Ranjona Banerji: Media as willing supplicants to those in power

05 Aug,2022

Ranjona BanerjiBy Ranjona Banerji

 

I see old reports being circulated on social media about surveys on how corruption has increased in India, about RTI answers that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s father never had a licensed tea stall at Vadnagar railway station and so on.

How relevant are these to the general public and to the general media?

All this information has been floating around for ages. But it receives very little traction outside of a small target audience.

Two reasons stand out. The first is that people do not want to believe in these facts. Or conversely, they would rather believe that these facts are untrue. They much prefer to consume the endless repetitive stream of lies which come to them on social media, especially Whatsapp.

Like these factual reports, old lies also do the rounds over and over again. They are prefaced with lines like: ‘You were never told this’ or ‘You don’t know this’. Thus underlining the belief that all old education was filled with lies and conspiracies and only these lies are true.

Simple mind manipulation like this makes it easy for the otherwise knowledgeable and educated mind to go into a willing suspension of disbelief.

And when the mainstream media will not amplify the facts, but use insinuation and “debate” to strengthen the lies, then the spread of misinformation is complete and successful.

As a comparison, Whatsapp has about 487 million users in India (June 2021 figures), making India the top user nation, followed by Brazil. While Whatsapp is used for communication, it is also the top spreader of misinformation, lies and “alternative facts”.

Twitter, which is far more of a news-based platform, has only 23.6 million users in India (January 2022 figures). There is therefore almost no competition with Whatsapp and its reach.

It is not hard to postulate that unless the mainstream media makes a concerted effort to fight against fake news and misinformation and an equal effort to push facts, there is no hope for the gullible and the wilfully gullible.

If a people who were cynical and sceptical about all government claims a decade ago are now completely sold on propaganda, then we have a serious issue on our hands.

And we have a collaborative media which finds it easy and profitable to push the agenda of “alternative facts”, to quote one of former US President’s Donald Trump’s aides. It’s like 90 per cent of Indian news channels are imitations of Fox News. They spread lies and hatred with ease and indeed prowess.

What the past few years have underlined is that it is very easy to create myths and almost as easy to use technology to spread those myths. The main difference with the myths of the Bronze Age is that humankind used those stories to understand the world around us, include lessons of human behaviour and use mythology not just for expressions of faith but also to negotiate a difficult and dangerous terrain.

In today’s world, these myths only exist to manipulate and use that manipulation for political and commercial gain. And sections of the media act as willing subordinate sutradhars.

Of course, you know all this. And you know why it’s happening. You know why there are only a small group of media outlets which take part in international journalistic collaborations which investigate large-scale fraud and tax evasion or misuse of technology to falsely incriminate journalists, activists and critics or expose how governments spy on their own people.

The rest of the media are willing supplicants to those in power.

And the people are either happy to wallow in lies or have surrendered their power to think.

Facts from the past?

Forget it. No one’s interested.

 

Ranjona Baneri is a senior journalist and commentator. She writes on MxMIndia on Tuesdays and Fridays. Her views here are personal

 

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