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Social media vis-à-vis mainstream media: An analysis


 Sourav Banerjee    ২ এপ্রিল ২০১৯, মঙ্গলবার, ৯:১৫    মতামত


Sourav Banerjee

Although censorship is always detrimental to the dissemination of news and information, there is a very thin line between responsibility and freedom. While the freedom of expression is a coveted idea in the current age, what one does to achieve the end depends on their sensible thinking. Whether one would spread violence as they have access to a particular violent incident or keep a lid on the spread of brutal information and footages begs the practice of restraint and sensible judgement.

The mosque attack in New Zealand’s Christchurch has jolted the world. This has been and will be a centre of many debates on different facets for the days to come. The lives lost are being mourned across the globe and in most instances, common people and the world leaders alike have condemned the attackers and the heinous attack.

Apart from the number of dead, a staggering 50, the number of hits and streaming of the incident on social media and its impact, reach and subsequent repercussions have also hurt the world on a massive scale. The fact that the shooter used the social media to live stream his onslaught on unsuspecting devotees, women and children included, has resulted in millions of viewings and downloads of the brutalities that took place inside the New Zealand mosques. By the time the social media platforms swung into action, the damage was already done.

The live streaming has fuelled hate and support alike inspiring recurrence of similar incidents. Besides the live streaming, the attacker also took resort to the social media to disseminate a manifesto which spurts hate against Muslims and immigrants.

This leads one to ask the million dollar question-- what about control, the use of logic, sense, sensitivity and most importantly the editorial discretion?

The New Zealand massacre has pointed to the fact that editorial judgement, whether one likes it or not and no matter its flawed partially or in entirety, is still very relevant.  

The social media platforms usually come up with an explanation that it is almost impossible for them to oversee and regulate what their millions of users share and write or publish. Whatever steps they take usually come late, and in case of the New Zealand shooting, the pace was rather slow resulting in the footage of the live firing being screened by millions of users. The attacker, by streaming his actions live, used the social media as a weapon that acted with supersonic speed to spread hate and violence and gave instantaneous push to spread an ideology that advocates communal violence.

The failure of social media giants to contain the spread of the said footage shows their inability to play due role in times of emergency and the fact that they can always be used by criminals and terrorists to communicate anything they want to. Here, the difference between the mainstream media and the social media become clear and the fact that the mainstream media will have its upper hand at least for quite some time now has been established.

Most adults in Bangladesh would remember the frenzy that broke out in several districts across the country in 2013 over the conviction of war criminal and top-tier Jamaat leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee by the International Crimes Tribunal for the war crimes he had committed during the Liberation War in 1971.

On March 4 of that year, a section of his followers had spread rumours that Sayedee’s face appeared on the moon and urged people to take to the streets. On that particular instance, miscreants took resort to physical means as well as social media to spread fake news that resulted in the loss of valuable lives.

Gatekeeping-- no matter if one likes it or not-- is a necessary media ethics, which is absent in most social media contents and constitutes the gulf of difference that lies between the mainstream media content and those of social media in terms of credibility.

The mainstream media, no matter if it is print, television, radio or the online version, will continue to sway its supremacy over the social media until unless the latter comes under an editorial guideline or a proper gatekeeping.  

Although the social media platforms uphold the idea that they serve people with happenings ‘as they are,’ the New Zealand incident has taken to a new height the debate whether the freedom of expression without responsibility is acceptable. After the Christchurch incident, may be its time to think about reforms and objective scrutiny.

While publishing or airing any news item, the newspapers or the TV channels always keep in mind the reach, importance, outcome or impact of the news story and make their respective editorial judgement accordingly, which is completely absent in social media contents.

Fact checking will always be a major responsibility for the traditional media outlets and by doing so, they ensure that no untoward situation is being incited by a news items they are going to publish or air. However, this necessary trend is by and large absent in social media contents.  

This, however, impedes the idea of freedom of speech for people who can articulate themselves unhindered through social media, whereas their voice is more likely to be lost in case of the mainstream media.

In this connection, another interesting point can shape a discussion--- what if the same person is a part of both the social media and the mainstream media?

Any journalist working in mainstream media is likely to be acting as a gatekeeper whenever releasing a news item. Arrays of issues such objectivity, trends, financial or political interests will lead the journalist’s hands in shaping a particular news item. But, when that same person takes to social media and starts writing on that very topic, the writing may seem unhindered as there is no question of censorship or gatekeeping.

That same person can get a lead for a story from social media contents and may end up in running a major news item for the mainstream media. In such cases, the spread of social media can be high, but the impact of mainstream media on the same topic is likely to be higher.

In mainstream media, alongside ensuring objectivity, a journalist is also tasked to prove any claim made while publishing or airing any news item, whereas all sorts of contents is being used in social media for making personal attacks or to demean an institution.

If the idea of accountability was not there, the mainstream media would have turned into a hub for circulating gossips and rumours which would certainly result in the loss of credibility.

Here, professional solidarity plays a vital role to make sure that an item passes the ethical standards, which is always one of the basis values of the established news media.

In this context, echoing with noted media ombudsman A.S. Panneerselvan, it is safe to say that journalists should practice caution while writing about social media to make sure that their professional credibility is not being harmed.

Alongside streaming individual remarks and contents, the social media are also spreading news items sourced from reliable outlets, but it must be noted that this is not a prominent feature as the feeds are mostly sourced from established media outlets.

Another difference between the social and mainstream media lies in the use of photographs and footage of any personal or restricted event. Journalists have moral obligations to not deteriorate any issue or trespass anyone’s personal space. As a result a journalist will abstain from using any content pertaining to any individual for a news item, but in case of social media there is no such bar and people are usually sharing content without any restraints.

People across the globe are falling victims to fake news, mostly spread using social media. A section of people, with political or business motivations, dedicated their hard-earned expertise to flood the cyber space with propaganda.

Many Bangladeshis, emotional as they are rather than being judicial, unknowingly fall victims of fake news or misinformation that ultimately results in swollen pockets of others.  These fake news items or misinformation, mostly come in the forms of false contents in entirety-- tailor-made contents generated for a certain group of target people and items created by individuals which may or may not be aimed at creating public panic.

In a recent example, the country watched in awe the spread of fake information centring the road safety movement that led to chaos in the capital and in some other places across the country. Life in the capital was almost paralysed and the social media was to be blamed for a significant part.

The mainstream media, however, picks news items based on social media trends sometimes. Every now and then, news stories are published on topics widely trending in social media. The established media even runs opinion polls to involve or encourage netizens leading to increased number of hits on their respective sites. Things must not be confused in this case to the effect of which one is better. Here, social media plays a significant role to augment the reach and impact of the mainstream media, but when it comes to the question of credibility, there should not be any confusion that the weight tilts to the side of established standards.

A debate is rife in recent times whether the traditional broadsheet will survive or go extinct with the advent of social media.

An interview of industry experts in India, one of the biggest democracies across the globe, opined that the new media will become stronger with time but the appeal of newspapers will remain. While praising the reach and advantages of the new media, the experts said the print will always exist and that the new media will act as an additional medium that would support the print and is unlikely to replace the traditional media.  

Communal attacks following fake Facebook posts have become quite widespread in Bangladesh when in most cases the victims had little to no knowledge of posts that made way to attacks on them.

In one such instance, on the night of September 29 in 2012, a mob decimated at least 11 pagodas and scores of houses at Ramu in Cox’s Bazar. The mob was incited by the photo-shopped content that showed a Buddhist youth defaming the Holy Quran.

This was one of the worst religious attacks in the country that was solely triggered by social media content. In such cases, the social media, despite being instrumental in inciting violence, had very little to do with damage control and the mainstream media had to step in to calm things down through spreading authentic information. Probes later found that a well-planned campaign was launched by a group of miscreants to incite communal violence in the coastal district.

In a similar instance, about 100 houses and 17 Hindu temples vandalised and looted at Nasirnagar in Brahmanbaria and Madhabpur upazila in Habiganj on October 30 in 2016 over a doctored photo posted on Facebook that showed an idol on the Kaba Sharif. Even those from the Muslim community who tried to resist the attackers were beaten up.

Had there been any gatekeeping with the social media, such incidents would not have happened in the first place. Obviously, people with criminal intent used the social media to incite violence to meet their vested goal, but the occurrence of such an incident is quite impossible in mainstream media.

The ‘Me Too movement’ (or #MeToo movement) can be the point of discussion here. The movement is a stand of victims or survivors of sexual abuse, mostly in workplaces, gained momentum back in 2017 online.

Despite its reach in social media, the movement was still to reach many in countries like Bangladesh. When the wave reached Bangladesh and when local women started raising voice against such assaults and abuses, it was yet to gain attention in the country and the situation still remains the same. A handful of mainstream media outlets managed to get the trend on papers or on screens in the country, mostly because of the traditional outlook in Bangladeshi society.

In such situation, though scarce, the social media outclassed the established media capacity, but such instances are still exceptions rather than being examples.

While using social media, people mostly tend to share or show their personal interest. If the issue of authenticity is taken into consideration, most social media content will not pass the scale as those lack the standard in legal, ethical or situational levels.

Whereas the TV channels, radios or newspapers maintain standards of verification, most social media contents remain one-sided without the versions of the accused or the affected. Although, in some cases, mainstream media can also be accused of bias thanks to political or financial benefits or because of the personal stand of the respective owners. Still, the idea of check and balance can be ensued in mainstream media while social media contents have all the chances of going overboard which can always impact the society negatively in our country.   

Again, if one considers the idea of speed in circulating news, the social media outclass the traditional news establishment. And to avail this benefit, almost all the mainstream media outlets across the world as well as in Bangladesh are taking help from the social media, but as discussed previously, the standard of authenticity remains intact in such cases.

The mainstream media is also utilising the New Media to make sure their subscribers get the latest news at the earliest.  However, it must be accepted that social media remains quicker than the mainstream media in breaking any news.

Although the social media has flourished to a be a decisive factor over the past decade, mainstream media still remains the source for the majority items that trends on social media and for this reason, the mainstream media’s tilt towards the social sites in quite predictable.

Utilising the benefits of social media to reach among the mass, most established media outlets have entered the cyberspace to announce their presence and in terms of content reliability, no matter what they share, people still continue to be highly biased to dependability than to credulity.

However, the fact that social media has brought about revolutionary changes is evident in news outlets’ incorporation of platforms like Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.

If the idea of competition can be kept away, social media will obviously complement as well as strengthen the impact of traditional establishments in news media.

How people focus, highlight or advocate issues that they think are important will be evident if someone, who frequents Facebook from Bangladesh, comes across a person-- barrister by profession—who takes his time out from work to make people as well as authorities aware of irregularities lurking around us.

That man, with his unique approach, travels in problem prone area to highlight graft and misdeeds by people in power and his initiative looks genuine. In his case, the social media outclass the mainstream media as the latter fails to accommodate the barrister due to technicalities.

As the volume of content generated by mass people getting higher, the mainstream media has already shifted its focus to social media, but not without ensuring authenticity of sources and keeping an eye to the perception of trust people maintain.

Another significant debate is the issue of online algorithms. When a person uses social media platforms to frequent specific contents, computer algorithms channel the subscriber’s focus to a specific direction, reducing their focus into tunnel-view coverage and exposing them to like-minded users subscribing to similar contents.

In this connection, it should be noted that the Facebook recently said they were in the process of changing the algorithms for trending contents so that the spread of fake news will be reduced.

Media, being a pillar of democracy, has its responsibility to stick to certain prescribed ethics. Doing so forces the mainstream media to lag behind in some cases in comparison to the social media. Rather than being fearful, if the mainstream media embraces the incredible reach of the social media, the former will certainly be able to reach newer avenues.

While it is up to both the streams of media to keep reaching people with the latest information, the duty of judging is better be left to the consumers to decide which one is better and which one is dependable.  

The writer is Assistant News Editor of The Independent.

ইংরেজি দৈনিক দি ইন্ডেপেন্ডেন্টের ২৬তম প্রতিষ্ঠাবার্ষিকীর সাময়িকিতে প্রকাশিত। - মুক্তবাক। 

 




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