Media in a post-truth world: Lessons from and for India

So 2016 has come and gone. Among the many casualties it claimed, perhaps the most conspicuous if not the most surprising, was the credibility of the global mainstream or credentialised media. In the United States (US), the election as president of Donald Trump, who had been given a less than 10 percent chance of victory by most domestic pundits, left the American media establishment with egg on its face. Earlier in 2016, in the United Kingdom (UK), the surprise result of the Brexit referendum had the same effect on the UK’s media. And In India, in 2015, media experts were similarly stunned by the victory of the Mahagathbandhan or Grand Alliance in the Bihar legislative elections. This cluelessness had been exemplified by veteran journalist Shekhar Gupta’s confident analysis[1] on television about why Nitish Kumar and the alliance had been trounced and his equally confident explanation about  why exactly the opposite had happened.

Unable to pivot with the unflappable grace of the seasoned and canny Gupta, the British and American media scrambled clumsily for explanations that would account for Brexit and Hillary’s defeat. Experts on print and television in both countries have since articulated a consensus that we live in an age in which truth’ does not matter to the average media consumer, and by extrapolation, to the average citizen, a condition captured by the phrase, ‘post-truth.’ ‘Post-truth’ is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”[2] The phrase has a punchy, pithy ring to it and seems to capture something essential about the global zeitgeist. Yet the phenomenon it seeks to describe is a little more complex and messy than what is suggested by the  crisp, succinct definition. And the post-liberalisation Indian mediascape has something important to explain about it, even as the post-truth experience of media in other societies predicts trends that are likely to be seen in India.

It is a truism—or a ‘post-truism’ if you will—that the internet has played a central role in the creation of the post-truth world. The dogged insistence of President Donald Trump’s supporters in believing information encountered online as the gospel truth, the role of fake news engendered for and circulated on the internet, especially via Facebook, in the run-up to the US elections, and the use of Twitter to whip up and legitimise dubious stories—all are testimony to the political power of the internet. Indeed, the epidemic of fake news has become a global malaise, seen in both developed and developing countries. [3] India, in fact, can lay claim to being a pioneer in this realm. For about two decades, the Hindu Right, broadly defined, has used the internet as an immensely effective tool for reshaping the terrain of Indian politics through a variety of strategies, one of which has been the propagation of ‘facts’ whose relationship to the truth is sketchy, at best, and non-existent at worst.

In the pre-social media era, the BJP was a first mover in using the internet to cultivate overseas Indian populations who had long been staunch supporters of Hindu nationalist ideology and projects, such as the proposed construction of the Ram Mandir on the site of the Babri Masjid.

Beyond the BJP, a number of diasporic and global Hindu organisations as well as individual adherents of Hindu nationalist ideology, used the internet, through websites, discussion groups like that of the South Asian Journalists Association, and the comments sections of South Asian online spaces like Chowk, to reinforce the core claim of Hindutva that India was essentially a Hindu civilisation, country, and state—and that Muslims and Christians were outsiders in the Hindu nation. Labelling themselves ‘intellectual Kshatriyas’ and including academics, workers in the technology industry in India and the US, professionals, and members of organisations like Hindu Student Councils in US universities, these Hindu Rightwingers were relentless in their critique of secularism and the Nehru-Gandhi family, and equally enthusiastic in propagating tales of the cruelty of Muslim rulers and details of an unacknowledged Hindu genocide. They also took it upon themselves to promote previously unheralded Hindu achievements, such as the fact that the Taj Mahal was actually a Hindu structure known as Tejo Mahalaya or to extol the virtues of cow urine as an elixir with miraculous medicinal properties.

In the age of social media, Twitter has become a battleground—disproportionately important to its relatively limited reach across the Indian population as whole—for similar battles, with WhatsApp complementing it as the source of ‘truths’ that the mainstream media supposedly doesn’t want the people to know. While a range of political parties and organizations have a presence on social media and use these tools, the Hindu Right and the BJP are the loudest and best organized of all. A recent book[4] argues, in fact, that  the BJP has an army of paid social media warriors and unpaid volunteers who tweet on specific topics and against specific targets, such as the actor Aamir Khan, who was attacked for criticising the condition of minorities under the political dispensation of the current government.

The effectiveness of the internet in shaping our post-truth world rests on factors particular to the online media form as well as on the political economy of the radically changed media landscape.  In part, it is a function of a crisis of both print and televisual journalism, long in the making, with its roots in the blurring between the business and editorial functions of newspapers with the consequent erosion of editorial autonomy, the push toward a greater emphasis on entertainment, progressively smaller budgets for investigative journalism, and the shuttering of overseas bureaus. The Huffington Post model, in which people are rewarded for their intellectual and digital labor only by ‘visibility’ has further led to a devaluation of journalistic capital. In India, this has resulted in the perception that most mainstream media is ‘paid media,’ marked by corporate-editorial arrangements such as ‘private treaties’ for the promotion of corporations in which the holding media company owns a stake. Interestingly, the heavy-handed Leftist critique of this state of affairs, which caricatures all media as ‘corporate-owned’ and serving the interests of imperialist capitalism, may have exacerbated the dwindling prestige of journalism as an essential component of the constellation of civic life. The telos of this state of affairs is the idea of the journalist as ‘presstitute,’ a term widely used by the Hindu Right to dismiss media organizations it perceives as unjustly opposed to the BJP, Narendra Modi, and Hindu nationalist ideology.

Equally—if not more—importantly, it points to what I would argue is a vastly underexamined aspect of the internet as a form of media: its affective pull and force. Indeed, what the internet promises and delivers, more than ‘post-truth,’ is a different kind of truth, one that is deeply and viscerally felt to be true and one that has to be performed. This affective force is rooted in its immediacy and in the illusion it grants users of autonomy and agency, even if the conditions under which such autonomy is exercised and constrained are invisible.

In my study of online responses to the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai,[5] I discovered that the same kind of affective attachment functioned as a basis of the authority on which people on social media made claims of empathy, belonging to the city, or the pain of victims. The moral power of affect matched if not surpassed the ethical authority of conventional notions of journalistic credibility.

Both Trump, in the US, and Modi, in India, as well as the global Right (much more than the Left) seem to have intuitively grasped the potential of these aspects of the media ecosystem. The paradox is that both of them use media in a way that purports to be unmediated, pretending to speak directly and honestly to the people, beyond the interventions of the media, unsullied by editorial intervention, free of corporate and monetary influence, and above politics itself. This is why Modi’s “Mann Ki Baat” radio addresses and Trump’s spontaneous, unpredictable tweets seem to carry a power of truth beyond the specific substantive claims they offer. It is likely that these forms of communication will become the new normal in media and politics or in the mediated politics that suffuses all aspects of contemporary existence. The challenge for media, in India or elsewhere, will be to counter it with a narrative that has as much of an affective force, without having recourse to the luxury of non-truth or post-truth.


[1] Mukul Kesavan, “Calling Their Bluff,” The Telegraph, November 9, 2015, accessed November 11, 2016, https://www.telegraphindia.com/1151109/jsp/opinion/story_52118.jsp.

[2] Amy B. Wang, “‘Post-truth’ named 2016 word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries,” The Washington Post, November 16, 2016, accessed December 5, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/11/16/post-truth-named-2016-word-of-the-year-by-oxford-dictionaries/?utm_term=.cb5c6f259876.

[3] Paul Mozur and Mark Scott, “Fake News in U.S. Election? Elsewhere, That’s Nothing New,” New York Times, November 17, 2016, accessed December 10, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/18/technology/fake-news-on-facebook-in-foreign-elections-thats-not-new.html.

[4] Swati Chaturvedi, I am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army, Juggernaut, 2016.

[5] Rohit Chopra, “The 26/11 Network: Archive: Public Memory, History, and the Global in an Age of Terror,” International Journal of Communication 9 (2015), 1140–1162, http://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/viewFile/2263/1360.

Comments

Leave a Reply

Be the First to Comment!

avatar
wpDiscuz
Author

Rohit Chopra

Rohit Chopra is Associate Professor of communication at Santa Clara University, US. His research interests include... Read More

Most Viewed

The Changing Face of Internet Addresses and Online Identity

PRIVACY & DATA PROTECTION

Gajendra Upadhyay
12 September, 2016

A specialist neurology clinic in Japan has this revealing signage with its website  address prominently proclaiming its function (photo courtesy:... 

Protection of Critical Information Infrastructure: An Indian Perspective

CYBER SECURITY

R K Sharma
1 August, 2016

Abstract Critical information infrastructure (CII) is a pillar on which modern nations function. The revolution in information and communication technologies... 

The NCIIPC & Its Evolving Framework

CYBER SECURITY

Saikat Datta
27 October, 2016

Only eight years after India passed the Information Technology Act, did the term cybersecurity appear in a statute through a... 

What we need to talk about when we talk about Artificial Intelligence

FUTURE TECHNOLOGIES

Urvashi Aneja
7 March, 2017

No longer the subject of science fiction, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is profoundly transforming our daily lives. While computers have been... 

Under the UN’s Shadow: Internet Governance Forum & the Urgent Need for Reforms

INTERNET GOVERNANCE

Jyoti Panday
8 July, 2016

The creation of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was a watershed moment in the history of the Internet. This article...