Sevanti Ninan

Media Matters - Ethical shadows

Unchartered territories: Can the technology be blamed for its misuse?  

Two media issues emerged last fortnight, with absolutely nothing common between them. But let us use them to explore whether it is possible to apply conventional notions of media ethics to new technology-driven media, which in terms of use is less an act of conscious media practice or consumption, and more a matter of using a lifestyle tool to respond to instant social instincts.

First, starting with a story in Mumbai Mirror, conflict of interest questions were raised about the fact that star cricket commentators Ravi Shastri and Sunil Gavaskar, who are presumed to be voicing their independent opinions in the commentary box, are contracted by the Board of Cricket Control for India (BCCI) for Rs 3.6 crore annually to do the commentary on satellite channels. This apparently applies to all BCCI-owned cricket — international matches held in India, the IPL, and the Champions League.

The paper reported that the BCCI contract stipulates that any channel telecasting an international match being played in India would hire these two men on their commentary team. The newspaper quoted an unnamed BCCI official as saying, “We tell the TV companies that they have to take them on board as official commentators.”

How the BCCI benefits by doing this was the point on which ethical questions were raised. Did it ensure that on a contentious issue related to umpiring, such as the Umpire Decision Review System (UDRS), the commentators would take a stand which suited the Indian cricket board?

And then of course there is the issue of a channel winning a telecasting contract agreeing to let somebody else decide who the commentators should be. Do they agree to play ball because they have no choice?

Both the gentlemen concerned have strenuously denied that they are anything but their own men when they are in the commentary box. But for the purposes of this column, the fact is that this is the sort of issue which can be framed according to accepted ethical norms, namely, that an interested party should not be paying for the services of those performing an independent broadcasting function.

Troubling use of technology

Then we come to the way social networking was used in the London riots, and indeed social media per se. Is it media in a professional sense, or is it technology-induced instant communication which these days is given almost as much credence as an opinion poll, which again is becoming an extended form of media activity? What norms do you hold such mass-generated media to?

Twitter, Facebook and perhaps to a lesser extent Blackberry Messenger are being used so much by the media themselves that there is a tendency to merge the tool and the output and treat what goes on these platforms as a form of media, which is designated social media. But are there any rules? Can there be? Should they be regulated or policed?

So far we have tended to celebrate it. A politician using social media was approved of, citizenry using it to voice outrage or support were exercising their democratic right. When it helped trigger revolution in West Asia and an upheaval earlier in Iran, it was seen indeed as a new media form empowering people with no access to conventional media.

But then with the London riots social media turned anti-social. When people are tweeting or messaging to protest state oppression it is political participation of a laudatory kind. When young people on the rampage are messaging to incite participation in looting, and to help spread locations of the riots, what is it? The technology is the same. Mobile phones are becoming “weaponised” because of their capability of spreading information about where to target next, analysts were saying. A troubling new addition to the social media lexicon?

Last week, the British media was reporting that the social media that was used to coordinate and spread the looting was not Facebook or Twitter but BlackBerry Messenger, which, thanks to its much-discussed encryption, was proving even more difficult for the police to crack. It was being described as a shadow network with the one-to-many messaging within it being difficult to trace. Blackberry has apparently been targeting youth in Britain as users, it is cheaper than other smart phones and its messaging service is free.

By the third or fourth day of the riots Research in Motion, the company that makes Blackberry phones, said it was cooperating with the police, whatever that means.

Technological issues aside, how does a society handle this sort of social media usage? Were incitement to happen in the print media or on television some identifiable laws or codes would be invoked. But here the perpetrators are not identifiable media persons or outlets, but masses of ordinary people responding to the instinct of the moment.

Can it be regulated?

Shortly before the London riots began, in the same week, the press reported that the Government of India wanted to “monitor” Facebook and Twitter. This was based on a written reply in the Rajya Sabha by Milind Deora, Minister of State for Communications and Information Technology, which said the Ministry of Home Affairs had asked for such monitoring. Presumably to track terror networks.

Media by the few can be regulated, written about, held to account. Media by the many is asking to be monitored, which means policed. It is not just undesirable, it is also impossible. But the alternative is for users of social media tools to follow a law-abiding code of ethics. Who is to devise an ethical framework for social media to operate within, and who is to implement it? Does the notion negate what social media has come to represent?

May be for now post facto policing is to be preferred over ‘monitoring' which violates privacy and individual free speech. But then the damage will already have been done.

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Printable version | Jul 27, 2021 9:17:28 PM |

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