Journalists with the most Twitter followers in India are mostly upper caste Hindus. Out of the 20 most followed, 19 belong to the upper caste. There is no one from the SC, ST or OBC category. Seven of them are women, and Rubika Liyaquat is the only Muslim person on the list. It appears as if the Internet and social media haven’t really been the upending force that they were imagined to be. Social media today isn’t the big equaliser promised of a decade ago.In 2011, I was teaching a course on new media at New Delhi’s Indian Institute of Mass Communication. I would tell students that they could do journalism if they only had Rs 10 and access to a cyber cafe. The Internet, at least in its early years, seemed like it would be a democratic medium. As Scott Gant, author of We’re All Journalists Now, argued, “Freedom of the press now belongs not just to those who own printing presses, but also to those who use cell phones, video cameras, blogging software, and other technology to deliver news and views to the world.”
So, when the era of blogs and social media platforms ushered in, there was all-round euphoria that the media matrix of the big four — huge capital, veto power of the advertisers, dominant ideology, and government control — can now be challenged by millions of ‘nobodies’.
In India’s context, the David in this case were the subalterns — Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, and the other backward classes — who were not represented at all in the legacy newsrooms, at least certainly not in leadership positions. But 10 years down the line, the Internet hasn’t really democratised anything and just replicated social hierarchies online as well. The Oxfam-Newslaundry report, released in August 2019, has empirically demonstrated how caste-ridden, hierarchical structure is persistent in Indian newsrooms.
Digital media too isn’t a democratic space
My hypothesis when social media became a tool in most people’s hands was that the voiceless underclass of India will finally express themselves in a massive way in the digital space, because they have countless stories to tell and the financial threshold to own a media platform has been lowered.
Today, I have been proved both right and wrong. Millions of people, many of them from the underprivileged sections of Indian society, have started writing and uploading videos and photographs on digital and social media. Supported by cheaper mobile data plans and entry-level budget smartphones, a plethora of social media users are putting out all sorts of content. It is easier now for Dalits and other subaltern youths to start their own Facebook page and YouTube channels.
In an earlier article in ThePrint, I have written about how these digital platforms are gaining good traction and filling the gap created by the mainstream media, where the subalterns not only remain poorly represented in the workforce but stories of their struggles and atrocities committed on them also don’t find much space.
And this is where I have been proved wrong. I was under the impression that the digital and social media space will be a pluralistic-democratic place where all voices will be heard and debated, thus making it a perfect public sphere as envisaged by German philosopher and critical theorist Jürgen Habermas.
The Habermasian idea of the public sphere is that it’s “a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed”. In a perfect public sphere, “access is guaranteed to all citizens with the guarantee of freedom of assembly and association and the freedom to express and publish their opinions-about matters of general interest”. For Habermas, newspapers and magazines, radio and television are the media of the public sphere.
In India, though, access to these media platforms is not equal to different communities. Indian public sphere is both hegemonic and distorted.
Legacy media also monopolised digital space
Unlike most democracies, India does not have any cross-media ownership regulation. In 2013, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) came up with a consultation paper to initiate the discussion while calling for putting in place “cross media ownership rules for broadcasting, print and the new media… since there is ample evidence of market dominance”.
But the consultations were put on the back burner because it was against the interest of big media corporations. So, we have media houses that run newspapers, magazines, TV news and entertainment channels, DTH platforms, cable networks, and radio stations. Now, they also own digital platforms.
Digital media space, too, has been hegemonised by the legacy media. Since they were already producing news for TV and/or print platforms, they just employed a team to upload the content on digital platforms. They saved money too because the same print and TV reporters were asked to file stories and videos for the digital arm too.
Hierarchical social media denies level-playing field
In his treatise Annihilation of Caste, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar had this to say about Brahmins: “(T)he Brahmins form the intellectual class of the Hindus. It is not only an intellectual class, but it is a class which is held in great reverence by the rest of the Hindus.” Ambedkar’s views hold true for other upper caste Hindus, although to a lesser extent.
Hence, it is not surprising that the upper caste journalists and editors rule the roost in legacy media, first discovered by celebrated American journalist Kenneth J. Cooper in 1996, and confirmed by the Oxfam-Newslaundry report decades later in 2019. Even in the digital space, this structure has not changed.
Social media, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, have a process of verification, which is opaque and discriminatory. I have highlighted this in detail in an earlier article in ThePrint. This process creates hierarchy in conversations, with verified accounts getting more traction and response. Usually, they start the conversation and others follow. Since the tech companies have decided to make this process subjective and arbitrary, it automatically leads to “denial” of verification of the accounts of SCs, STs, and OBCs, as argued by Supreme Court lawyer Nitin Meshram.
@TwitterIndia is discriminating Sc-St-OBC in verification & suspension of accounts. Despite huge uproar it hasn’t changed, is a matter of great worry for all of us. #casteistTwitter @verified @Twitter.
— Nitin Meshram (@nitinmeshram_) November 21, 2019
In this scenario, the status quo in Indian media spaces continues. It’s true that SC/ST/OBCs as well as young Muslim users of social media have launched their own digital media platforms, but they are just trying to fill the gap. They are still at the margin. The sad part is that in India, we do not have anything resembling Chicago Defender in the print, TV or digital space.
Dilip Mandal is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.