Not many people will argue that the effect of new media has not been widespread and massive; from more individualistic aspects such as mental health of people to more social phenomena such as the concept of justice. The shift from traditional media to new media has been incredibly rapid. According to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center, 62% of Americans use new media for news instead of traditional sources such as newspapers. The very reason that the shift occurred from traditional media to new media in terms of consumption of news, is itself the root of the problems that come with rise of new media. Admittedly, the reasons for the shift are many, but mainly, it’s efficiency of communication – both in terms of the time it takes to reach the consumers and the number of people you reach. The flow of information is so rapid and so is the quantity that people tend to take the information just from the surface without going into depth as to the credibility of the source. This trend is further reinforced as the sources of news are vast and each source comes from a different political and ideological belief. People tend to consume the kind of news they want to hear and the social media platform algorithms facilitate that. So, this freedom and availability can also be counterproductive; since, instead of reporting facts, people twist the facts to support their narrative and people consume it because they want to. Although, this doesn’t mean that traditional media is completely free from any bias. In fact, political influence, limited freedom and biased reporting are some of the factors which motivated people to start online independent media houses many of which run on donations such as ‘The Wire’. But the freedom that allows them to bypass the official channels and bureaucracy and report independently is used by other parties to manipulate the truth and misinform. Like in the case of the 2016 US presidential elections, where massive amounts of fake news polarised and distanced people. When the leader of the world’s biggest superpower is elected on the basis of misinformation and social manipulation by foreign parties and corporations with the use of new media, it is easy to see the power social media resides yet how easily it can be manipulated.
#MeToo, first originating in 2006 when a social activist, Tarana Burke used it, gained traction when a number of professionals from the Hollywood industry came out with allegations of rape against the established film producer Harvey Weinstein in October 2017. The purpose of the movement was to provide solidarity to women who had faced sexual harassment especially in the workplace and encourage them to come out with their stories. And this purpose was mostly achieved; #MeToo became a global phenomenon and came to include men also. This purpose can be said to be achieved even if we accept that some percentage of the allegations made were false. But another symmetrical purpose was to provide justice to the victims and bring change in the structural, institutional as well as cultural arenas of life which would discourage and prevent acts of sexual violence and harassment. Whether this purpose has been achieved is debatable. The movement was possible due to the platform new media provides and its inherent features. People can come out with their tragedies anonymously or with a name, to a large number of people or in secluded online communities; the information travels instantaneously and people don’t have to worry about whether someone will listen or not. But all these features which gave life to the movement are also on some level, counterproductive. Since it is easy to come forward and to take names from behind a veil of anonymity and because the movement has become so widespread and popular encompassing a vast variety of acts, the allegations carry less weight. They seem to target individuals and their acts, on a very personal plane leading to disreputation of the alleged wrongdoer without any verification of the claims. And the support extends to these claims also, ultimately leading to mob mentality and what French Actress Catherine Deneuve has called ‘a witch hunt.’ All this is worsened because what people consider as sexual harassment is different for different people. And what may simply constitute a rude and indecent act may be perceived as sexual harassment by someone and may end up trivialising the movement. Like in the so-called exposé of the actor Aziz Ansari published in Babe magazine which categorised him as a sexual offender, when in reality all he did was misunderstand social cues and stopped his sexual advances as soon as the woman said no. In an environment fuelled by emotions where the issue at hand is so personal and important, people tend to overlook the details and go into the depth of the claims or allegations. This can, and in many cases has, led to outright tanking of careers of people on the basis of unverified and unproven allegations. This defeats the age-old maxim of ‘Innocent until proven guilty’ which has been recognised by the United Nations in its Declaration of Human Rights. It also defeats the purpose of the #MeToo movement as when the reality as to the falseness of the claims come forward, the legitimate allegations lose their weight and the whole movement suffers. Another argument against #MeToo is that this problem of sexual harassment is inherently a structural and institutional problem, and the movement focuses on individuals, bringing no change to the corporate culture and laws which prevents victims to come out and be heard. But that is not entirely the case, some legal change has taken place which does not really equate the social and cultural outrage, but, nevertheless, it is still a start. This change has come in the case of USA in the form a number of bills passed in multiple states such as the Senate Bill 1300 which “prohibits employers in California after Jan. 1, 2019, from forcing employees to sign a non-disparagement agreement to release the employer of claims, including for sexual harassment, as a condition for a raise or bonus, or as a condition of employment.” The movement has also allowed other legal battles to gain traction.
When a news story is inherently personal in nature, the emotional reaction towards it gets multiplied after passing through the channels of social media. This is because the platform allows people to express their own views along with the actual story and the multiplicity of sources as well as the rapid rate of consumption disallows people to introspect and they end up publishing a very raw and emotional first response which further invokes a similar response by other people creating a chain, absorbing more and more people. Add to this, the factors of misinformation and the reactions may be detrimental to society. Such a personal story that is doing the rounds in social media right now is the Pulwama attack and its retaliation. Violation of a country’s sovereignty by a terrorist organisation invokes feelings of deep patriotism and the history between the two neighbours and a variety of contradicting news stories by a multitude of a sources only aggravates that. Now, patriotism is not a bad thing, but in this emotional environment people tend to take irrational decisions and their anger is misdirected. Kashmiris were at brunt of this misdirected anger after the Pulwama attack, with cases of violence against them popping up across the nation . Social media sites were full of hate speech targeting Kashmiris and there was also a lot of international hate between Indians and Pakistanis causing a lot of unrest and polarising people.
Take the case of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings wherein a large number of internet users took it upon themselves to find the culprits. Large online communities like the subreddit ‘Find Boston Bombers’ on Reddit took it upon themselves to find the bomber/s. Narrowing down ‘suspects’ and pointing fingers at innocent people just on the basis of their skin colour or the size, shape, and colour of their bag. One such ‘suspect’ was one Sunil Tripathi who was shamed and defamed all over the internet with people going as far as messaging his family when in reality he was completely innocent and missing for a month. All this well intentioned ‘crowd sourced investigation’ did more harm than good in the end, causing trauma to a family worried for their missing son. 5 days later, it was discovered that he had committed suicide and his body was found floating in a river. After the news broke that Sunil was actually innocent and not an official suspect, many of the original users who named him simply deleted their threads and there was no accountability. This effect of social justice is very scary, and new media, where people hear what they want to hear, is the perfect platform to facilitate it.
New media, given its vast and independent nature, is very difficult to moderate and oversee as opposed to traditional media where the content has to travel through various regulatory channels and is not published without any checks. This has the potential to cause a variety of problems as it has in the past. An apt example of such a problem would be the what new media termed as ‘Elsagate’. Elsagate refers to a controversy originating from the social media platform, Youtube and their app, Youtube Kids in which content which was supposedly child-friendly contained themes of violence, sexual fetishes, drugs and other such inappropriate and disturbing themes which could have serious impact on the innocent minds of children. The solution for this is not very simple; no reasonable amount of manpower is financially viable for companies and not every site is moderated by the owners. Further, the few content moderators that companies do hire, end up developing mental health issues due to the graphic nature of the content that they encounter. Most sites rely on algorithms and artificial intelligence for moderation but this can never be as effective as human intervention.
To conclude, new media has transformed how society perceives and reacts towards a certain issue. Everything that happening around us is looked at through the lens of new media, it forms and directs people’s opinions, they follow a particular line of consumption along which they are guided by the algorithms of social media. A Republican for instance tends to get his/her news from Republican sources and vice versa, leading to widening of the gap that is already present between people. This also has an effect on how society views and delivers justice or some form of it. Like in the aforementioned Pulwama case, the people protesting against Kashmiris believe their acts to be just. Not just sources, but the pattern of consumption also shapes people’s views. Consumption of media is rapid and constant, people spend hours on a stretch scrolling through their feeds, picking up information from various sources which they don’t verify or can’t name. People find their own communities within which they reinforce each other’s opinions limiting their perspective and disallowing them to see others’ point of view. On the other hand, social media is a great platform to get your voice out there and to be heard. The awareness and connectivity that it spreads cannot be matched by traditional media. New media has brought with it many new problems that were not present earlier; but, despite these problems and whether the benefits outweigh them or not, we need new media to match the fast paced world we live in.
Anshuman Malik is a 1st Year Law student at OP Jindal Global University.