The recent floods in Kerala showed two sides of the same media coin. The use of media and social media for good, and the use of them to spread fake news and hatred.
The permeability of news between social feeds and mainstream channels has never been more pronounced. A hungry main stream media soaked up everything on social media, amplifying both the goodwill and the hate. Not only were there live updates of the issues on the ground, there were live updates from anyone who was remotely noteworthy and had a view on the floods. And, often, this included rather retrograde views on God, women, food, and floods.
Mainstream media is guilty of allowing an alternate view of the floods to permeate – a view based on the worst kind of superstition. A view that said that the floods were retribution by angry God(s) who unleashed the fury of nature to teach people a lesson for their wanting to enter a temple, and their culinary choices. Apart from the fact that it shows God in very poor light, the argument has no basis in fact or myth. But, for TV channels a human tragedy does not garner as much viewership, as superstitious tosh. And herein lies the big question – what should be the role of the media in society, and in polity?
The first role, of course, is disseminating news. And, this was done ably by local media, and social media. As with the case with the Chennai floods, people within the state, and a large diaspora outside the state, both in India and abroad, took to amplifying the messages of help needed. And, they were largely successful. While people on the ground congregated to help using messaging tools like Whatsapp, others broadcast request for help, and the readiness to help, using platforms like twitter.
Digital companies like PayTM, Amazon, Zomato, Google unleashed the power of digital for good, and used their platforms to help those affected by the floods. The Chief Minister of Kerala, the administration, the opposition, armed forces, NDRF, NGO’s and others joined hands to work together, to deliver relief in the flood torn state. And, in all this, while you saw the terrible pictures of Kerala under water, you also saw the tremendous goodness of people across India, and the world, who reached out to help – mostly using technology.
The other vital role of the media is putting out verified facts. And, in this the media did not work too well. Social media ended up policing itself.
Fake news was a major problem during the coverage of Kerala floods. There were cons, exaggerations, and denials of the floods. There was one who put out the CM’s disaster relief fund appeal, with his bank account details . He got quickly caught. There was one audio clip that went viral, where a man claimed Kerala floods impacted only the rich, and it really needed no aid . That message spread rapidly, but unlike in the case of most fake news, this was debunked equally fast. There was an instance when the Armed Forces stepped in to declare “Imposter wearing Army combat uniform in video spreading disinformation about rescue & relief efforts” . A large part of the virality of the content was the seamless transition between social media and main stream media. When fakes on social media are presented on main stream media, without first verifying its antecedents, we have a fake news problem.
And, the third role is balance – and while balance is seen as accommodating left and right, and therefore having party spokespeople present in studios, it is also about countering certain opinions and not presenting them as Gospel truth. But, at the same time it is also not about giving incredulous claims legitimacy, and thereby mainstreaming them. And, this is where the media falters – not just in India but elsewhere.
Amongst the more ridiculous media creations in the world is the
flat earth society – a bunch of people who propagate the idea that the earth is flat despite evidence to the contrary. While this particular case may be harmless jest, giving alternate views credence is not always so amusing. Amongst the groups the media has built up, in the last decade or so, has been the anti-vaccine activists. People who believe that vaccines that immunise children from a whole host of diseases is a giant corporate con. This is despite scientific evidence from the world over. In giving flat earthers, and anti vaccine activists a platform, the media has made irrationalists into an alternate view. Balance is not having two sides debate if the sun rises in the west. It is not having that topic up for discussion for starters.
And that is precisely what has happened in the Kerala floods. When men and women dressed in ochre, claiming to be Godmen and women, make pronouncements on sin, God’s anger, and retribution – then how do you counter? One simple answer would be to leave them out of the news cycle. Since journalists cannot verify God, or God’s anger, it may not be a valid news story to carry. The second, more complex way, is to find another person with similar antecedents, and get them to counter the superstition, with other readings from the scriptures that tells viewers that the floods were not retribution. Just because someone believes that the world is balanced on a giant dragon flying through space, doesn’t mean you give them airtime and make it a national delusion.
This is not about curtailing freedom of expression. People are still free to think and say whatever they want, however ridiculous it is. It is about not mainstreaming the worst kind of illogical pronouncements and passing them off as legitimate cause and effect. The media needs to be more responsible, especially during crisis, in the kind of content it puts out. Dividing the country on the basis of hate, otherising people and communities, making people targets, is not the role of media. But, this seems to be the role that the media has been adopting in the last decade. If the media spent more time covering the event, rather than filling air time with a random selection of voices, each more controversial than the other, it may end up regaining some of its lost audiences and glory. If it continues down this path of shoving a camera and a mic into the face of the loudest, most irrational, yet articulate person, it will end up dividing more than any politician can.
Harini Calamur writes on politics, gender and her areas of interest are the intersection of technology, media, and audiences.