For the past two weeks, the two major political parties in India have been conducting workshops and brainstorming sessions on how to effectively use social media. Those politicians who had a head start in using these media spoke extensively on how they accidentally opened accounts on Facebook and Twitter and slowly realised their impact and reach. They also spoke about interesting conversations they have had on social media and also the abuse they face. Workshops were also held for party spokespersons on how to debate competently on new and old media -- TV, Radio and Print -- without getting into meaningless point scoring. But some also saw the value in mud-slinging like calling each other frogs and cockroaches (yes, they did that).
All this sounds very cute and naive to many of us who started actively Facebooking and Tweeting several years ago. As per one survey, there are 80 million active internet users in urban India and about 58 million individuals have accessed some form of social networking. So ‘we’, that is People Like Us, matter. But PLUs are the most irreverent, irrelevant, politically indolent lot. They outrage on Facebook and Twitter, will hashtag and trend stuff like Pappu versus Feku, share articles they barely glance at, but when it actually comes to voting many are too lazy to care.
Some politicians mistake huge ‘follower count’ for fan count. Politicians tend to broadcast on social media than engage or just read. Abuse and anger is commonplace on social media. Unlike traditional media reporters who sometimes get frightened by threats, Facebookers and Twitterers don’t bend, crawl or go away.
Social media is a noisy democracy. Emotions run high, informed debate begins with good intentions but gets drowned in cacophony. But ideas do germinate instantly. Traditional media has realised social media’s worth in the past few months. Most journalists log on to Twitter and Facebook very early in the morning to check what is trending and which way the ‘people’ are thinking. Only that is not necessarily what Indians are thinking. It is only an indication of what PLU have decided to outrage about. So if it is onions one day, it is gang rape the next. It could be Parvez Rasool being benched to Veena Malik’s bizarre statement.
On many channels, subjects for the primetime debate are decided according to topics trending on social media. Politicians have to be thus prepared with party positions on any or all of the absurd trends and hashtags.
So even Venkaiah Naidu who not long ago said “too much tweeting leads to quitting” about Shashi Tharoor, has had to quote Narendra Modi’s tweets. And my favourite is sanctimonious Congresspersons getting tips from Tharoor about tweeting when they had exhibited schadenfreude a few years ago when Tharoor lost his job as a union minister due to his frequent tweeting.
The Prime Minister while inaugurating the National Media Centre on Saturday reminded the media of its role. He said, “A spirit of inquiry must not morph into a campaign of calumny. A witch-hunt is no substitute for investigative journalism. And personal prejudices must not replace public good.” While nobody can deny that ‘paid news’ is here to stay and some of our TV debates do seem like driven by personal agenda, the media in India is no longer on the same page as political parties when it comes to the definition of what is ‘public good’'.
And we thankfully haven’t needed a license to practice that, till now. But Information and Broadcasting minister did float a trial balloon last week that journalists should pass a licensing examination to write and broadcast their pieces. Well, it really feels like the 1990s again. Ayodhya movement, gold control, duty slapped on import of television sets. Let’s go back to the 1970s and bring back License Raj. And how will new media cope with that? Will we have to submit our tweets and Facebook updates to the government in triplicate before we post them, or after?
Social media matters and so does traditional media. But what matters more, much more are the policies and programmes of political parties. The message is important so is the manner in which it is conveyed but more important than all that is content. The economy is in shambles and people want to know how you will straighten that mess. The election results in Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh are a reminder that no political party is going to have an easy ride because of the other’s mistakes.
Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash