Believing the Written Word

Believing the Written Word
Though social media reach is tremendous in India, its platforms have not been used to spread misinformation or create agitations.

The last decade has seen a tremendous change in the media with the arrival of social media. Indians are hooked on the digital platforms – 530 million on WhatsApp, 448 million on YouTube, 410 million on Facebook and about 18 million on Twitter. As a matter of interest, a woman of Indian origin working for Twitter is reported to have banned former President Trump from the site.

Press conferences are now passé. Mr Modi uses social media to interact with his constituency – the name of the chief guest for the Republic Day parade is announced on social media and becomes front-page news the next day.

However, traditional media in India continues to enjoy considerable credibility. Misuse of social media is not as rampant in India as Indians prefer reading newspapers and believe in the written word. The world's largest circulated English language newspaper is published from India – TheTimes of India. There are still relatively fewer online news outlets like the Print and the Wire.

The government recently came up with a set of rules and regulations to control digital media and OTT platforms. The new law proposes to make it contingent upon the social media platforms to disclose the source of a story within 72 hours. 

The Indian Newspaper Society, which represents over 100 newspapers, has asked Google to share 85 per cent of the revenue Google and Facebook make by putting online news published by Indian newspapers in India. Google has already agreed to do so with several countries in the European Union as well as Australia. If successful, this will improve the financial health of the print media as, after the arrival of social media, their advertising revenue has markedly dropped.

In a country where every fourth person cannot read or write, social media has been able to achieve a deep reach amongst India's millions. Everyone can use WhatsApp and other similar platforms irrespective of their education levels.

There have also been instances around the world where WhatsApp groups have been created to spread misinformation or to create agitations. The case of Arab Spring demonstrates how social media has been used to mobilise people. Even in Sri Lanka, there was an anti-Muslim riot by the Sinhala majority, triggered by fake news. Fortunately, that sort of activity doesn't happen in India.

Venkat Narayan is a senior journalist and President of the Foreign Correspondents' Club, New Delhi. An active journalist since 1968, he was Executive Editor and Senior Editor of India Today from 1979 to 1984.