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Right-wing vs. Left-liberal. It’s polarisation of the extent we have never seen in our country before. What started as a “bias” of certain sections of the media has now polarised the media, including the social media, entirely.
There’s no in-between here. As a journalist, expert or even a regular casual Facebook or Twitter user, you have to take one of the two positions. Most Indians don’t even know the meaning of the phrases like Right-wing and Left-wing. But semantic knowledge is purely incidental here. The opinions are not. And the opinions are polarised. And increasingly so over the last few months.
Two questions arise: What led to this? Is it something to worry about?
Most of us in the media know the answer to the first question. What led to this atmosphere of polarisation is the extremely aggressive media strategy of the current government at the Centre, and its political constituents. This, by far, is the most social media-friendly government India, perhaps the world, has seen. Its use of the social media may not exactly be polished and classy, or even prudent in the long run, but it’s there for everyone to see and experience.
Till three years ago, political propaganda stories, be it articles or videos, would not pop up on your newsfeed or timeline or WhatsApp groups, unless you subscribed specifically to users or channels publishing them. Today, we see these being shared all the time. By now, it’s common knowledge that seeding of these stories is a well-manned, professionally-run operation, not an organic occurrence.
If we go beyond social media to the more traditional ones like print and TV, the story is not very different. Everyone seems to be under some compulsion to take an aggressive, extreme political position. Politicians and political experts are mincing no words on air, often questioning journalists about their political alignment. Journalists have started hitting back too, not ready to be buckled under pressure, yet knowing that the climate is such that the pressure will remain. Probably till 2024, if not even further.
For the last two days, the best of their lot, Ravish Kumar, covered “Fake News” as the topic in his show. In his clinical style, he explained to his audiences what Fake News is, how it propagates and the kind of social damage it can cause. This was at 9pm, in the heart of news primetime. When primetime news slots are used to explain what is not news, than to disseminate news, you know something is not right.
Most of this Fake News phenomenon is linked to the idea of polarisation itself. Which makes the second question raised above – Is polarisation something we should worry about – an extremely relevant one. The worry is not from the polarisation itself, but from its off-shoots. Fake News is one such off-shoot.
Another off-shoot is the atmosphere of negativity and vitriol that polarisation can create within the media itself. News viewing was an informative and enriching experience till a few years ago. But today, more than ever, it is a stressful experience. You learn less, you fret more. I’m no psychologist, but I’d guess that this could be damaging our view of life and society, perhaps irreversibly so.
With a toothless opposition that’s happy to look away for most part, this polarised media situation may not go away in a hurry. If Fake News does not alter our history in the years to come beyond recognition, it is safe to say that the period of 2014-2024 could emerge as the watershed period in how this country handled its media. And how the media of this country handled the country. And it won’t make for very good reading.
This post first appeared on MXMIndia on my weekly column.