Old Media Simply Does Not Get It; A Twitter Handle Does Not Make You Social Media Savvy

Old Media Simply Does Not Get It; A Twitter Handle Does Not Make You Social Media Savvy

Given the poor articulation of the Modi government’s stand on various contentious issues, it should be happy that it gets so much vocal support from the social media, unasked for, unthanked for.

BJP member of parliament Chandan Mitra’s dismissive statement about the twitterati offended the latter for the simple reason that this constituency comprised the most voluble support base for Narendra Modi and his party in the run-up to 2014. It still continues to bat on behalf of the Modi government when needed.

When you kick your own supporters in the butt, you are bound to get howls of protest. However, there are some more serious conclusions to be drawn from Mitra’s comments – and they say more about old media than the twitterati. They underscore the old Lutyens media habit of taking only itself seriously and dismissing everyone else as an interloper. These habits die hard, even if you happen to represent a party that sets great store by social media.

It is nobody’s case that you get only great ideas or thoughtful comments on social media. You get the whole range – the good, the bad, the ugly, the unprintable.

Let’s consider what Mitra said in its entirely and then draw the right pointers. He said:

“BJP policy is not decided by twitterati. I absolutely and categorically state that twitterati does not influence policy. Yes, it is a useful sounding board as to how some people with nothing very much better to do express their opinion on various subjects.”

More than arrogance, which is what offended the twitterati, there is ignorance. Old media simply does not get it. And new media is not about starting a Facebook page or buying followers on Twitter. Here’s why Mitra got it in spades.

First there is the assumption that people on Twitter have nothing better to do. There will surely be some people with nothing better to do than squat day in and day out on Twitter, but you could say the same for some people in Mitra’s office or his party too. The reason why Twitter (or Facebook or Whatsapp) seem to draw so much response so quickly is the ease with which you can do so instantly between doing other work. It is not about having nothing else to do. You can do it from a car, a bus, and during lunch-hour.

Second, Mitra rightly says that the social media offer a “useful” sounding board for instant feedback on hot-button issues, and surely there is no need to develop policy based purely on what the twitterati have to say. But if democracy is about vox pop, it is equally clear that most policies are not the result of the erudition spewed in old media. The old media manufactured an entire “intolerance” debate for weeks from thin air and anecdotal evidence, showing that trolling is not just a Twitter affair, but also an old media trait. What would be called trolling on Twitter has now been taken to the perfect pitch by shrill newspapers and raucous TV anchors. Wild commenting is not just about social media.

Third, social media has democratised opinion – which is exactly what intellectuals should applaud. It has widened the democratic process, even if this process may currently involve only the better off sections of society with access to computers, tablets and smartphones. After all, no one seemed to mind when only the poor voted and tilted elections in the direction of populist left demagogues; now that more views are coming to the fore from the other classes, it is demeaning to write off this voice as people with nothing better to do.

Fourth, many old media icons and big names are on social media, but their attitudes reflect a talk-down style, not a conversational one between equals. Barring a few, they prefer broadcast over conversation. This is an old media habit of talking from a pedestal that refuses to die. Having a Twitter handle is not the same as interacting on social media. Old media habits do not work in new media. Social media does not respect your standing in the old media. However, what do we see? We see well-known figures in old media, even those with lakhs of followers on Twitter, whining about abuse. Not that this is at all acceptable, but what is the statistical chance that if you have a million followers, one or two will not be a crank or rogue?

Fifth, the social media may currently be dominated by right-wing voices, but this is largely because these voices were – and still are – stifled in old media. One should not be surprised if anonymous voices on Twitter are often the same newsroom guys whose views are blackballed by authoritarian editors with their monochromatic views on issues.

So it’s not about social media voices dictating foreign policy, which Mitra was vehement about denying. It’s about listening and engaging as equals. Given the poor articulation of the Modi government’s stand on various contentious issues, it should be happy that it gets so much vocal support unasked for, unthanked for.

It’s time for the pillars of old media to wake up and talk to social media on equal terms. Prime-time may make you seem like a hero, but on social media a hero is as hero does.

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