BBC presenter Nik Gowing on how the digital era has revolutionised sharing of news
A retweet on Twitter can ignite a revolution. A Facebook page can fan the fury further. And blogs, videos and news stories can go viral in a jiffy and challenge organisations, structures and even governments. Nik Gowing, the main presenter of BBC World News, was in Chennai to give an overview of his paper ‘Skyful of Lies and Black Swans' that explores “the new tyranny of shifting information power in crises.” Excerpts from an exclusive interview.
How relevant is your paper on social media, especially in these times when the corporations that control the Internet operate with a ‘divide and rule' policy with algorithms generating only information we care for, based on location, interests and search history, even on social networks?
No one can really define what social media is. It's about the media space, the public information space. With the proliferation of digital content, it's about the vast number of contributions being made, enriching the perception of what's taking place. Views that would've probably not been heard in the past are now out there contributing to the democratisation of the information space. The information space is being turned on its head because that machine in your pocket in many ways can challenge a big corporation or a big government. What it sees while you are recording it, what it captures on video, what it captures on sound, can have a serial impact on those who assumed they knew everything. Technology and the digital content it is creating in the hands of everyone is empowering.
The huge support for Anna Hazare and his anti-corruption movement fuelled by social media would seem to underline your point.
That's one classic example I am now using. The fact that Anna Hazare, a 72-year-old Gandhian, went on a hunger strike, and the fact that he mobilised five million people, and the fact that within 96 hours, the government accepted the need for the commission, indicates just how powerful viral digital campaigns can become.
There was criticism in a section of the media that Anna Hazare's supporters had no clue about the specifics of the Lokpal Bill. Since cyber activists often don't have their facts right, do you think they will be taken seriously in the long run?
No. Each of them has a vote. They have phones because they need to know what's going on and that's because of the mobilisation of information. The Anna Hazare case, as with many other places — in Syria, in Libya, in Tunisia, in Egypt, or BP or British Airports Authority or TEPCO in Japan — has shown the power of instant information to challenge those in positions of power. The revolution in Egypt took less than two weeks. Anna Hazare took 96 hours. In the old days, it might have taken several months to mobilise support. He might have died in 21 days and he might have had just a few hundred people with him. But there were five million people who were part of a digital campaign. That's the message for politicians.
But where do you draw the line between cyber-hooliganism and activism? Public outrage against a recent judgment (Maria Susairaj), for example.
I wouldn't call it cyber-hooliganism. I would call it empowerment. What people are saying over a drink, or over their dinner table, or in their workplaces is now becoming viral in the digital space.
Does it become right because a lot of people feel that way?
I'm not suggesting it's right or wrong. What I'm saying is it shows the mobilisation that's possible. I don't think the Internet can be controlled. These are complex times. Remember, yesterday, Obama died on Twitter. So, who believes Twitter? We could not get away by putting on BBC much of what appears on Twitter. It's gossip. It's unsubstantiated and as yesterday proves, it could be wrong.
You call it empowerment but what if the majority is wrong? Of course, there's a danger if the majority is wrong, but life is like that. Not everything is right. It's our job as journalists to make sure that what we report is right. As a journalist, I would ask the same question too but I think you are exaggerating one side of the coin. Yes, there are negatives to everything in life. It's the greatest time in journalism because of the instant nature of information mobilisation. It's become a richer profession. It means we have to be even tougher on what we report and how we report.
On the contrary, newspapers around the world seem to rely on tweets. The Abbottabad tweeter who unknowingly live-tweeted the Osama raid was two kilometres away from the incident. What could he have seen? All he knew was that there were helicopters in the area.
The Obama administration had full operational control. Four helicopters, 79 personnel and they were watching the whole thing. They thought they had full control of the information state. But they didn't. Because there was a tweeter, a real time interpreter of what was going on. That's the point I want to make.