Times group, The Hindu's social media autocracy: Here's why it's counter-productive
The relationship between social media and mainstream media has been complicated. It has now become customary for the latter to piggyback on social media to expand its reach. But some organisations' social media policies are rather befuddling.
The relationship between mainstream media and social media has been complicated, to say the least. Social media, widely perceived as having ended the hegemony of mainstream media, now finds the latter expanding its reach through some clever use of Twitter, Facebook and more. So journalists, columnists and media houses are investing a fair amount of time on their social media strategy, the Times Group appears to have taken the efforts to a new extreme. According to a report on Quartz, Bennett, Coleman and Company Ltd (BCCL), India's biggest media conglomerate that publishes leading English dailies including The Times of India and The Economic Times apart from a host of magazines and pull-outs, has introduced a contract forbidding employees to share news-related links on their personal social media accounts.
It also asks them to declare all personal accounts and start company-authorised social media accounts, to which the company would have full access. The company can then post on behalf of the person on the company-authorised account. Quartz quotes from the contract as follows: "The posts made by you on User Account shall contain news and other related material and may also contain any personal material and interaction, which we encourage. You shall inform the company about your personal user accounts and the same will be allowed by the company, subject to you refraining from posting any news and other related material on the same."
While news of the unprecedented contract sent ripples of shock among journalists and especially on social media, including among many who work for BCCL-owned companies and their subsidiaries, it's not actually the first media house to have wielded control on employees' social media personalities.
Another respected daily, The Hindu, sent out a note to all its employees exhorting them to not share links to news stories from rival publications on their Facebook or Twitter accounts. Mint quotes from the note signed by managing editor P Jacob: " ...projecting and commenting on—adversely or otherwise—the contents of other, especially competing, publications will be in poor form and is preferably avoided. We need particularly to ensure that in our enthusiasm and urge to participate in an on-line discussion or debate, we do not end up doing a favour to the competition..."
N Ravi, editor-in-chief of The Hindu, told Mint that there was nothing wrong with the guideline. He reportedly said, "This is in line with the social media policies of other international media organizations such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Reuters among others, so there in nothing out of line here. This is only a preliminary step; we are setting up a larger framework of guidelines for the organization."
The Times of India and The Hindu's bid to control its employees' social media activities is problematic for several reasons. First, to state the obvious, it is a glaring violation of freedom of speech and expression. Certainly there are unwritten rules of conduct for employees of all companies including media houses, controlling their personal social media activities veers on paranoia. It is about as logical as, say, school authorities controlling students' hobbies outside school hours and outside school premises.
Secondly, more significantly, while there is great business sense in using employees and their social media accounts as advertising vehicles that involve zero investment and great visibility, there are troubling questions of whether employees' volition in the matter is sought. Do employees have a choice -- and a genuine one -- in the matter, are there any consequences of refusing to accept the conditions of the contract?
Thirdly, TOI's demand that its employees 'declare' details of all their social media accounts sounds intimidating and the motive befuddling. Either the company wants details of personal social media accounts to introduce apprehension in the employees' minds regarding the new social media policy, or the company is actually preparing to monitor thousands of employees' social media accounts. Both are equally vexing possibilities. Try telling an average reader of the newspapers that journalists in an organisation have little control over what they post on their Facebook accounts. For sure, the reader's view of the organisation's and its journalists' freedom and neutrality takes a beating immediately.
Media Law Monitor makes an important point in an article on the subject. "Organizations that try to assume too much control over their employees’ non-work related behavior run the risk of igniting a firestorm within the organization... An overreaching policy can also lead to embarrassment outside the organization. Your organization’s social media policy is likely to be posted online even if you do not choose to post it on your website." Something that might possibly ring true for both The Times of India and The Hindu.
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