Tejpal scandal: How social media, and not mainstream, showed the way

The social media, much criticised by sanctimonious mainstream media (MSM) for being abusive (for good reason), has proved its worth repeatedly over the last two years. Even though the establishment is trying very hard to control or emasculate it, the social media (including the digital media) has been aggressive and unrelenting in showing wrongdoers the mirror - and the finger, one must add.

The news treatment of Tarun Tejpal's predatory sexual behaviour with a junior colleague in Goa was nothing less than exemplary in newspapers and TV channels, with few attempts being made to shield Tejpal from getting his just desserts. Full-blooded discussions on TV channels, front page lead stories and even full pages inside were devoted to discussing Tejpal’s culpability – something unthinkable a few years back. A square mile of forest cover might be destroyed in discussing the transgressions of Tejpal in print – something that has never happened before – but it is well worth it. Tejpal is hardly the first editor to conduct himself thus, but which editor in the past has been hauled over the coals for such conduct or worse?

 Tejpal scandal: How social media, and not mainstream, showed the way

Tarun Tejpal. File image.

A few boorish attempts by Tejpal’s pals – lyricist Javed Akhtar among them – got hooted down in the social media when they tried to invest the hero of sting ops with some invisible halo. Akhtar, who half-congratulated Tejpal for apologising like a man, had to eat crow and beat a hasty retreat. He deleted his tweet on Tejpal with this statement: “I didn't know the gruesome details; thought it was a drunken misbehaviour at a party. I take back my words and delete the tweet.” Shouldn’t he have checked the crime before rushing to defend the alleged criminal?

None of this would have been possible without the strenuous efforts of vigilant individuals on the social media. From the Anna Hazare movement to the Delhi gangrape protests to the Mumbai Shakti Mills gangrape to the Tehelka Editor-in-Chief’s escapades in a hotel elevator with his female victim, it is social media that has brought mainstream media to toe the line and focus on the real issues.

The reason why social media has become so important, and an object of fear to those in power, is simple: over the decades since independence, the mainstream media has grown so close to the powers-that-be that it had become eminently manipulable. Dissent in media was reduced to arguments over policies and individual politicians who were inconvenient to the system – and often the result of media and politicians scratching each others’ backs, and feeding off one another.

This cosy cartel controlled the dissemination of news and restricted the nation’s agenda to issues that the powerful wanted to discuss. It has been shattered by the advent of the social media, with its unfettered ability to set its own agenda on its own terms. No longer is it possible for mainstream media to decide what issues to discuss, and what to brush under the carpet, on the basis of a wink-and-a-nod from the establishment.

To give the other side, it is not as if mainstream does not have honest journalism or good editors. But it was extremely vulnerable to action and blackmail by government and business. When newspapers were the main forms of mass communication, access to imported newsprint, offers of special favours to journalists (cheap land, free junkets) and threats of action against newspaper owners’ other business interests were enough to keep all of them in check.

The advent of TV changed the game somewhat, but not too much. TV enabled sting journalism, and this is what brought Tehelka its day in the sun. Stings involving defence deals during the NDA regime, and the petty bribery case involving Bangaru Laxman made stings really sting the high and mighty.

But even TV was amenable to pressure for the simple reason that you need neta-babu favours and footage, including access to the powers that be, to be visual and viable. It is also a fact that so far stings have stung the Congress establishment less than the opposition. The only major sting mounted against the Congress and UPA – the 2008 cash-for-votes scam – ended up with some BJP members getting arrested, not the offending parties. Major UPA defence deals have entirely gone under the radar, despite strong evidence of commissions being paid. Stings seem to succeed when journos are lying in wait for unsuspecting politicians, but real defence scandals are not being unearthed at all. Even stings, it seems, are amenable to political pressure.

No such restraint is possible in the digital space. This is why government fears the social media – and why mainstream media has to follow social media to retain its credibility. A large part of mainstream’s remaining power depends on what is discussed in the social and digital media. It can ignore real issues and biases only at the cost of its own credibility.

This is not to say that social media is a force only for good. The north-eastern exodus, the Muzaffarnagar riots and other kinds of social trouble can be fanned by using social media platforms. Abuse is also substantial in the social media.

However, there is another side to the abuse story. Social media language and abuse reflects what many people actually think in private. Social media allows us to use the same bad language we use when we know nobody is watching us; it enables us to be sexist, communal, or casteist – just as we often are when we think we are among friends or “people like us.” Social media’s anonymity enables society to hold a mirror to itself – and the fact that it is sometimes abusive enables us to learn what we truly are. We can no longer pretend we are so liberal or so cool when we talk in the social media.

The right answer to abuse and boorish behaviour is self-regulation and blackballing of offenders by those who care about civility. That will take some time to evolve, for the social media revolution in India is still young and uncontrolled.

A bigger worry about social media and sting operations is not really being talked about: if everything we say or do is going to be in the public domain, who can we ever trust? A low-trust society levies high costs on everybody.

But that’s a problem to worry about on another day. For now, social and digital media are game-changers for Indian democracy, more good than evil, simply because they show us our true colours and keep collusion between the powerful and the compromised in check.

In this sense at least, social media is mainstream. It is good that the tail is wagging the dog.

Updated Date: Nov 23, 2013 08:58:14 IST