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Long ago, we solely relied on newspapers for news; not so long ago, we relied on television and newspapers to keep ourselves updated.
Television news gave us the instant gratification of knowing the news as it happened; newspapers gave us the details of how, why and what as well as further analysis. Those were the golden days.
Then came the 24X7 news channels – with a number of channels at national and state levels, everyone is in a race to have viewers glued to their channel and not switch channels even during the ad break.
They had to compete with movie channels, entertainment and especially soap operas.
News headlines became sensationalised – everything became breaking news and everything was exclusive; and even though exclusives played on every channel, it was still exclusive.
News Based on Views
The number of breaking news and explosive exclusives drive ad revenue, which is the primary source to make money. Most of these channels are free to air with the DTH packages: they may get a pretty minor share of the total DTH rent a consumer pays.
The focus shifted from news to analysis. When there is analysis, there will be subjectivity; so more than news, it became about the views. When views are being broadcasted so heavily, political parties see it as a great medium to spread their views and they jumped on the bandwagon of n(v)iews channels.
That added the party filter to the news/views and coverage.
Then came the smartphone revolution. It would not be inaccurate to say that there are more smartphones in India than the basic phones. Social media usage increased drastically and internet and social media platforms have become the primary source of news for many. And of course, all social media platforms are free – they thrive on showing you advertisements.
Free social media makes more money than many media conglomerates in the world. Social media became the new marketplace.
Thiruvizha for Social Media
Remember the exhibitions/thiruvizha we had in our childhood days? Social media is a daily exhibition/thiruvizha. Exhibition is a place where vendors showcase their products and entice us to buy. Thiruvizha is similar but it’s a gathering of folks in and around a smaller place, so everyone knows everyone else.
Remember how people wore new clothes, jewellery and showed off in the thiruvizha? You would see your friend’s family going for a rangaratnam ride and you would ask your parents, you see your friend got a new toy yesterday and you want to buy the same today. The thiruvizha day and the conversations following that day are the Facebook posts and likes and everything else.
In exhibitions and thiruvizha, vendors shout and put up fancy displays/neon lights to attract people into their shops: 'chumma vandhu parunga sir; vanga vendam, chumma parunga; pudicha vangunga illenna paravailla' – this is one way. Once you start moving ahead, they will talk you into buying – that’s a different story; they will address the yearnings of the kids and make the sale.
On the social media, you see something similar – shocking revelations, bold statements, and wow-generating statements are published to entice you to click and go to their website.
It’s their version of fancy displays and neon lights – an attempt to make you buy things or see things.
New-Age Customer Profiling
Advertisers, much like in the television, pay you based on views – they may not have any strict guidelines on where their ad is put – whether it is next to a news or blog or anything, for that matter.
The websites started running social experiments to find out what type of headlines get more clicks and what to show to whom – customer profiling.
People fall for sensational stuff – everybody wants to read what the government didn’t want them to know, what the federation was hiding from them, what the FBI or CBI was covering up, what conspiracy is behind the death of a chief minister, how many days the dead CM was put embalmed to sort out property issues, how many days prior to demonetisation the prime minister's friends knew of the decision, how Reliance director became RBI director and feeds info to Reliance, and on and on.
The clickbait headlines are there on Facebook, YouTube and every other media portal out there. Welcome to the fake news and new satire websites, who, in a dark corner of their website, put a red herring that they are an entertainment site and their content is mostly satire. This bit is hidden and the website's name is seemingly pretty authentic most of the time. They don’t have satire in their names – like newsbluff.com or ifakenews.com.
Weapons of Mass Destruction
Citizens with the weapons of mass destruction – I mean, the cell phones with WhatsApp and Facebook, they are very concerned for their friends – they want to share everything they know and alert their friends too. They share the fake news/news extract or some even create a fresh video – adding music and animation to make it interesting.
With the explosion of social media, the six degrees of separation reduced to less than six. With WhatsApp groups and the ability to forward to multiple groups, Facebook's ability to share your friends' posts – the news goes viral pretty fast.
We all agree that we base our opinion on what we hear, see, and read. My opinion of laser surgery – to fix my vision so that I can see distant objects clearly – is based on what my friends have told me about it, what I hear from doctors as well as what I see and hear from my research. I am not a doctor so I am dependent on someone else to make my opinion.
Same is applicable to my views on demonetisation, Bharatiya Janata Party, Congress, FBI and many others. We don’t rely on the suggestions of our grandparents to form our opinion, we call ourselves the independent thinkers and citizen of information age.
But we are being bombarded with misinformation more than information, we are bombarded with view and not news.
Think and Then Act
The free social media is costing us A LOT, it's eating our data bandwidth – hence money; it’s costing time – hence, stealing time from friends and family; it's giving us false news and shaping our opinions on falsehood.
Next time you get something as a forward, you decide the price of free social media you are making your friend pay. Do you want to steal your friend’s time and money and throw it in garbage? Think. Would you call someone a friend if he disrespects your time and money?
THINK, THINK, MY FRIEND – THINK and then act.