Shashidhar Nanjundaiah | Media outlets, others must do more to curtail online bullying

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While the newsperson is going through her set of emotional distress, the public at large has its own issues to deal with

There are a number of news media platforms, independent and mainstream, who provide a voice to the voiceless, pursue hidden truths in society, both material and ideological, and in general expose harsh realities of oppression, struggles and iniquities. This amidst abusive online comments that abuse the journalist, abuse the platform, and abuse other users. An old-timer might say: “But isn’t that the whole job of the news media?” That is the irony: to continue doing its whole job amid relentless cyber bullying, cyber lynching and abuse, one needs the kind of thick skin that is antithetical to the whole job.

I maintain that the media owes to itself and to us something more: To help make the world a safer place, a place where hope lives amidst often hope-dashing realities. This is not to argue that there is one truth and that is the whole truth that the media must adhere to. It is impossible for any media platform to believe that anyway, and that is why it is pragmatic to take a stand without taking sides — to place the available facts and then fairly ask the right questions. By taking a stand, an editor deliberately discards false pretences of the perpetually elusive ideal of objectivity. However, doing so puts a media platform of the modern ecosystem in peril. That is to say, when the side that does not agree with the stand reacts, and reacts viciously, it leaves both the individuals within the media system as well as reasonable sections of society feeling hurt, humiliated and hopeless.

 

How can a hurt and humiliated individual wake up day after day and motivate herself to smile before a studio camera or go back to the farming village, the Muslim or dalit basti to tell their stories, and not be affected by the ruthlessness of the backlash online? It takes the courage of vulnerability and a mature conviction for a media professional today to re-motivate and pick oneself up and keep pursuing what she believes is the right thing. And that is the antithesis I have alluded to earlier: the whole job requires a social sensitivity that goes against the apathy that may be needed to shrug off so much abuse. It is brutal to expect people to put on a smiley brave face while the troll army is baying for their virtual blood, calling them names or telling them how sad they must be because a certain political party won the just-concluded election.

 

Psychological issues cannot possibly work well in a framework of expectations that are Machiavellian.

What am I saying that we do not already know? Yet framing it as a mental health issue for journalists is a way to alert ourselves out of some Sisyphean burden of having to “deal with the reality of technology”. That would be a falsely deterministic way to universalise the problem rather than to squarely address it. It seems to me that the reader and the audience should feel a deep sense of gratitude for every individual mediaperson who is going against the grain at the cost of unspeakable abuse online, on social media and even on their own online platforms.

 

This is the price individuals must pay for their platform’s survival. Online comments are a big reason that platforms gain eyeballs, so even if it means allowing sickening abuse, these media platforms are putting their journalists through severe psychological stress. The practice seems to be to never read those comments and maintain sanity. Surely organisations cannot recommend that? We know editors can easily sift the wheat from the chaff – they can distinguish between free speech and hate speech. Someone needs to take the initiative in stemming the muck flow, pick up the cudgel of editorial policy, and manually moderate comments, disable live commenting, and make the space safer for their own selves and their employees.

 

While the newsperson is going through her set of emotional distress, the public at large has its own issues to deal with. We sense our hope in humanity slipping away as we see this daily abuse in tango with the demagoguery of the day. This is abuse of our sensibilities and the media is enabling it, yet these are forms of manipulated content, instigated or paid. Certainly, they do not represent society per se. The media, in essence, is allowing it to plunge us into despair by encouraging a false sense of the pervasiveness of abuse. What we initially assumed were problematic aberrations appear so mainstream now that hate speech is manifesting itself in some form of emboldened social action or the other — this is the abstract leading the material.

 

This simultaneous suffering and propagation of abuse is happening by both independent and mainstream platforms. So, what prevents them from doing the obvious? What are media organisations doing about the mental health of their employees who so passionately dived into the truth-telling profession and now find themselves stranded without adequate internal or external support? Yet the marketing and digital marketing floors might grumble, because if they blink first and people tune in purely to absorb content and post decent and reasonable comments, they might lose their eyeballs to the independents. But someone needs to blink, and it cannot be the independent online media platforms who have limited ways of earning their working capital.

 

All this pressure may have a telling effect on journalists, but the worst is yet to come, the dreaded “larger picture” — the chilling effect abuse will have on the “whole job”, normalising the safe and vanilla form of journalism and expelling the investigative.

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