Indian TV, ‘hashtag’ audience fragmentation
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Television channels hardly seem to be enablers of democratic ethos and debate

April 12, 2023 12:08 am | Updated 10:11 am IST

‘Instead of enabling society to discuss and deliberate, channels are pushing people to identify with a style of reporting or creating a supporter group around them’

‘Instead of enabling society to discuss and deliberate, channels are pushing people to identify with a style of reporting or creating a supporter group around them’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

More often than not, television news shows in India feature a hashtag (#). Media channels have one while their shows have another. One must not forget the anchors who often remind viewers about using these hashtags to engage with them on social media. Some shows even feature live tweet counts of people using these hashtags during telecasts, while some hand pick and present these tweets in their tickers. What does this tell us about Indian TV media’s evolution alongside social media?

The boundaries between traditional media and modern media are clearly blurring. Andrew Chadwick (Loughborough University) posited the theory of “The Hybrid Media System” in the context of political communication and argued that it is time we let go of dichotomous thinking (as old and new media) and embrace an all-encompassing intermixed and blended media. This has chequered outcomes.

Of course, digital platforms provide a means to constantly engage with viewers, which would otherwise not be possible via TV media. On the other hand, given the system’s framework, one can never be sure if such engagement is with genuine users.

Deen Freelon (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and Chris Wells (Boston University) note the rise of disinformation, suggesting that social media is making it easier to propagate disinformation and that even credible media outlets have sometimes fallen prey to the trend.

The case of the farmers’ protest

The farmers’ protest in India, of 2020-21, is an interesting case to understand an evolving aspect of online chatter and its implication(s) for TV media. TV media is increasingly over-flowing into the digital public sphere in a bid to engage with their audience much more than what was traditionally possible. Whether this is leading to a democratic and spectrum wide viewer engagement — as one would prefer — is arguable. Instead, we see increased audience fragmentation.

We followed debates by a prominent English news channel, in 2021, between mid-January and mid-February, to understand its engagement on Twitter. The channel proposed a unique hashtag for 21 of the 22 shows it aired on the topic. We studied these 21 to broadly see how far they made it on Twitter. Around 9,700 users participated (i.e., used one of these hashtags to engage) to create a volume of ~25,900 tweets.

Audience engagement now

The number of tweets was heavily skewed towards a handful of users. In fact, 66 users (heavy tweeters) alone made 25% (approximately 6,500) of these tweets. They each tweeted on an average 97 times. To add, these 66 users garnered 51.4% of all retweets too (~41,500).

These 66 users predominantly engaged only with the news channel’s hashtag. They did not participate in other trending hashtags that spoke to the same issue. For instance, even on two similar hashtags that sought to ‘expose’ Greta Thunberg, only 15 of the 66 participated in both and generated a mere 1.2% of tweets in the non-channel hashtag.

Professor Chadwick argues that traditional mass media appears equally invested in alternative emerging media platforms and tends to make concerted efforts to drive agenda-centric engagement on it as it would do traditionally. What one may further add is that such an engagement occurs in fragments, as the strong yet narrowly engaged users’ behaviour suggests from this particular case.

One implication is that each TV media channel is trying to position itself as the definitive channel of India. Amid rising competition, channels promote unique hashtags and seek to garner support as they stand to question a certain state of affairs. But if issues are similar, what would differentiate them from their competitors? A unique persona. Each channel, we posit, is trying to brand itself of certain ‘values’ and ‘attitudes’ and adding viewer over viewer, who align over these attributes more than the reportage. A deep yet narrow engagement of users — who only engage with a certain channel and not the broader issue at hand — is one indication of how media interests are likely fragmenting audiences.

Appealing to viewers

Media channels are adopting different repertoires to appeal to the audiences on Twitter as against assimilating themselves with the larger trends that concur with their point of view. For instance, the engagement created by the media channel in our study is only 18.6% of the five corresponding non-media channel anti-farmer protest hashtags. However, this is critical if we were to multiply this engagement with the number of TV channels that are following a similar strategy. However, the larger messaging in this case, i.e., supporting farm laws and discrediting the protesters is only emboldened given the similarity of content and how social media algorithms work.

Seemingly, TV media is posing as an end in itself, whereas it should be an enabler of democratic ethos. It should drive its viewers towards a democratic debate, rather than towards itself. Instead of enabling society to discuss and deliberate, channels are pushing people to identify with a style of reporting or creating a supporter group around them, and social media (due to its nature) is an effective tool.

Vignesh Karthik K.R., of King’s College London (@krvtweets), and Vihang Jumle, of Hertie School Berlin (@vihangjumle), are co-leads, and Ajay Chandra Vasagam (independent researcher), is a member, of the Social Media Networks and (Dis)information Research Group anchored in the Faculty of Social Science & Public Policy, King’s College London

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