By Dr Ahmed Raza
With the implementation of new Information Technology act 2021 mandating the social media platforms legally under compliance, the ongoing controversy between social media and digital sovereignty seems to an end as the appointment of the grievance redressal officers and nodal officers are mandated in India in compliance with the new rules. Though, another big challenge to our democracy remains the same if the usages of ‘paid news’ are left uncontrolled and untracked as media reach every one, whereas social media platforms Twitter, Facebook, What-sup could make a limited user only due to the digital divide in India. It would be an irony of democracy that the media, which is known as the fourth pillar of democracy, now, seems to be under harsh criticism due to displacement of its own goals. Now, ownership of most of the leading media companies lie in the hand of capitalists who prioritize TRP (Television Rating Point, a tool used to know about the popularity of a programme) over truth and sponsored news over the reality of the society. As the capitalists tighten their grip on the media, the character of the media becomes more and more business model. Therefore, a gap widens between the true picture of the life of the common people and their presentation in the media.
Unfortunately, numerous types of paid news have evolved over the period, posing a threat to the nation, but still exist in our political system due to a nexus between capitalism and political parties. Creation of public opinion in favour of a political parity pre and post election phases by the media in lieu of monetary agreement, promotion of particular ideology, future business prospects etc have become a common trend in our system. Undoubtedly, paid news is being used as a weapon to cover up the truth so as to divert the people’s attention from the core basic necessities and services if policies are not delivered effectively.
What is ‘paid news’, how it works and why it is unrestricted?
‘Paid news’ has been defined by the Press Council of India (PCI) as any news or analysis appearing in any media (print & electronic) for a price in cash or kind as consideration. The modalities of ‘paid news’ appears to have misled the people, both formally and informally, legally and illegally. No legal definition of the issues of paid news could be formalized. According to a report of Department-Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology published in 2013, ‘paid news’ includes only advertisements camouflaged as news, denial of coverage to select electoral candidates, exchanging of advertisement space for equity stakes between media houses and corporate. Unfortunately, such ill practices still exist in our political system, which not only hampers the ability of voter to form a correct opinion but also makes the government unaccountable and irresponsible.
Nowadays, the systems of ‘paid news’ are becoming more ruthless and shaping as a form of corruption, unethical and professional misconduct in which media outlets and the political parties coordinate and complement each other in lieu of monetary agreement and political image building. The evolutions of such trend of paid news happen to be more threatening to our democracy as people’s voting behaviour are rigged in favour of the existing government, despite of the policy lacuna, policy-paralysis and mal-administration. Most of the India’s leading media are now being guided in accordance with commercial interest of the companies instead of seeking truth. Many incidences have been associated with ‘paid news’ for the last a couple of decades, for instances, publishing pre-poll survey showing victorious to a political party on account of financial agreement, providing ample coverage to a political party campaigning, framing and highlighting any weakness of a political party etc. For the last decade, the electronic media will become themselves as an eye witness of ‘paid news’ if the title of the news-show, its contents, lists of guest speakers, allotted time for specific program etc. are seriously examined. Though, it would be very difficult to prove whether the particular news shown on a channel or the news published in the newspaper is paid or not. Till now, no success has been achieved in tightening the noose on paid news.
What is ‘paid social media’, how it works and why it is unrestricted?
The latest paradigm in the evolution of the ‘paid news’ has emerged as a form of ‘paid social media’ in which IT experts, professionals and other voters are monetarily engaged by the political parties for spreading any agenda, setting a narrative for or against the policies, trolling the governments or opposition parties etc. For the last few years, opposition’s parties are seen playing a high level of politics by exposing the government for their own political gain and vice versa under the purview of the social media users. Such immoral, unethical and dishonest practice by the professionally hired social media users help the political parties to create a strong public opinion by creating a biased survey, portraying the political leaders as an ideal, fake publicity of policies etc. A huge amount of financial resources is spent by political parties as a part of a winning strategy for an election in the name of social media led to the origin of ‘paid social media’. In order to achieve the political desired objectives, the practices of ‘paid social media’ are also ideologically systematized by creating fake accounts of social media platforms so as to create a narrative for or against the government. In 2020, the Maharashtra government claimed to have scrutinized over 1.5 lakh of fake Twitter accounts which were engaged inside and outside the nation to tarnish the image of government. Likewise, another revelation from a report of online news portal named ‘The Print’ which identified the number of accounts that served as sources of misinformation and propaganda for both the BJP and Congress. Though, it seems to be a tough for fixing them accountable as either account may be created due to their own political affiliations or something a strategy of political parties. Unfortunately, the law of the land could not take seriously this kind of paid social media as much as now the government is fervently pressurizing the social media platforms to keep them under compliance in line with new Information Technology act 2021.
In conclusion, though, the government deserves to be highly applauded for putting the social media platforms under compliance in order to place the digital sovereignty above the Twitter, Facebook, what-sup etc, but the practices of the ‘paid news’ and ‘paid social media’ has appeared to be a part of the political process and election campaigning. Such issues of ‘paid news’ and ‘paid social media’ would be more challenging for India if not countered legally or institutionally as more people from rural areas may be misled in the future as soon as digital divide gets reduced. Now, it’s high time for government to prioritize by legislating against the ‘paid news’ and ‘paid social media’.
(Author is Assistant Professor, MANUU, Hyderabad & Project Director (MRP ICSSR), political commentator, author and columnist. The views expressed are the personal opinion of the author. He can be reached at [email protected])