Are independent journalists on YouTube replacing TV journalists?

Updated - May 10, 2024 02:17 am IST

Published - May 10, 2024 12:15 am IST

YouTuber Manish Kashyap joins the BJP.

YouTuber Manish Kashyap joins the BJP. | Photo Credit: PTI

In 2022, a Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS)-Lokniti survey in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung showed that TV channels dominate as the news source in India, despite poor trust levels in them. In 2023, a Global Fact 10 research report showed that more and more Indians are now placing their trust in YouTube and WhatsApp for news. Are independent journalists on YouTube slowly replacing TV journalists in India? Ravish Kumar and Kunal Purohit discuss the question in a conversation moderated by Radhika Santhanam. Edited excerpts:

Why do you think more and more Indians are turning to YouTube for news?

Ravish Kumar: If they are doing that, it will be good for the country. Godi media [a pejorative term that refers to media outlets that are biased towards the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government] cannot do journalism anymore. Whoever is watching Godi news channels or reading certain newspapers knows that the news shown/published does not have anything in it or cannot be trusted. Many of the sources that disseminate news are being controlled (by the government). Even pro-Modi voters know that there isn’t any news, information, or questioning involved in TV news. Let us take an example. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi is not contesting from Amethi this time. Every journalist has reported on it and has said that Mr. Gandhi is scared, which is fair. But in Jammu and Kashmir, where the government abrogated Article 370, the BJP, which aims to secure 370 seats across the country, is not contesting any of the three Lok Sabha seats. What can be bigger news than the fact that the BJP has run away from this Union Territory? So, more than trust, there is a huge decline in content.

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To be sure, I am mindful of the fact that there are many good journalists in India, but the scale of those who are not good is huge. People have to go somewhere to get news and analysis. There is no society in the world that I am aware of that can survive without news. So, this is why they go to YouTube. However, it would not be right to say that there is complete trust in YouTube. It is still in the buffering stage: people are trying to figure out where to go to get their news.

On YouTube, too, there are many challenges. Many people speculate and overstep in their analysis, and their language is different. YouTube seems like an alternative journalistic platform but it is in a nascent stage and will take a lot of time to evolve. The reach and scope of TV is much higher. But it’s good that there is a marginal platform which people support.

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Kunal Purohit: Since 2014, we have seen two processes happening simultaneously. First, TV media has become more and more pliable to the extent that people looking for critical information are becoming disappointed. Second, there has been a constant de-legitimisation of the media right from the top: the Prime Minister has called us ‘news traders’, his Ministers have called us ‘presstitutes’. This was done to such an extent that people began losing faith in what the news can show us. So, they started looking for sources of information that they could trust. And in their search, they reached YouTube.

A lot of those on YouTube don’t call themselves journalists, they call themselves creators. Isn’t this a problem?

Ravish Kumar: What is the nature of YouTube? They are all creators and alongside they are journalists or they evolve into journalists. They have the convenience of calling themselves journalists or creators. You, for instance, don’t have that option. But I do believe that reporters can only grow in an institutionalised environment where there is knowledge sharing. If someone wants to become a journalist, the newsroom is the best place. If I have to do a story on health and I am in your newsroom, I can speak to the person covering health. I operate the same way now too: I reach out to various journalists — for example, The Hindu Data Team. YouTube has its limitations. That’s why I say it is evolving. By taking a vox pop, you can get a smart reaction from people, but that doesn’t feed journalism. There are lots of flaws in the vox pop journalism that we see on YouTube. But one hopes that more skilled people who can be trusted will come on to the platform and do journalism ethically — the kind you cannot find on TV.

Kunal, you have written that each time a news event occurs, more people are likely to go on Facebook and YouTube to search for content online to inform themselves. What did you find in your reporting?

Kunal Purohit: Studies show that more and more Indians turn to YouTube than even Google search now, whether to find a recipe or news. I saw how much the Hindutva pop stars I profiled over four years were working to serve that audience. They realise that the idea always is to “set narratives” online each time something big happens. As our attention spans are short these days, people don’t necessarily have the bandwidth to be processing a news event for days. So, the trick is to plant a narrative in people’s minds and say this is how you should be looking at this event.

Also read | Are social media platforms ready for record elections in 2024?

When I was reporting, Kavi Singh, a 25-year-old singer from Haryana, and her father were shooting for a video and that’s when they realised that Article 370 was abrogated in J&K. They rushed back home and within a few hours, they created a song saying “now that Article 370 is abrogated, you can hear chants of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ in Kashmir”. That was their takeaway. They told me they also feel like they are journalists as they are “setting narratives”. So, the definition of journalism keeps expanding. This is a tricky, dangerous slope to be on. The (right-wing) IT cell operates in unison. That’s how some narratives become dominant.

There is a lot of disinformation on YouTube. Do you think it can and should be curbed?

Ravish Kumar: As Kunal said, there is a huge ecosystem out there. There is a parallel system being created but the misinformation and disinformation fight is huge and difficult. But what has happened is many YouTube journalists amplify the reports published in good newspapers so that it reaches a different set of viewers, who value it greatly. Amplification gives us satisfaction. Journalists get the best satisfaction from doing original stories, but we should not guard this pleasure too much. We should amplify good stories so that good journalism is known. This is more important.

The Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023, seeks to bring OTT and digital news platforms under its ambit. What do you think of the Bill?

Ravish Kumar: With this Bill, the possibilities on YouTube will end. There are community guidelines on YouTube. If you follow them, there is not much of a problem. But if a notice comes from the government, then you will have to take it (video or channel) down. This election, a lot of the challenge to the government’s narratives have come from YouTubers. The government doesn’t want this to grow. It has even tried to shut down channels with 10 million subscribers. If it is so emboldened, it can finish off the careers of YouTubers. And it’ll be difficult to continue on YouTube. But news will find its way to people.

Misinformation during Indian elections |The saga from 2019 to 2024

Kunal Purohit: I want to add to what Ravish said about disinformation. We need to separate the likes of Ravish from the pro-establishment “news channels”, which are merely an extension of the right-wing IT cell. I analysed some of them for a story. One of the biggest ones is called NMF news. One of its reports said Wayanad has become an ISIS colony and another said Bangladeshis and the Rohingya have infiltrated Jharkhand and are converting the tribal people by marrying them. This is a clever way of doing propaganda, where you’re officially doing news but you’re actually just trumpeting what the propaganda channels are telling you to do.

How do you deal with this? There are many cases where the government is going after independent news channels on YouTube, as Ravish said, but what they are not doing as much is going after the likes of NMF News.

From IT bots to AI deepfakes |The evolution of election-related misinformation in India

Some independent journalists on YouTube say they have no idea why their views have suddenly dropped. YouTube has pulled down some channels without really explaining why, so there is also lack of transparency, and there is arbitrariness. The government with the Bill has made its intention clear. It wouldn’t have bothered to look at regulating YouTube if it didn’t think YouTube was damaging it enough.

Ravish Kumar: The Prime Minister addressed about 5,000 content creators recently. Second, Kunal spoke of how the right-wing supports some YouTubers. The best example of that is the YouTuber Manish Kashyap. He spread fake news on Tamil Nadu, got arrested, and has now joined the BJP. So, social media has come a breeding ground for future leaders of the party. And these people eat into the share of those who have done hard work for the party on the ground.

Kunal Purohit: Yes, the fact that the Prime Minister interacts with YouTubers and awards them tells you how highly the establishment thinks of YouTube as a medium for setting the narrative.

Do you think this trend could affect the election outcome?

Ravish Kumar: Whether it does or not is a separate question. But many of the fake narratives have not succeeded this election. The BJP created a kingdom of narratives, but now lots of people have climbed its walls as challengers. In 2014, the ground was empty. In 2019, a few plants were growing. Now, there are many trees.

Listen to The Hindu Parley podcast here

Ravish Kumar, a senior journalist, was formerly with NDTV. A Ramon Magsaysay award winner, he now runs a YouTube news channel with more than 10 million subscribers; Kunal Purohit is an independent journalist and researcher, and the author of H Pop: The Secretive World of Hindutva Popstars

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