A  huge ruckus has cropped up in recent times, about how social media has played a damaging role in the US elections and adversely influenced public opinion in other countries. Social media and technology giants, based in Silicon Valley, are now facing intense global scrutiny. Given its unbridled power, social media has helped fuel the spread of unverified information and lies. It has become a weapon in the hands of the perpetrators.

We seem to have grasped its virality in a way that we don’t entirely understand the mechanics and forces operating behind it. The term ‘social media’ sounds rather innocuous It first created addiction to technology among its users, dismantled the old media bastions and continued to undo institutions and the social order, perhaps unwittingly.

To make matters worse, people running them don’t seem to fully understand what they have designed. Apart from technology addiction, there is also a growing concern that we are all turning into a generation that is suffering from relentless distractions, almost all the time. We are now living in what has been termed as the “attention economy”, mediated by digital platforms. We have all become attention-mongers vying for each other’s attention. Attention economy breeds on impulse reactions, outrages, exploits, sensationalism to entertain and survive. We are surrounded by gadgets and screens spewing information and content incessantly. The continuous treadmill of information ‘updates’, if unchecked, leaves us guilt-stricken. It forces us to constantly refresh and stay hooked to our devices. None of the information seems to hold our attention for too long. The compulsive mindless scrolling umpteen number of times in a day keeps us busy. No wonder, our society today is afflicted by an epidemic of ‘continuous partial attention’. The social media seems to have dominated our lives.

We have never witnessed such levels of intimacy with any other mass medium in the past. The social media is severely affecting our focus and cognitive abilities. Has social media outgrown its original stated purpose? It started off as a harmless platform to create community and make friends. It was instantly popular among the youth considering its universal appeal. It brought in a new youth culture. After amassing audience globally, the technologists behind the platforms went on to “innovate” and add newer features to increase the “stickiness” of the medium. Such features as news feeds etc, were thrown in to create the mother of all platforms. You could unknowingly spend a good part of the day living in your own bubble and consume whatever information is being dished out to you and the feeds you received from people you know. There was no need for veracity of the information.

The message posts, forwards and likes are endorsements are enough to believe and consume the information. In the process, the tech giants amassed both the audience and their rapturous attention globally, and sold these as commodities to the advertisers. A new business model had emerged.The big digital gold rush had begun. It coincided when the socalled “old media”like newspapers, publications were on the decline in the West.

Established newspapers went broke, local newspapers and newsrooms were being shut. In the enthusiasm to dig gold on the digital platforms, the print media was asphyxiated and starved of funds and investment moved to the alluring digital platforms. Democracy and serious journalism began to take a knock. A viable business model around digital still alludes. However in the process the core product, print journalism and newspapers nearly got killed and along with it went the gate-keeping mechanism, where information is put out for public consumption only after a thorough and rigorous fact-checking process. The old media unwittingly became cheer leaders of the digital forces, perhaps for the lack of confidence in their own legacy institutions and in the process ended up doing a lot of selfharm.

The same digital gold rush happened in the Indian media scenario as well. This tragic decline of old media helped a great deal for these digital forces to consolidate and overpower the old media’s established, painstaking, organized and orderly way of creating and disseminating news and information with checks and balances and accountability intact. A parallel world came in to existence. Technologists were busy playfully scripting (should we say coding) the new world information order and rewiring our lives. They were redrawing the contours of our own perceptions and engagement with the outside world.

After all, the social media platforms primarily created to give that much-needed trivial touch to life had no space in their lexicon for high-minded words and bombast such as accountability, societal implications, regulations, check and balances, fact checking and verification. Anything goes! Evidently, the world is increasingly becoming toxic, polarized, fragmented, divisive and unstable. These are social problems that social media platforms and technology have unwittingly heaped on us. It is a deadly mix of poor civics, knowledge and poor information literacy. Erosion of trusted sources and responsible journalism is turning out to be one of the biggest challenges of this century.

Can we as media consumers sit by the side and merely watch this phenomenon? How do we negotiate with the digital technology fueled new world information ‘dis’order? If technology is eroding old structures, what is at stake? One must realize that while technology can do good, it can also do insurmountable harm. There is no escape from adapting to the new technology and we must. However, just as we are watchful about several things going on in our society such as crime etc. we also need to be vigilant and constantly adjust to this new reality of misinformation and disinformation that is being purveyed with impunity.

On the other hand, social media platforms will need to bring in more transparency and be open to scrutiny. As social media is playing an outsized role in providing news and information, we need a better categorisation/classification of these platforms and demarcation of their roles in the overall information ecosystem. Like any other players, there is need for a governance structure and regulatory and policy framework under which they shall operate and be held accountable. Consumer and media literacy assumes greater importance in these times. To be an informed citizen and participant in civic life we need a dependable, trustworthy source of news, views and information.

The old media such as print publications has been fulfilling this role over the decades in furthering the cause of the public discourse in a structured and responsible manner. We need to repose our faith and trust in time-tested institutions and stem the unwarranted erosion of our own democratic ideals and values. Like spam emails, the era of fake news may not entirely go away. We need to set our own cognitive filters and make wiser choices while choosing our information sources.

 

The writer is a senior communications consultant and management professional