City City Bang Bang, Columns

Of Twitter outrage & media silence

So, finally the genie is at large. After a period of co-ordinated silence, media has begun covering mediagate – the scandal involving the Radia tapes. More precisely, it has started covering the aftermath of the scandal that involves more than a few extremely senior journalists. In many ways, media had no choice, given the pressure that was relentlessly maintained by those haunting the alleys of social media. Like the noise of an enraged crowd that grows as it approaches the palace gates, the pressure from social media has kept on building, making it impossible to ignore. The blanket silence that was achieved on mainstream media, give or take a few exceptions, was undone by the noisy roar of Twitter outrage. In another day and age, the story would have been effectively killed, but there was no chance of that happening, given the availability of this direct pipeline from and into the consciousness of the public.

The power of social media needs to be reflected upon for it is a new force that begs deeper understanding. In a country of India’s size it potentially wields power disproportionate to the number of people it involves and reaches. Its influence comes partly from its design – there are very few other mechanisms we have where citizens can offer direct feedback in real time to events as they unfold. On Twitter a section of India thinks aloud and does so with little restraint. By allowing people to connect with each other while simultaneously speaking to the universe, it merges the individual with the collective and the personal with the public. Every new input is multiplied, as we saw in this case; any new information or article was relayed instantly and added to the swelling tide of opinion. The influence of social media comes also from the romance that surrounds it. The same thing said on Twitter becomes touched with the stardust of the new age and receives greater attention.

Of course, social media in general and Twitter in particular work best when it is possible to collapse the issue into key focal points. In this case, we saw most of the ire directed at specific individuals and the mainstream media for its refusal to acknowledge the issue. Twitter is text at its most primal; it is the digital equivalent of a scream, in that the sound is more significant than the content of the communication. Nuance is sacrificed for force, as diverse individuals converge to create a shared vocabulary of outrage. Crowds collaborate to create a common edifice of anger and they do so by giving unremitting attention to a few slogans.

In retrospect, perhaps blanking out news about the scandal was the worst possible way to try and control the story. It would appear media does not fully understand the effects it generates, given that all that the silence achieved was to give those on social media a focused sense of purpose and played to the strengths of this new medium. Had the media covered the story, it would allowed for many divergent voices to emerge. It would have blunted the righteous sense of outrage, the heady feeling of standing up to the establishment that has fuelled much of the chatter. By creating multiple strands of opinion, it would have fragmented the discourse by raising several questions that are currently not being asked today. And there are legitimate questions that need to be addressed along with the main issue of the loss of journalistic integrity. Who engineered the leak? Why now? What do the other conversations show? What about the violation of privacy of those not directly involved?

When media begins to gag itself and that too because of a vested personal interest, it creates several distortions. It allows a powerful but twisted narrative of outrage to emerge through alternative channels such as social media. It foregoes the right to dissect larger issues and enable us to put things in perspective. Most importantly, it surrenders its responsibility as a pillar of democracy to act as a watchdog that keeps other institutions honest. Today, we stand at a juncture where we have successfully hollowed out belief in any and every institution. The media, for all is obsession with rating points, its sensationalist framing of issues and its surrender to the charms of glamorous celebrities, was believed to be providing us with some protection by auditing the actions of the powerful. By first showing us that a significant section of media was not worthy of our trust and then by colluding with each other to prevent this story from coming out, media has abdicated its responsibility and created a situation where there is virtually no credible institution left intact to bring about the change that is so clearly required.

For all its power, the answer does not lie in social media. We need to be grateful that it exists, for it ensures that deliberate erasure of reality is no longer possible, but it cannot replace the role played by media, at least for now. If there ever was a time for introspection by media, it is now. It may or not act as the watchdog as it once did, but it has a watchdog of its own. And while the bark of social media is decidedly worse than its bite, it sure knows how to bark.