent months, there has been a major escalation in the ability of social media, not just WhatsApp but also Facebook, to set the agenda. In the United States (USA), Facebook posts have been used to stoke emotions and circulate false information following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

Fortunately, this has sparked a national protest against Facebook in the US. USA And a systematic denial of lies by television channels and newspapers. In India, unfortunately, we do not have the checks and balances that they have in the United States.

There was a time when television news was interested in what was happening in India. He tried to tell the truth. His stock in trade was fact, not emotion. However, in recent years, television has lost interest in the news. This is particularly true on many regional news channels, although most commentators only focus on national Hindi and English channels.

Television is a commercial medium, so it makes sense to cut costs and increase revenue. Covering news costs money; Therefore, many channels have settled for a low-cost formula for study discussions. The only major costs are the presenter’s remuneration and studio expenses. In the old days, channels paid cameramen who went and recorded debates with guests outside the studio. But now, with Zoom and Skype, the cost of getting guests on the air is practically zero.

In the 1970s, media expert Marshall Mcluhan wrote that while radio was a “hot” medium that could inflame sentiment (as Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill did when their speeches were broadcast on the radio), the Television was a “cold” medium best suited for reasoned analysis.

Now we know that he was completely wrong. Today television is the “most popular” medium of all, it is mainly used to arouse emotions and create outrage or fear. It works best when there is conflict in the studio, and therefore chases emotional subjects rather than the real news.

This not only keeps costs low, but also increases revenue. The truth is, viewers like this kind 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 this environment, the only medium that was still committed to providing real news was the newspaper. Around the world, newspapers are in trouble, but the greats have managed to survive, their engagement with the news intact. I had always imagined that something like this would happen in India.

But Covid-19 may have changed all of that. Although all research suggests that the virus does not survive long on paper (and there is research to suggest that it does not survive at all in newspapers), the large Indian middle class has taken into account that newspapers may be a major source of infection. .

In some states, governments have banned the circulation of newspapers. Elsewhere, housing societies and residents’ welfare associations have banned them.

Often, there is no need for any kind of ban. There are enough WhatsApp forwards to suggest that the delivery guys are positive for Covid-19 and that they might even deliberately transmit the virus. I know smart middle-class people who believe in this class nonsense and have chosen not to receive the papers at home.

This has led to a situation in which much of India receives no newspaper and no news from television (because, apart from a couple of channels, nobody cares about the news). The main sources of information become social media platforms. Yes, there are news websites, but few of them have the impact that social media has.

In essence, therefore, we run the risk of becoming a society that never finds out what’s really going on, never knows what the news is, and is at the mercy of anyone 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 is the situation India is in now.

I hope things will change once the pandemic passes. But by then it may already be too late. We will have become a society blind to reality and at the mercy of anyone who knows how to manipulate social networks.

It is the surest way to stifle democracy.

The opinions expressed are personal.

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