The Hyperlocal Exposure of Covid Truths

29 Apr,2021

 

By Shashidhar Nanjundaiah

 

Shashidhar NanjundaiahA sensational headline from The Guardian that’s doing the rounds these days reads, “The system has collapsed: India’s descent into Covid hell”. To this dramatic text, a friend and a media lecturer from Patna, Rajeev Sharan, remarked that the famed UK daily’s headline is just being charitable. “Actually, the system has not collapsed. It just stands exposed. This is the system here.”

 

“Meanwhile, people are asking where their vaccine dose is,” the story by BBC’s India correspondent Yogita Limaye concluded. After presenting the ugly political bickering around vaccines in India, that was the bottom line-their immediate, proximate reality.

 

People in a crisis mostly care about the truth that they need-blood, oxygen, vaccines. People whose relatives are dying in hospitals often blame the system for their fate. “The doctors are helpful, but government is not helping.” Blame goes onto a distant, unreachable entity that we call the system. Yet it is the local, a-systematic entity with tremendous reach and is yet very local that often cuts through the red tape and helps.

 

It is fair to assume that many of the people whose relatives are dying are surely those who are also intemperate in their hypernationalism and protecting national image, which, hitherto, was more important than reality. Yet, the same technology-enabled social system comes to their rescue when the need is immediate and critical.

 

As a system, the social media has proved that is both a boon and a curse in these trying times of Covid 2.0. On the one hand, it is replete with nationalistic “triumphalism” and booster doses for Modi’s image. Much has been documented and argued-including by this author-about the perils of such ongoing government-induced, often unscientific euphoria that has caught the fancy of politicians and the social media distributors of their messages.

 

So it is evident that a system of fake news has arisen right before our eyes. To that extent, sections of our media that do question the system-however raucously and irritatingly-drill down the bottom line, that people are at the bottom of it all. They remind us that the system is not “the other”-we are the system. Yet by being selective in accountability-seeking, they are exposing the media’s own system.

 

Yet, on the other side of that disturbing new social system is a much more heartening alternative of how the social media is doing what our media has largely failed to do: help people. This kind of crisis is where the word “social” in the term social media is validated. Geographically apart strangers are helping one another, appealing for blood donation or oxygen.

 

Although its meaning is obvious and un-tricky, hyperlocal has taken on a new meaning. This new definition is about not the reach but the origin. It means hyperlocal is not about geographic proximity, but about the dissemination of a reality from a locality. An important book, self-explanatorily titled Hyperlocal Journalism: The Decline of Local Newspapers and the Rise of Online Community News by David Harte, Rachel Howells and Andy Williams (2019), albeit largely in a west European context, includes a pertinent discussion around “excessively local”-so local that local, crowdsourced information is too culturally specific for its mass distribution to bear the right connotations.

 

One argument can be that such news is too mundane, too ordinary. But like all news, it is at times of crisis that its true relevance and value kick in. The hyperlocal nature of social media lends that personal touch to a global technology, and in a sense, it defies what system is. Even the most local of the so-called mainstream media must resort to anecdotal evidence or broad generalisations. It is only the sum of all anecdotes that can make the reality emerge as it stands, devoid of headlines and bottom lines.

 

It should be evident, therefore, that hyperlocal news is both informational and cultural. It is informational when it is immediate and proximate, and a cultural informant when it is not. Last Saturday, the first weekend of a curfew in the Garden City, The News Minute published pretty pictures of a few leafy streets to support the headline “Roads deserted, shops shut during Bengaluru weekend lockdown”.

 

Let’s think about the political, social and cultural undertones in that news item. What this headline will not tell us it is showing only a part of the reality. It would be fallacious for the reader to assume that all roads are deserted, all shops shut. (Clearly, they were not.) The headline is important for a variety of reasons, after all-they tie together an un-complex form of truth, providing a conveniently one-sided evidence for newspapers and portals to evidence a strict weekend curfew, individuals point out that traffic is almost normal in their neighbourhood. Additionally, to someone who is geographically removed, it connotes-falsely-that the city has been totally compliant and disciplined.

 

That is why it is the social media that can provide the actual truth-whether it is in the form of exposing the underbelly of our society or our minds, whether it is depressing for many of us to know how much hatred there is, or whether it is delightful to know how much compassion there is. Where there is no hatred or compassion, there is pretence of either—which is also a reality. It is what people want to convey about themselves. Like its mainstream counterpart, this crowdsourced messaging is best at, and worst at ‘news you can use’. It could lend itself to use or misuse, but hyperlocal is the most organic counter to hypernational.

 

As the founder of Being Responsible, the author, Shashidhar Nanjundaiah, is attempting to build awareness via Responsible Media Literacy. Prof Nanjundaiah has led media institutes to positions of repute and leadership. You can reach him at shashi.nanjundaiah@hotmail.com. His views here are personal.

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