India’s Disinformation War More Complex Than in West: Oxford Prof 

In this interview, reputed professor Rasmus Nielsen speaks about a range of issues concerning the media world.

5 min read
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"I think we have many reasons to believe that the problems of disinformation in a society like India might be more sophisticated and more challenging than they are in the West," says Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford and a professor of political communication.

In an interview with The Quint, Nielsen speaks about a variety of issues concerning the media world – ranging from making sense of the trajectory of political news coverage in India to a generic discussion on why has a sense of deep distrust towards the media seeped in among the readers of lately.

Here are the edited excerpts from the interview:

Listen to the podcast of the interview here:


‘Indian Journalists Vulnerable to Political Pressure’

So India is gearing up for the general elections in 2019. How do you make sense of the trajectory of political coverage in India over the last four years, ever since the Modi government came to power? Do you think the political fake news ecosystem in India is becoming as sophisticated as the one in the West?

I think we’ve seen in the recent years, and I am sure we’ll see this in the 2019 general elections as well, that Indian journalism, at its best, is outstanding and has a clear commitment to finding truth and reporting it… [But] there are instances in which Indian journalism has been under a lot of pressure from politicians in recent years, in ways that are very uncomfortable. We see a situation in which some media organisations are quite vulnerable to political pressure, either because their owners have other business interests, or because the business is quite reliant on public authorities’ advertising, which can be withdrawn selectively.

In parallel, we see how vulnerable individual journalists are to political pressures, sometimes from politicians, but perhaps more often from social groups that might or might not be allying with politicians. We’ve seen these tragic examples of individual journalists who’ve been killed at worst, or more widely been threatened by various thugs – that are aligned either with political groups or militants and extremist groups.

In terms of the challenges of disinformation… I think we have many reasons to believe that these problems in a society like India might be more sophisticated and challenging [than] they are in the West. Journalists, media organisations, technology companies and policymakers in the Western world, who want to understand the nature, scope and potential future trajectory of disinformation… might do well to study the Indian experience and try to see for themselves what the problems of disinformation look like in a society that is politically polarised, suffers from great economic inequality, poverty and low trust in institutions… I think all of us can learn much from studying India.


‘To Fight Fake News, Get Out of the Tower and Into the Streets’

One has seen that in the India, WhatsApp has become one of the main purveyors of fake news. It is also believed that fake news is successfully spread on WhatsApp because it is shared among close friend/family groups, which people tend to believe. In such a context, what do you think should be the road map for an Indian media house to tackle the menace?

India is a really important illustration of how complex and fast-evolving the problems of disinformation/misinformation are, and how little we actually know about the fundamental drivers of this… Media organisations have to navigate the challenges that come from the performative nature of digital media, where much of what we do when we consume, share and forward information in digital media is fundamentally performative. It’s about showing the world who we are and who we want to be.

If you [a journalist] question [stories that are false, misleading and harmful] from the outside, with no respect for the community in which these story lines proliferate, you may risk strengthening their commitment to these stories because you’re seen as an outsider that tries to undermine the views that are cherished by these communities.

So, the challenge for journalism is the question of whether you can get inside these communities and help their members ask themselves the question, ‘Do I want to be the kind of person who shares this kind of information?’ So the question for journalists is how can they get out of the tower and into the streets, and make sure they are accepted as part of the public, and not part of some faraway establishment that tries to tell people how to live their lives.


‘Distrust in Journalism Because of Politics’

Why do you think this sense of distrust of media among the readers has seeped in, in the last few years? While social media makes a two-way communication possible between the media house/journalist and the reader, is that being used constructively?

…One of the central drivers of distrust in journalism is really about politics… The more polarised and disputatious the political life is in the society, the harder it is for journalists to find that place where they can both be and be seen as being impartial.

In terms of the relationship between journalists and their audiences, earlier the former used to have a near monopoly on the means of information production: ‘we publish, you read’… And of course, digital and social media have fundamentally changed this. We all have a megaphone in which we can publicly question the things that we come across from journalists.

With some important exceptions, many journalists have been reluctant to embrace the idea that they have to practice their craft in a more conversational and interactive style. Many journalists have still operated in a ‘we publish and you read’ mindset even though technology has moved away from this one-way broadcast into a much more interactive world in which, if you want to be in the conversation, you have to be part of the conversation.


‘Challenge for Journalism is to Cut Through the Noise’

You have expressed optimism about digital journalism taking shape in the 21st century. While it has, as you said, made journalism more diverse, accessible and informative than ever before, it has also given a free hand to anyone to push out the content of their liking. Your thoughts?

The most fundamental change that digital media has brought to our media environment is that it is easier to publish all kinds of information, including fantastic information, but also misinformation/disinformation. And I think that has fundamentally transformed the way in which journalism works – from a situation in which journalism created value simply by producing information in a world where it was scarce, to a situation in which the challenge for journalism increasingly is to cut through the noise of enormous amounts of information, much of it being unreliable or sometimes false.

And the challenge for journalists is two-fold. One is how do journalists ensure that their work genuinely is trustworthy, And secondly, how can they show that they are trustworthy. [There’s a a need to]… demonstrate the difference between assertion and reporting, between hearsay and things that have been fact-checked.

(The text interview has been edited for clarity.)

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