New IT Rules May Be Rooted in Govt’s Communication Roadmap: Report
The government’s new IT rules may have been part of a roadmap planned out by a Group of Ministers, a report shows.
The government’s recent move to introduce the Centre’s new IT rules, which mean to regulate social media and digital news platforms, may have been part of a roadmap planned out by a Group of Ministers (GoM) during June and July 2020, the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, a recently accessed report shows.
A roadmap for what exactly? Well, the aims are many: 1) The effective dissemination of government policies, programs and achievements, 2) The strengthening of communication strategies, 3) The timely dissemination of authentic and factual news as well as curbing fake news, and lastly 4) Projecting India’s international image.
To this extent, a GoM comprising top Union Cabinet ministers – Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Smriti Irani, Prakash Javadekar, and S Jaishankar, apart from Ministers of State Kiren Rijiu, Hardeep Singh Puri, Anurag Thakur, and Babul Supriyo – met to discuss the concerns of the government with the agenda of improving communication of its narratives regarding its initiatives and efforts.
The decisions and suggestions also seemingly came after consultations with some members of the media and some experts and influencers in India.
WHAT DO THE MINISTERS HAVE TO SAY?
Neatly setting forth the concerns of the ministers and their solutions to address the same, the report quotes Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, the Union minister of minority affairs, as saying, “We should have a strategy to neutralise the people who are writing against the government without facts and set false narratives /spread fake news.”
According to Ravi Shankar Prasad, who is the Law minister as well as that of Electronics and Information Technology and Communications, there needs to be a focused media strategy, whose emphasis should be on setting the narrative.
The minister also recommends using a“few imminent academicians, VCs, retired IFS officers, etc” to “write our achievements and project our view point”.
But perhaps Prasad’s most significant comment, which underlines a sense of frustration the government feels with regard to digital news media, evident in the report is, “While we get insightful suggestions, it is not explained how despite being in Government, there is still a gap in the online media like Wire, Scroll and some regional media. Our core media intervention is not getting enlarged.”
Prasad also mentioned a “Pokhran effect”, which he suggested should be used in other messaging as well.
Meanwhile, Smriti Irani, Minister of Textiles and Women & Child Development, puts forth a suggestion wherein the government tracks “50 negative and 50 positive influencers” in order to control and set the preferred narrative.
Among the others, Hardeep Singh Puri stressed on “a strong need to deal with the international media and to shape the global narrative”.
WHAT THE INFLUENCERS & JOURNALISTS SAID
The report itself states that some of the ministers mentioned individually reached out to some members of the media industry as well as some other “prominent personalities”.
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ideologue S Gurumurthy had many points to make, including creating a “Pokhran effect”, which is perhaps a method to hugely give a public boost to the government.
“How to change the eco-system like Pokhran, how to handle media hostility, how to bother about main-line media? All these should be focused upon,” he states, adding that Nitish Kumar or Naveen Patnaik would be good figures to say something in order to achieve the desired “Pokhran effect”.
“While the emphasis should remain on reaching out to people, the power of persuasion should be used behind the scenes. These back-channel communications should start on priority by giving journalists a little bit extra in a calibrated approach. The discussions on TV have become joke as people shout at each other. Therefore, it is necessary to add to power of persuasion,” says another “prominent person” mentioned in the report, adding the suggestion that global journalists who are unsure of whom to reach out to information for “should be provided information through need based back channel communication.”
A senior researcher named in the report meanwhile appears to have a solution to the government’s preoccupation with certain digital news media outlets. “Google promotes content or (sic) Print, Wire, Scroll, Hindu, etc. which are online news platforms. …How to handle this needs a separate discussion and should be looked into,” he says. He also adds that the government should know "how to influence the online media or we should have our own On-online (sic) portal with global content.”
Meanwhile, a strategic affairs commentator suggested that journalists should be colour-coded as per their political bent, saying “Journalists can be colour coded: Green – fence sitters; Black – against; and White – who support. We should support and promote favourable journalists.”
Among the other participants, Nupur Sharma, Editor of right-wing website OpIndia suggested that her outlet be promoted, a point pushed by Abhijit Majumdar, who said that the portal’s tweets should be retweeted, while adding that “ALT News propaganda is vicious”.
Some of the other suggestions also included developing Prasar Bharati as a key news agency of the country and developing DD International along the lines of “best international public broadcasters”.
Certain comments attributed to the group of members of the media in general also found voice in the report. According to it, some of the observations by the group were that the “interactions with the foreign media should stop as it is turning out to be counter-productive” and that “groups should be formed of supportive editors, columnists, journalists and commentators and they should be regularly engaged.”
WHAT ELSE DOES THE REPORT SAY?
The report also goes on to state several action points, of which one is naturally the dissemination of the success stories of the government as well as NGOs, in managing to benefit people.
Another action point is the countering of fake news/false narratives, which however, also adds that this would allow for “the immediate rebuttal of negative stories”.
In keeping with Smriti Irani’s suggestion of tracking 50 positive and negative influencers, one action point involves the constant tracking of the latter “so that proper and timely response can be given”, while another says that some influencers in social media who project the government’s work positively “should be encouraged and provided with requisite information”, so as to put across the “right perspective”.
Another action point meanwhile is identifying people who can provide good arguments; it states that the “same fact can be presented with different narratives. So, a pool of Spin Doctors who can do it for the Government should be identified and utilised.”
WHAT’S HAPPENING OVER THE REPORT?
While the government is yet to comment on this report that has surfaced, it has already found itself in the midst of controversy.
Reporting on it, news magazine The Caravan said, “The choice of words is revealing, as is the fact that the report does not spell out what a fake narrative is and how the government chooses to define it. Though its mandate was couched in cautious terms, the GoM’s report clearly sought to improve the image of the government in the media, and there is no ambiguity in how it proposed to go about it.”
Since the publication of the report, one of the personalities named in the GoM report and mentioned by The Caravan, has tweeted that the claims made by the news magazine are “utter lies” and has also threatened legal action.
Further, when contacted byThe Caravan, many of these journalists told the magazine that no such meeting happened as part of a consultation with the GoM on government communication. “Rather, they said, it was supposed to be an informal interaction with senior government ministers, including Jaishankar, the external affairs minister, at a time when tensions with China were in focus,” the report by The Caravan states. Moreover, some of the journalists named in the GoM report distanced themselves from the comments attributed to them but did not wish to be named.
Reacting to the report, senior journalist N Ram said it was important to note that not all the journalists named were “complicit” in the government’s project.
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