We The Hatemongers

You walk into a crowded coffee shop. There are several groups, couples and singles at the dozen odd tables. Some of those conversations can be overheard. Somebody is talking about their personal problems, discussing politics or holding forth on his achievements. Suddenly you hear something that you don’t agree with or don’t like. You get up to argue. You soon start abusing the person who said that. Soon the whole coffee shop becomes a battleground. There is a skirmish, cups are broken, tables overturned. The coffee shop owner is left to clean his café. Just when he is about to open it again, he is told that he is disturbing the neighbourhood. If he cannot keep his customers in check he won’t get permission to run the coffee shop.

That essentially is the conundrum that social media companies face.

They provide a platform; unlike a coffee shop, it is for free. You go there talk, scream, shout, argue, hang out with like-minded people. But because it is a social media platform, all sorts of people are likely to be there. They don’t like what you say or you don’t like something they say. But unlike a dinner party it doesn’t stop at polite disagreement. It becomes vicious and abusive and very often spills onto the streets — in the form of lynching, killings or riots.

Can you blame the platform for it? Sure, tech companies can do a much better job of facilitating the conversations that they monetise. Facebook is cavalier with our data. Twitter seems to have no control over rampant abuse, threats, bad language and fake videos. But would calling its CEO and founder Jack Dorsey before a panel help deal with this?

The problem is us, the people. Maybe it is time to start taking responsibility for our behaviour as citizens, as audiences or simply as human beings. Maybe it is time to start educating ourselves on the basics of our history, economics, politics and everything else that we debate about, usually on the basis of “WhatsApp university forwards.” On most days, arguments are between people with no knowledge or half-baked understanding of an issue. It is amazing what a three-five minute fact check can do to the most vicious and blatantly false forwards and videos — if you are willing to not fall in the trap of believing something because it fits with your pre-conceived notions.

The truth is that mass media, especially news media, has failed India and Indians. The easier it has become to launch a news channel or newspaper, the worse the quality. India has a world-beating 400 news channels. Most don’t even use the fig leaf of journalism any more. Several have become mouthpieces for the state; others are rabble-rousers and hate-mongers. Not one of them has been summoned by a parliamentary panel or had their license revoked. Nor have they got notices from the News Broadcasters Association, the body that attempts, without much success, to self-regulate.

The problem in news broadcasting is one of ownership. More than half of India’s news channels are owned by people or companies that have no interest in producing good quality journalism. The idea is to peddle influence, extort favours or simply become a propaganda tool. News remains one of the smallest and most unprofitable segments of India’s booming television industry. How can any honest news outlet — which is about research, analysis, travelling to the spot, all very expensive things to do — ever compete against well-funded rabble rousers.

At forums and in debates, there is lot of fulminating about how news channels chase television rating points or TRPs. But TRP is a measure of the viewership, the audience for these news channels. If there was no audience would they bother?

It is time then for us as audiences and as Indians to reject hate and bad behaviour — whether it is on a social media platform or on a news channel. A journalist, an editor, an expert, a stranger or your friends may have a point of view you don’t agree with. But no one can be allowed to express their disagreement through violence and abuse. Why indulge in hate? And if we do then why expect Twitter or Facebook to clean our society when we cannot even agree to disagree politely.―Business Standard

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