Prabhakar Mundkur: Does Media truly reflect Public Opinion?

22 Jan,2020

By Prabhakar Mundkur


When one says ‘media’ today, the focus somehow falls on social media and particularly twitter which represents the social media headlines of the day. But twitter might be responsible for distorting public opinion more than any other medium. This is because as the Pew Research showed, Twitter might be at odds with public opinion.


This is because it is largely the opinion of the most vocal minority. This is obviously also the voice of who we regard as the influencer with a large following. Especially in India this could be even more pronounced. Our TV news readers for example are well-known for shouting down the public’s opinion when they shout down people who they have invited for their show. However it is not always the loudest voice that represents the voice of the public. Especially as societies become polarised, the public is often worried about expressing their opinion at all for fear that they might be politically and socially ostracised. Political twitter therefore might be even more unrepresentative of the public opinion than any other subject on twitter. What makes Twitter even more unreliable is the fact that it is infected with bots and trolls that may not be representative of the way we live our lives generally.


Bots and Trolls


The other day I saw a particular twitter handle that was dishing out malicious content meant to separate the multicultural nature of Indian society. On looking closer I noticed that the user had joined twitter only in December 2019, and in a few weeks had gathered more than 13,000 followers. The name was fairly anonymous although the picture of the twitter handle sported the Indian Prime Minister. You may think this is a sample of one but there is little doubt that there are several accounts like these that we may take as representative of the truth.



Twitter and Mob Anger


Outraged mobs on twitter follow all the behaviour patterns of real mobs on the street. Mob anger can be strange, pathological and monstrous. Behaviour of a larger group is known to have a big influence on individual behaviours and have been an area of interest in social psychology for years. Psychologists have found that group behaviour tends to be more extreme and amplifies the typical behaviour of its individual members. Mobs are known for losing their self-awareness. Sociologists refer to the process as de-individuation where individual personalities become dominated by the collective mindset of the crowd. Gustave Le Bon an early explorer of this phenomenon viewed crowd behaviour as “unanimous, emotional, and intellectually weak”. And twitter expresses mob anger much better than any other social medium.


What about mainstream Media?


So if social media and twitter is particularly unrepresentative of public opinion what about mass media? Typically mass media happens to be divided into the left and right ideologies, often but not always reflective of the owner of the medium. For example, if the media owner is a representative of the government in power, it is most likely that a TV channel or newspaper owned by such a person would be fiercely supportive of the government’s actions. And of course, vice versa. So what you might be consuming might often be a function of whether this is a ‘right’ or ‘left’ publication or TV channel. Whichever it is you can be assured that there is a built in bias in the medium’s point of view.


It is always difficult to tell whether media is telling a story people are interested in or if they are manufacturing public concern.


I quote from one Pew Research that said


‘Survey data from the Pew Research Center for the People & The Press reveals that public interest in the economy — going back to 2007 — has consistently been at a significantly higher level than the media coverage of the story. From August 2007 through the end of that year, for instance, about a quarter of Americans were paying very close attention the economy. That represents a fairly modest level of concern about that subject. Yet it still outstripped media interest. In that period, the economy and energy prices combined accounted for 4% of the newshole, making it the fifth largest news story.’


It is quite possible that it is the same in the India at the current moment. Economy might be our greatest concern, but media content might not necessarily recognise that. Unless of course NRC and CAC represent even a larger concern. One can’t be quite sure.


In conclusion, we need to take both social media and mainstream media with the proverbial pinch of salt. It may not always be a correct barometer of public opinion. Although I am sure it is a big influencer on people. But often the silent majority never expresses a point of view.


Malcolm X famously said ‘ The newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing’.


Prabhakar Mundkur is a veteran mediaperson and commentator. You can reach him via LinkedIn

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