About 10 days ago, there was a sudden flurry of activity on social media, around China. On an otherwise slow news day, social media rumours claimed that multiple flights in China had been cancelled. Some speculated that there was a coup in China, with President Xi placed under house arrest. Others claimed that there were 80 km long traffic jams – because tanks were on their way from provincial towns to Beijing. What was interesting was that none of these were by China watchers, or experts on China – insofar as any outsider can be an expert on China. Many of these were from handles with few followers, little China context (till then), and a fair few of these handles were from India.
President Xi began trending in India, as many news platforms picked up the story and gave it prominence. On the two days when the rumour peaked, if you had searched “China Coup” you would have a number of news stories – mostly from platforms that plug conspiracy theories, and Indian Mainstream Media. For some reason known only to them, the Indian mainstream media did not think of reaching out to the foreign expats in Beijing – including a large number of Indians; nor did it think of reaching out to foreign correspondents based across China – including Indian reporters – it just ran the story of a coup in China, without verification.
When Georg Fahrion, the China correspondent of respected German newspaper Der Spiegel, posted a thread on Twitter, showing life as normal in Beijing – but with sarcastic captions – Arnab Goswami’s Republic Bharat ran it as serious news. For some inexplicable reason, which goes beyond clickbait, the Indian mainstream media chose to believe that China was not just unstable politically, but that their President and the entire politburo had been overthrown by a coup, without a single bullet being fired.
About 20 years ago, there used to be a role in news called the Editor. The role of the editor was to ascertain the newsworthiness of a story, and also ensure that the story was fundamentally sound. That it had no gaping holes in logic. That it had no falsehood attached to it. Also, that it did not end up causing a riot, or seriously damaging relations with friendly nations. That role has died in mainstream media, killed by the requirement of search engine optimisation (SEO) and the need to follow trending topics all the time. News platforms no longer look at news that is important. They look at search terms that people may be searching for.
The business model of news is to attract and package eyeballs to sell to advertisers. It does not matter what the news platforms carry – so long as they attract those eyeballs. If you are wondering why leading platforms are putting up summaries of Bigg Boss or carrying content on star affairs – it is this.
This explains why the Hindustan Times carried an unverified news story based on a school principal’s tearful video where she accused teachers in her school of harassing her. One of the teachers happened to be Muslim (the other two were Hindus) – but the headline read “Hindu principal accuses Muslim Teachers…” This is because stories of Hindu Muslim altercations attract viewership. For many news platforms, even if they came from once respectable pedigree, the lure of eyeballs is greater than their commitment to their brand. For eyeballs, news platforms are destroying the fabric of society and the unity of the nation, and their own reputation.
Recently the Supreme Court asked why the Central Government is standing as a mute witness, while mainstream media vitiates the atmosphere and spreads hate. The SC made this specific point with reference to the need for a strong regulatory mechanism vis-à-vis hate speech.
The problem with hate speech lies in its definition. And it gets into very murky waters of free speech and its curtailment. But there is no ambiguity in dealing with lies. Lies are not covered by free speech directives. What the Government needs to do is crack down on fake news. A lot of fake news platforms have gone with the crackdown by social media platforms in the days following Brexit and the Trump victory.
Today, in India, we have Mainstream Media platforms taking the place of fake news platforms. If a news platform runs fake news – news that its anchors, reporters, and handles spread – then they need to be liable. And this needs to bite them. It needs to hurt. Platforms that profit from lies, need to understand that they no longer can. For a ruling party that has mostly benefited from these lies, the challenge is whether they can do their ‘raja dharma’ and crack down on fake. If they did that, it is highly likely that hate on our airwaves and news platforms will automatically come down. And we are not left with the embarrassment of a news media that posts about coups without verification.
The writer works at the intersecton of digital content, technology, and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty, and filmmaker. She tweets at @calamur