India’s information journey — from revolution to disinformation
I still remember how my parents would tune into Doordarshan or Akaash Vani for their daily dose of bulletins.
No bombardment of information! Rather, it was rationed, at least on television and radio, in India’s socialist model of governance and economy.
The liberalisation of the early 1990s changed the country forever though.
We opened up to the world outside. On the verge of bankruptcy before prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao took charge in 1991, India roared as an economic giant in the years that followed.
Rao’s liberalisation, authored by his finance minister Manmohan Singh, unshackled the country’s inherent strengths.
Investments, technology transfers, infrastructure development and muli-lateral deals across sectors transformed India into one of the world’s largest — and most sought-after — global markets.
The nation of a billion population back then could no longer have information apportioned through state-run broadcasters.
Small experiments with TV news by private players got instant traction. Remember Dr Prannoy Roy’s The World This Week?
Entertainment programming already had been super successful in the late 1980s, carried solely by Doordarshan. But then it wasn’t feared by the political class as it wouldn’t disturb the political status quo at the macro level.
Independent news — the live streaming from Ground Zeroes — is what was dreaded.
Political reluctance aside, experiments like weekly Newstrack video tapes for the new cable audience eventually exploded into fully-fledged broadcasting houses. A new information age debuted in India.
But independent broadcasting writ large on the Indian landscape only after the murder of a celebrity barmaid, Jessica Lal, at a crowded socialite party in Delhi in 1999.
Her suspected shooter was son of a powerful politician but India’s emerging TV news media held the power to account.
It’s incessant campaign marked a turnaround in how news was disseminated — and consumed — in India.
The hijack of the Indian airliner, Flight IC 814, to Afghanistan was another momentous occasion the same year that propelled and shaped 24x7 television news deliveries.
Indian broadcasters established themselves as national agenda setters. The country’s countless newspapers had no option but to devote page-one space to the stories that TV played the previous day.
Business, sports and general news channels became a household staple in less than a decade in a democracy where information had been monopolised by Doordarshan and Akaash Vani for more than 45 years.
But the descent was not far — descent from information revolution to disinformation propaganda.
A major scandal unfolded in the India media industry in 2010.
More than 100 tapes of conversations between corporate lobbyist Niira Radia and leading editors were recorded and leaked as part of an authorised tap.
Investigators were acting on a request from income tax authorities probing the alleged mis-selling of mobile telephone licences.
The leaks illustrated how some of India’s top journalists linked to the country’s elite media brands were coopted by powerful politicians and business houses.
What followed the scam were some government inquiries, newspaper columns, some debates and some lofty statements from media watchdogs.
But the jury is still out whether the expose stemmed the rot or whether the rot flourished — away from public gaze and scrutiny.
Fast forward to 2016: On the night of November 8, hundreds of millions were put through hardship when the head of an elected Indian government snuffed out more than 80 per cent of banknotes from circulation.
Mainstream media outlets not only succumbed to the drastic measure — which delivered no positive results eventually — but rather became agents of patriotic propaganda that sought to justify the economically irrational exercise.
No questions asked of the powers that be. Why?
Who is the media, for all practical purposes, accountable to? Governments or the general public?
Which country on the planet celebrates taxation? India did on the back of its pliant media when it rolled out its shoddily-designed GST.
How many regular news broadcasters had serious panel discussions on the ill-implemented goods and services tax that put innumerable businesses into a maze of red tape?
How many demanded an answer about the tall promises around the “ease of doing business in India” slogan?
Instead, what dominated news rundowns in the country are sectarian debates — debates around religious passion.
Barring a handful of stations, almost every TV outlet displays multiple windows of Hindu and Muslim ideologues, with anchors playing cheerleaders to their on-screen squabbles.
Almost every economic issue, key court orders and executive decisions land up in public domain as issues of sanskriti!
The larger resource-rich media, which should have reached out to the masses to explore insurmountable difficulties that countless villagers, urban youth and the elderly are facing, has instead chosen a restricted space for itself to unleash propaganda that suits vested interests.
There have been some exceptions though. But those exceptions have been pushed to the margins of national airwaves or simply ordered to march out.
Social media was expected to be a saving grace from the grossly-contaminated content on Indian TV.
But that too has been infiltrated by vicious propagandists.
Trolls not only shut up sane voices, they also successfully exploit psychological vulnerabilities of the new-media consumers.
Research has now confirmed that ultra-nationalism and cheap mobile data are driving the spread of disinformation in India.
In his recent findings, Dr Santanu Chakrabarti, the head of audience insight at the BBC World Service, discovered that the present political climate has rendered facts secondary to individual belief systems.
“They (Indians) are effectively looking for validation of their belief systems,” he said. “On these (social-media) platforms, then, validation of identity trumps verification of the fact.”
Dr Chakrabarti’s research, which focused on WhatsApp, indicates the scale of disinformation is massive in a country like India.
Challenges are formidable. Sifting out disinformation from the barrage of TV and social-media content isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
As a nation, it’s our collective responsibility not to treat every “forward”, every narrative, every prime-time TV debate as gospel because it’s not.
The unprecedented test that this age of disinformation poses also brings a rare opportunity — an opportunity to hone our analytical skills for the future.
If we don’t, God forbid, we might end up into another era of subjugation and slavery — this time to our own intelligence handicaps.
In a study last year, the Brookings Institution warned of the hazards.
“False information is dangerous because of its ability to affect public opinion and electoral discourse,” cautioned the Brookings study. “Such situations can enable discriminatory and inflammatory ideas to enter public discourse and be treated as fact. Once embedded, such ideas can in turn be used to create scapegoats, to normalize prejudices, to harden us-versus-them mentalities and even, in extreme cases, to catalyze and justify violence,” the report said, quoting expert opinion.
The study suggested greater digital literacy as a way out.
“News consumers have to keep their guard up and understand that not everything they read is accurate and many digital sites specialize in false news,” Brookings cautioned. “Learning how to judge news sites and protect oneself from inaccurate information is a high priority in the digital age.”