Thursday, 9 February 2012

How the Fear of Trolls, Hecklers & Satirists in Social Media in India, Keeps Traditional Media Honest

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Social Media in India has an Astonishing Quality of Analysis; a Lightning Speed of Feedback, and a Seamless Reach Across Borders and Socioeconomic Strata.
The first signs of the recognition of Social Media emerging as an alternative source to traditional news media came during the Bombay Terror Attacks starting 26 November of 2008. 

Wikileaks and the Internet fuelled unrest in the Middle East later, the world of news, and messages had changed forever. Even the Chinese, could not escape its human wrath.
Largely fed from online networks and communities that uploaded, discussed the attack live across its duration with pictures, Tweets, text messages, Facebook status updates, and anguished Blogs. Some exaggerated, some spread rumour and speculation but largely remained credible, germaine and astonishingly lucid.
The News timeline has gone on largely as it had before, as India moved through, victories and defeats, terror attacks and joy, its scams, scandals, smear campaigns, the chest beating, the legislation, the Baba Ramdev’s and the Anna Hazare’s. Social Media in India has been first of the ground on train tragedies, bombings, natural disasters, controversial books, writers, dissidents, separatists, the right, the left and its centrist.
As traditional media ownership, gets increasingly polymerized, and management control overtakes editorial mores; the transformation of the news business to product has gained currency. The line between editorial, advertorial and advertising has become increasingly blurred. 

There are beacons of truth, now and again; those who tried to stay true to the original journalistic ethos, but most succumbed to vagaries of economic strife and advertising revenue. Somewhere along the way Indian journalism increasingly forgot the principles of transparency, of public morality, of being the voice of those who did not have one.
The mainline or traditional media, print, broadcast and radio, are today easily controllable sources of the news business, of truth and propaganda, often toeing the company line as organs of the state’s direction setting and its thrust, as they faithfully did during a command and control, Nehruvian socialism. 

The liberalisation and the heady days of the 1990s made no change to this herd proclivity. As India moved to a liberalized rhythm, and successive governments underwent transition, no one saw this inflection point coming. The explosion of technology led content generation as the harbinger of change was never expected or planned for by the thinkers and communicators of the state.
Most today are still remain in active denial of facts such as, “Almost half of all ‘home based’ Internet users are ‘heavy users’ of Internet, spending more than 2 hours a day on weekdays. Less than 1 in 3 of them spend that kind time on other media.” Or that, “Net surfing is among top 3 favorite ‘indoor entertainment’ for 3 out of 4 of them. 9 out of 10 of them (86%) use some ‘social media’ (Networking, Communities, Blogs, Tweets, and Reviews).”
Let us examine traditional journalism and its practitioners, long broken into a system of boundaries and delineation suddenly they were set upon by a world of known’ unknowns. Public trust in government, traditional media has plumbed newer lows as a multitude of scams has hit recent India again and again. 

In the turbulent environment of popular public discourse, as intelligence agency recorded private conversations are leaked, doctored, stings are used in smear campaigns; misinformation and feints have started to define traditional media management, as its dark but acceptable arts. As multiple outrages later, terror is politicized, and double standard of abdicated law and public order is practiced to a politically sectarian end, by vote bank necessitated malcontents, it further play havoc with this trust. 

The suspicion of the common man and the flicker of his moral compass have all become pronounced, these have found outlet in user generated content of social media, the slickest of the players have being found out, shamed and outed by Social Media. It is a medium that has remained largely self-balancing, such is the medium that loose tweets cannot be denied or defended. Sophistry has ended political careers or at least resulted in the political doghouse.
As the heckling and the satire hit vanities of media barons and media divas close to their personal eco-systems, as media changed to two-way conversation from the earlier one way, fire and forget missive. Suddenly, the chance of the shameless plug being found out were real, paid news was being exposed, equity for news coverage, all were fair targets by the confounding Facebookers and the infuriating Twitterati.
The praise and the brickbats are instantaneous, as are the recrimination, the analysis, its quality and veracity are way above average. Professionals, doctors, spooks, soldiers, bankers, policemen, everyone is out there. These are people with jobs: “Almost 2/3rd of all Internet users are ‘employed’, and 71% of the employed ones ‘head’ of their households.” They have money: “2/3rd of online Indians belong to SEC A, B and C, with claimed ‘average’ monthly family income of `18,720; 1 in 4 have a credit card.” And they have an opinion, on everything!
Some screamed ‘troll’, others wished it away as a fad, and while no one in traditional media wanted to acknowledge this as a delightful source of information, an early warning system. Social Media was the open secret of crowd sourcing, this harvesting of a terrible knowledge, from user generated content, across social networking platforms, to find inspiration, search for ideas or to just renew a jaded, habit struck intellect.
As Social Media aided by Twitter, Facebook, Google and YouTube broke cover, they increasngly started to threaten both traditional print and broadcast media’s grip on breaking news. Online news and streaming media turned rivals to traditional media used to a comfortable monopoly thus far; all this became a frightening reality.
As losses to online advertising revenues start becoming sizeable and started cutting the lunch of conventional media spends, the suits and the editors, realized that the Internet and Social Media phenomena are here to stay. The active Internet base in India as per findings from the India Online 2011 Report from JuxtConsult stands in excess of 65 Million users, up 28 per cent since last year. Mobile users surfing Internet on their mobile phones grew slowly (25%) to reach only 14.4 million (3.5% of all Indian mobile users). However, 86 million mobile users (21%) use some kind of ‘data’ service. That is a target audience that cannot be wished away, certainly not by advertisers, and they pay the bills at the end of the day.
Meanwhile, Twitter feeds are already being faked; proxies for political parties who tried to turn the same tricks as they did on conventional media, on the Internet were quickly exposed, identifiable by their ubiquitous IP Address, anonymity no guarantee for misbehaviour or slander. Yes, there are the abusive and the prurient, the vain and the profane, religious nuts and communist retrogrades. It is open house for Internet is a mirror to society and one can argue on why Indian society should be allowed the comfort of selective showcase viewing, now that the socialist façade is crumbling into a modern India that can laugh at its blemishes, for there is a lot to admire too.
The days of the Siberian gulag sounding PIB (Press Information Bureau) that produces press releases that are largely ignored by most media for they are crusty, staid, badly written, poorly researched and tardily disseminated are not over by far but their irrelevance is increasing by the day. These text only monoliths find no favour with the media rich, pictorial, video or an infographic competitive social media, that can be shared seamlessly across caste, creed and socio economic strata.
Today as the PMO and the MHA start Twitter handles, the secrecy paranoid official India is being dragged kicking and screaming into Social Media. The Armed Forces need a social media policy, as does the Police and all government offices, NGOs, Banks, Utilities, Ports, everybody who deals with the public, if they are going to have a chance of having any say at all.
The future of journalism has changed. The forced exodus to hybrid media has already begun, based on technology but still relying on the robustness of authenticated, feet of the street, news. Content was and still remains king, storytelling still the spine of the new business. Journalist, communicator alike, government or enterprise or non-profit, all realize the lay of the land.
Many old journalists used to a primal rhythm don’t like it. They moan about the lack of analysis, and it’s a longer but factual periodicity as divergent to breaking news and topical news. The argument is exaggerated and has more in the nature of inertia than fact. Looking back at cackle of typewriters and teleprinters, who could’ve said, what the world would become.
The standards of probity, of integrity and transparency of an independent media have not changed but translated across an interactive two way medium that listens and talks back. Social Media has kept conventional media honest and if anything returned the emphasis to these values. It marks the return of true investigative journalism, one that keeps governments honest. 

It is nobody's case that print will die or TV will become extinct or radio for that matter, those in tradional media will all have to adapt to the digital medium, some sooner, others, losses later or an extinct never.


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