Unbridled growth of social media – the vengeance of the amateur

Two historical events across the world’s two greatest democracies over 24 hours had a set of professionals – the journalists – making a mockery of the core principles of journalism – objective reporting. And they paid the price of being maligned and marginalised for their narrative.

First, the Government of India’s drive to flush out fake currency and to put an end to black money through demonetization is a brave step and needed utmost support from the media in its initial weeks of implementation.

However our learned journalists and their media houses in their enthusiasm to be one up on the other, nit-picked the Government’s initiative, scouted around for picking holes in the system, glorified the naysayers, created panic by only highlighting the woes of the common man – the few handful they got to interview in the couple of hours before going to press. They missed the larger picture – the vehement appeal by the Prime Minister to the media to ensure the process of change is percolated to every citizen.

Thus the new age media in the hands of the amateurs – the social media comprising of Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp among others – picked up the pieces of information and spread it rampantly. Forwards flew in millions as there was information of all kinds being shared including unverified versions of GPS chip enabled new currency notes.

Second, the elections to the oldest democracy in the World. USA voted for a new president amidst widespread and rampant allegations of sexual offence, racism, deceit and malafide intent on both the front running candidates. The media drove a narrative – one that just highlighted all that was wrong with the ‘outsider’, the candidate of the Grand Old Party – quite rightfully. But then, their objectivity ended there. Not much was revealed about the Secretary of State, the seasoned politician, a lawyer herself and the former First Lady who had more cobwebs in her closet – the unending email saga and her subjective stance on the global war on Terrorism or her unrealistic strategies to curb the rising unemployment.

Here again, a media narrative that was skewed was decimated by the power of the social media, the common man negated the ‘planted by professionals’ surveys, polls, swings that were all way off the mark till minutes before the hustings.

The evolution of the Internet and the expansion of information access has meant that checks for authenticity have been compromised.

In his book, The Cult of the Amateur, media commentator Andrew Keen writes: “In the digital world’s never-ending stream of unfiltered, user-generated content, things are indeed often not what they seem. Without editors, fact-checkers, administrators, or regulator to monitor what is being posted, we have no one to vouch for the reliability or credibility of the content we read…”

The growth of open source and the spread of Web 2.0 has ensured that ‘social media’ became truly social. But no matter how democratic Web 2.0 appears, its lawless landscape leaves users exposed to all kinds of manipulations and abuses and Social Media is not isolated from the malaise.

The Internet age has spawned the unbridled growth of the ‘hearsay’ writers masquerading as ‘journalists’ and ‘authors’ causing the spread of misinformation. Where information is knowledge, easy access to half-baked information is misinterpreted and false knowledge is passed off as ‘acceptable’. While it is understandable that vigilance can rein in vandals, can it curtail the large-scale recording of unprofessional content that is being bartered, sold and given away free in a Social media dominated sphere?

So who is to blame? Who else, but the arrogant, over-the-top, highly opinionated journalists and the agenda driven media houses who are subjective in their approach, unaccountable to truth and largely non committal in intent.

Media is much maligned for its leanings, either Right or Left, Conservative or Liberal – Where is the neutral in all this? Social Media is a giant that will only grow to usurp the professionalism, with even more jingoistic leanings, with a narrative which is much more subjective and bordering on frivolous too.

It is never too late for the Fourth Estate to make amends and be counted yet again as one of the important pillars of democracy, for information on the internet is free, but not sacrosanct.

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