When News Is A Commodity, How Do We Differentiate Truth From Simulated Reality?

Posted on February 24, 2014 in Media, Politics

By Joy Mitra:

In the Wackowaskis’ 1999 movie ‘The Matrix’, the plot contains the main protagonist Neo who is a hacker, leading a revolt against sentient machines who have subdued the human population. These sentient machines are using humans as their energy source and have made sure that humans perceive reality the way they want them to, a reality which actually is simulated.

The spectre of sentient machines however looms large over the Indian landscape as well, only this time the threat is to the political consciousness of the citizenry. Facts are distorted, facts are chosen selectively and facts are misinterpreted deliberately which leads to the construction of a ‘matrix’ in the political and social space, a kind of simulated reality. The dawn of the information age saw infotainment taking precedence over unbiased objective reportage of the events, but the picture looks far bleaker when honest journalists committed to the ethos of their work are being coerced, arm-twisted and silenced for the political views they hold. Speaking to Scroll.in, Sagarika Ghosh, anchor of ‘Prime Time’ on CNN-IBN said,

“There is a disturbing new trend in the Indian media of measuring objectivity and bias. Journalist who believes the politician is their natural adversary and systematically question all politicians are seen as biased, but those who attack only certain politicians and sing hosannas to another politician are seen as objective.”

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Ghosh had been posting a series of tweets about BJP’s Prime ministerial candidate and was allegedly instructed by the management of Network18 which owns the channel not to post ‘disparaging’ tweets about Mr Narender Modi.

The trouble with such a ‘matrix’ is that it tends to not just vilify and castigate anyone and everyone who tries taking a position contrary to the generally accepted norm and majoritarian ideology but also colours the discourse and twists the entire debate towards a completely different vector. To try and alter the dominant narrative is a cardinal sin. So if you are anti-Modi you are presumed to be anti-BJP, pro-Rahul Gandhi, pro-Congress and branded as an anti-national or an anti-India person.

Talking of the matrix let’s not forget the sentient machines, the ones who are in active collusion with their bosses to convert news media into a platform for propaganda. In 2013 Shazia Ilmi member of the Aam Admi Party (AAP) was seen in a sting operation, allegedly accepting money for the party in return for favours. This sting operation was done by Media Sarkar. AAP accused it of doctoring the video and subsequently came up with a video falsifying what was claimed by Media Sarkar by showing the difference between the transcripts and what was actually said in the footage. But the damage was done by then, Shazia eventually went on to lose the election for the R.K. Puram constituency by a margin of 326 votes. Sting operations which initially were instrumental in catching officials engaging in corruption red handed, have now become politicized to be used against one or the other party to settle political scores.

There is however something more fundamental here at work, the usual dichotomy drawn between what is business and what is politics has fractured leading to a new kind of alignment where business is politics and politics is business. The interests of one are irresistibly attached with the other. Political parties advance the interest of the corporates which fund these parties and once in power these parties reward these corporates by giving them contracts worth crores. This was adequately shown in the 2G scam when the Radia tapes surfaced. They vie for the control of the ‘sentient machines’. A Newslaundry infographic tells how different media houses are owned by corporates and politicians and their relatives . The problem is not per se their holdings but the way it influences the functioning of these media organisations. Information is power and when information is controlled it leads to a privileged class which starts dominating all other classes. Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci talks about how this power and hegemony of the privileged class is legitimised by manufacturing the consensus which leads to hegemony with consent. This takes place through the institutions of the civil society and media being the most vital cog in the wheel.

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Ideal role of the media should be to sidestep and play an impassionate moderator in the political discourse of the country, take up social causes, vouch for social change for the benefit of the majority while being compassionate towards minorities, consistently making the holders of power accountable and fight for social justice. But in this day and age of internet, social media and mobile based media platforms we have seen dilution of the norms and standards that once defined media in this country. Media has the power to shape and therefore sharpen or blunt the narrative. What we saw in the Arushi murder case or in the Malegaon blast was an impatient media ready to amplify the incidental. Parents of Arushi were immediately painted criminals without them being convicted by the courts and fingers were immediately pointed towards some radical Muslim outfit for the blasts without it being corroborated with evidence. Even satire websites which are expected to be politically neutral and relentless in attacking all political parties, we see today are not so neutral. Satire has decisively taken a side, it vindicates and justifies one kind of politics against the other.

The only debate that is run by most television news channels is ‘who will be the next prime minister of this country’ as if all issues in this country will be fixed once a suitable prime minister is found. The debate is endemic and has occupied huge space in the public domain,so much so that the simplest of discussions relating to cricket, movies and almost anything and everything has to degenerate into NaMo v/s RaGa. This social construction of reality leads us to perceive issues very differently where child labour, children living on the street, people dying of hunger, conflicts around identity and community have ironically become too obtrusive to be seen!

Neo was able to rebel and disconnect from the feeding machine because he abruptly gained consciousness. But when information is disseminated in a filtered manner how do we break out of this control on our political consciousness? How do we distinguish between this static ‘simulated reality’ that pervades our mind space and the truth in the state of flux? Justice Markandey Katju has spoken of amending the Press Council Act by bringing under its purview electronic media and by giving the law more teeth which in extreme cases include suspending the licence of the media houses for some time; media houses have obviously vigorously opposed the move. One can argue for more regulation or less of it, but the larger point is that media being the stakeholder that it is in a democracy, must evolve ethical standards for its own good and not become a pawn in the chess board of politics for otherwise it threatens to cannibalize its own self. This simulated reality must disintegrate.

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