The black or white debates

What actually happened in the Tarun Tejpal case is something for the courts and investigative agencies to find out. While looking at the newspaper and TV coverage and online reactions to the alleged sexual abuse of a young colleague by the editor of Tehelka magazine, one thing hits more strongly than ever — how polarised debates are becoming in India.

Tailor-made: Some of the extreme polarisation happening in most debates is a result of the way media tailors itself to our needs as consumers

The soft grey areas in between where you talked to friends, discussed with contemporaries, read a bit, figured out the issues, its nuances and what not, are becoming a thing of the past. Most people seem almost Sicilian when they come to a forum — you are either with me or against me. But what if there is a third or fourth point of view, all of which make sense. Every time a controversy around anything breaks out, there is one bunch who want the alleged guilty party to be hung and quartered immediately. Others want laws changed. And if anyone tries to bring some perspective to the debate, god save him or her.

Take Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. The kind of comments, mud-slinging, personal allegations that most pro and anti-Modi people throw out is appalling. You could argue that Modi is by nature a polarising figure. Well what about Arvind Kejriwal, Sheila Dixit, or even Shah Rukh Khan.

Most discussions on political, social, economic issues or even on cinema have become so polarised, that if you do not agree with a point of view, you are in the pay of the other party. There cannot be third or fourth perspective. Film reviews are a great example — if a film critic likes a film that doesn’t do well, he is in the pay of the studio, goes the new logic. And if he doesn’t, then the rival studio has paid him off. There is no room for poor judgement, a mistake or some genuinely bad taste among other possible reasons.

This however is not about Modi or films. It is about why this polarisation is happening across subjects, geographies, incomes groups or any other division.

One guess is that the way media consumption has evolved is leading to ghettoisation and therefore more polarisation. Over twenty years back most of us saw one TV channel and read roughly the same news, with some local stuff thrown in. Our ideas were formed by roughly the same set of facts or observations and opinion. The media fodder for our minds was, arguably, the same. That has changed completely.

What digital technology has done, in television, films and online, is allow companies to slice and dice the audience by tastes, languages, ability to pay among other variables. There are scores of markets within India and each is getting addressed. Multiplexes talk to more evolved urban audiences while single screens address the need for mass films. Digital TV allows you to target people who may only want to watch cricket or golf with specialised channels. This has implications that we aren’t even beginning to understand.

After the first round of TV digitisation in the four metros TAM Media Research came up with one such insight. The electronic programming guide or EPG on digital television means people quickly land onto the channel or genre they want to watch. While surfing within a genre has increased, among genres it has actually gone down in homes that digitised. So news buffs will only go to news channels, Marathi entertainment buffs to the relevant channels and so on.

Online media, whether it is on the phone, tablet or laptop, takes this ability to slice and dice to another level. A Twitter feed is my favourite example. You can tailor it to your specific likes, dislikes, subject, geography, people and so on. So while it brings you access to offbeat content in a subject you are interested in, it is a serendipity killer, a la the EPG. My Twitter feed is tailored to the business of media and entertainment. This extreme focus means that the chances that I will read or even see the latest trends in healthcare or rural education are remote.

If you don’t even know that other dialogues, streams of thoughts, arguments are building up on a subject they will come as a surprise. By limiting our choices in a world where there are so many, we are killing randomness in our media consumption. We are blinkering ourselves and not allowing topics that don’t interest us to intrude.

That explains at least some of the surprise and extreme reactions that another point of view evokes. There is nothing wrong or right about this. It is just the way things are moving.

Welcome to the new world — in black and white.  

The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at

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