Event ReportsPublished on Aug 13, 2019
Discussion on 'The changing landscape of digital media in liberal democracies – A comparison between India and the US'

Growing perceptions in the US and India show that the landscape of news media is changing, and polarisation and xenophobia are coming to the fore. The main reason for this is often attributed to populist political narratives. Both the countries are witness to a growing trend of dissemination of misinformation and disinformation as truths, observed Christna Lee, Head of the Ambassador Network at Hostwriter while speaking at a discussion on the topic: The Changing Landscape of Digital Media in Liberal Democracies – A Comparison between India and the US. The discussion was organized by ORF Kolkata jointly with the U.S. Consulate General Kolkata on 8 August 2019.

Working on migration, human rights and elections, Lee associates with journalists and helps them collaborate across borders. Coming to the issue of social media, she mentioned that the problem of trolling is turning out to be a major one in the contemporary digital space where women are mostly targeted.  She underscored the importance of media literacy in order to use social media more sensitively.

Post 2007-08 financial crisis, many publication houses shut down in the US paving way for the digital media to enter in full force. This in fact had led to the negligence of news at local levels. In contrast to that, print media continues to be booming and successful in India. What makes India an interesting case is the different layers of diversity it embodies in its society. It has immense implications on how Indians perceive and use the digital space differently from the US, Lee remarked.

In terms of funding structures, one must also note that print media derives most of its revenues from advertisements while digital media has a much larger pool of revenue ranging from online subscriptions to crowd-funding. She observed that this will essentially drive the shift of the Indian media from print to digital. Lee also went on to talk about podcasts and how the subscriptions to podcasts have exploded in the US market as well as in Europe while In India, the interest in podcasts is yet to grow with betterment in access to technology and other resources.

Lee concluded her talk by stating that for both India and the US, it is rather important to question the various factors that contribute to spreading xenophobia via the digital media. We must look into the importance of media literacy to critique and digest news items and also counter societal polarisation in the long run for the functionality of an effective democracy.

Discussing the topic, Deep Halder, Author of Blood Island: An Oral History of the Marichjhapi Massacre and Executive Editor, India Today Group Digital, mentioned that digital media, especially social media, has democratized the news room. The rapid pace of dissemination of information implies that news rooms nowadays compete with the social media. Consequently, reporters should be capable of taking decision about chasing news, fast fact-checking and grabbing attention of the readers regarding the news. The process has to be extremely fast. Haldar went on to say that social media has compelled the traditional media to unlearn traditional practices. It has become a watch dog for the traditional media. He also highlighted that currently, there is a sense of disillusionment among the public regarding big media. Big media is perceived as being biased one way or the other. On the other hand, as of now, digital media is not perceived in a similar fashion and therefore must not be susceptible to political biases.

The second discussant, Ashish Chakravarti, an eminent journalist, reminded the house, right at the outset, that the fundamental dilemma regarding dispassionate reporting in the highest spirit of objectivity that the media faces in an era of social media is not an unprecedented phenomenon. He categorically notes that it has been historically challenging even for the traditional media to confront the temptations of subjectivity in news reporting. Hence, the challenge of avoiding subjectivity and selective reporting by the media has only taken a larger dimension in an era when the newly empowered people through the social media are acting as constant bulwarks against the improprieties of conventional media.

He further asserted that the emerging landscape of the social media has empowered the hitherto powerless populace in many countries under authoritarian regimes. The speaker cites an article, Can Liberal Democracy Survive Social Media? by Yascha Mounk where Larry Diamond is quoted to have hailed the social media as “Liberation Technology” for facilitating the people to organize mass resistance against the dictatorial regimes in the Arab world. Therefore, by underlining it’s tremendous democratizing potential, the speaker calls the social media platforms as new opportunities for the people to voice their opinions and articulate their grievances. He further draws attention to the fact that India is witnessing the first phase of its encounter with social media platforms. Hence, the initial encounter of Indian democracy with social media might appear polarizing and chaotic.

The day’s discussion concluded on an optimistic note that as Indian democratic space becomes accustomed in its interactions with social media, the discourse might witness stability in the long run, with social media further strengthening the democratic discourse and practices.

Compiled by Pratnashree Basu, Associate Fellow, ORF Kolkata with inputs from Soumya Bhowmick, Jaya Thakur and Ambar Ghosh

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