You can't muzzle genuine users
The ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ toss up best described the position of critics of the social media in India over the last fortnight. The sting operation that claimed to have blown the lid off paid followers and likes and online carpet bombing through ‘cyber suparis’, was juxtaposed by an expression of outrage by the common man over the Tehelka saga. The narrative was also set by the social media.
No matter how much the social media can be misused by vested interests, there is no way of silencing public perception through tweets or status updates. You may be able to send out mails to cronies in media houses to embargo or worse, kill a story. You may be able to buy followers and malign reputations for a fee. But no money or clout can muzzle the genuine users online. They will say what they feel, retweet what they agree with (the common twitter profile disclaimer of retweets not meaning endorsements, notwithstanding) or erupt with collective indignation over what they view as injustice. And this is precisely where the social media scores over the mainstream media. Here, there is no official line, no agenda, no editorial policy. It’s each to his own; with views fearlessly expressed, with or without the armour of anonymity. Yes, there is the danger of herd mentality. But isn’t there copycat journalism too? Yes, there are heavily funded tweets and private internet armies. But isn’t there paid news and extortion based reportage as well? Yes, there is large scale defamation on these platforms but what about planted stories, blackmail and scurrilous writing, especially in the vernacular media? There is also a sort of chain reaction that plays out. Take the case of the law intern. It started with just a blog. That piece was tweeted by a legal website. The mainstream media picked it up. And those reports – newspaper or television links, and responses were amplified by the social media.
In many cases, the social media functions like a conscience keeper of Big Daddy and even dictates news priorities! When the otherwise vocal Justice Katju didn’t come across as his usual pro-active self over the Tehelka case, there were tweets questioning his relatively muted response. The average user out there is alert – content with not just being an Editor-in-Chief of his own views, but even capable of playing Press Council when required! And it’s not just lynch-mob style ranting. I’ve seen scathing comments on saturation, over the top coverage of issues in super prime time television shows and even questions raised over the need for a potency test on Tejpal. An inherent sense of balance seems to come through. Remember, the most prolific users are also senior mainstream journalists whose followers far exceed their readers or viewers, whose ‘To Do’ lists are invariably topped by social media commitments and whose editorial lines are, I suspect, influenced by twitter interface as much as feedback from bureaus at newsroom meetings. The song ‘Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide’ today characterises the plight of law breakers vis a vis the social media. Much as disgruntled sections may be tempted to refer to it as a Fifth Column, there is scope for it to be accorded at least honorary status in the Fourth Estate. With a collective battle cry: ‘Be you ever so high, the social media is above you’. Let this new age watchdog bark with all its might, perhaps even bite when it needs to, but stop short of becoming a bloodhound.