Ranjona Banerji: Shooting the messenger

21 Aug,2012

By Ranjona Banerji


As usual, it was shoot-the-messenger time during a crisis. And this time, instead of the perennially wicked journalist, it was social media which was deemed the villain. Of course, the social media can be villainous or it can be sweet (if sickeningly sweet then it is a villain in my eyes anyway) or it can be bland, informative, helpful and so on. What I’m trying to suggest is that it can be as good or bad as the people who use it.


Anyway, given all the horrors of people being killed and people running away in terror and inflammatory pictures and messages being spread around, it was decided that the medium of the information was responsible. As a result of all this human bad behaviour, Twitter and Facebook have been looked at askance, websites have been blocked and no one is allowed to send more than five text messages a day.


This is not the first time this short-sighted method will be applied and it won’t be the last. Yes, panic can spread through a mass communication system but stopping the system will not stop the panic. Humans have been victims of mass panic as long as they’ve been human and will use whatever means possible. The same methods can be used to spread peace, love and good will as well (okay, that’s a stretch but technically it is possible).


Anyway, the government of India went on its blame-the-messenger spree, TV anchors thundered for action against the culprits (stretched on the rack Torquemada style or stuck in the stocks so that village people can throw potatoes at them) and the rest of India put up with it. A few people tried to point out that in recent memory, rumours of a murderous monkey man caused panic in Ghaziabad in the pre-Twitter era and before that, the Ganesha-drinking-milk story sent people into a massive frenzy. No mobile phones and no internet in those days.


But facts must never stand in the way of truth, as a Twitterer said to a journalist who dared to point out that figures in Assam do not match stories of recent mass migration of Muslims.


And so it is on Twitter. And on the receiving end of the rage of the social media’s users was Sagarika Ghose of CNN IBN. She suggested in her tweets that the government needs to look at hate-spreaders on Twitter and Facebook as well. This may have been an emotional response but it was ill-thought-out and made her the brunt of enormous outrage. As is usual with the internet, the attacks were vicious, rude, cruel and far beyond the norms of accepted civilised behaviour. It is a fact that the anonymity of the internet prompts people to behave in ways they would not in normal social settings. At the same time, you also see how easily all our veneers of civilisation can be stripped away. Ghose’s tweets may be contestable but the attacks on her were unwarranted.


Nature of the beast. The problem, though, is not the media. It’s the humans who use it. Now what to do?


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