New Emotions for Old

23 Jul,2020


By Shashidhar Nanjundaiah


Unusually, the hashtag #Nonsense_Modi topped the Twitter trending list in the country for several hours earlier this week after a primetime debate, where a spokesperson of the Opposition repeatedly used the term “nonsense” to question the government’s apparent stance that any question around the Ladakh standoff was against the nation’s interests. Although the ruling party’s spokesperson tried to defend that charge, the opposition was loud and relentless. Under the hashtag, which emerged from behind and beat #Nonsense_Rahul to the top, went well beyond the Ladakh statement, tagging eclectic national issues from job losses to Covid-19 to GST.


To a student of media communication, this is a sign. The nature of media audiences is that they look for new emotions to massage themselves with. You have to start to wonder–and fear–what lies next in BJP’s media-agenda armoury. Is the narrative using the same old emotive messages while the media users are hankering for new emotions? Fear, hatred, nationalism have played their part. What next? The popular media-alarm “Massive controversy erupts” may still evoke volcanic mnemonics in us, shaking us out of our bot-like social-media existence. But emotional appeals must evolve, it seems.



For, after all, emotions drive today’s audiovisual news more than ever before. The surprise lies in how late news got into the act, decades after motion pictures and non-news television—and the all-inclusive digital media—recognised the clear market for emotive messaging. Viewers play with the television screen in a “parasocial engagement”, according to media psychology scholars Horton and Wohl. Until the social media swept the audience attention, the audiovisual media continued to rely on rational appeal. Today, stung but clever enough to co-opt its competition, news television knows better.


But that’s the nature of immersiveness. It is high-involvement but temporary. Emotions around issues, with the exception of long-term investments in emotional attachments, are often transient. “When India’s onboard [demonetisation], why isn’t the opposition?” asked a channel, more or less summing up the implied nationalistic emotion. Considering the trouble it caused on ground, that political detail would seem a sadly ironic emotion, in conflict with what people felt. The more recent “#ChinaGoBack” call, too, tied itself to narratives aimed at nationalistic emotions. 



But are media houses running out of emotions? News editors’ stated role has been to set the agenda of what we must think about. But their new role is in setting an agenda of individual emotions that add up and galvanise themselves on social media to become public emotions. We can call this emotional agenda-setting. In a binary context, this role would be set against a traditional, editorialised form of agenda-setting.


Aristotle had said that man is either a political animal or an outcast like a “bird which flies alone”. Individuals have personal, social and cultural needs that must be fulfilled through associations. The welter of social media messaging gives the individual a false sense of being the agenda-setter: One that must indulge, take sides, react. Some scholars have used a somewhat awkward term, masspersonal, to describe our current state of social media usership. The more conventional media routinely use the social media mores and norms to boost their own viewership, borrowing trending posts to create news. So it won’t be amiss to use this masspersonal nature of consumption to news television, which mobilises mass emotions by hashtagging personal emotions.


News language’s new role is visual, drawing us in. The news media is there to help us construct our truths. One way is drawing our attention to ‘massive controversies’ erupting everywhere. To draw inferences that are more detached, we must feel a need to be media-literate in the new digital age. And as history will tell you, media literacy follows media technology and techniques. Regrettably, we can never really catch up or the game would be up.


So sure, emotions are here to stay. But how to juggle those emotions periodically will determine how strategically a marketing head and editor can jointly manipulate public sentiment.


As founder of BeingResponsible, the author Shashidhar Nanjundaiah is trying—really hard—to instil Responsible Media Literacy among younger citizens through courses at schools and colleges. The 20-hour courses are a combination of awareness, deep-reading media exercises, and basic rules-of-thumb forensics to recognise fakeness. Earlier, he has led media institutes of repute to positions of leadership. Prof Nanjundaiah can be reached His views here are personal.


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