A retweet on Twitter can ignite a revolution. A Facebook page can fan the fury further. And blogs, videos and news stories can go viral in a jiffy and challenge organisations, structures and even governments. Nik Gowing, the main presenter of BBC World News, was in Chennai to give an overview of his paper ‘Skyful of Lies and Black Swans’ that explores the new tyranny of shifting information power in crises. Excerpts from an exclusive interview with the TV legend.
Q: In a fragmented society like India where everyone’s focusing on their specific interests, largely sport, entertainment and occasionally politics (that differs from state to state) and discovering only information relevant to them in the context of filter bubbles generated by algorithms of search engines in every platform of the internet – including social media – resulting in a world that is consuming customised information, how relevant is your paper on social media actually having an impact on structures, organisations and governments when the corporations that control the internet have covertly launched a ‘Divide and rule’ policy?
A: No one can really define what social media is. It’s about the media space, the public information space in my view, with the proliferation of digital content, whether it be online, whether it be linear, whether it’s blogs or tweets, it’s about the vast number of contributions being made is enriching the perception of what’s taking place. It’s giving us a 360 degree three dimensional view of what’s taking place. Views that would’ve probably not been heard in the past are now out there contributing to the democratization of the information space. The information space, in my view, is being turned on its head because that machine in your pocket in many ways can challenge a big corporation or a big government. What it sees, while you are recording it, what it captures on video, what it captures on sound can have a serial impact on those who assumed they knew everything. F3 is not the same here, it’s in the time of crisis. Technology and digital content it’s creating in the hands of everyone is an empowering experience. And I think it’s great for journalism as well. It’s also intimidating for journalism because journalists need to make sure they are right now as opposed to getting away with interesting interpretations sometimes. It makes you ask questions… When a journalist has had an exclusive in the past, particularly in the old days of telex machines and the difficulties of getting the copy out within maybe days, how accurate they really were because no one else was there to challenge them.
Q: The corporates have been quick to react to this changing world. But do you think the governments today really care, especially in the Indian context?
A: My impression is that they are reluctant to embrace this new reality. But to be fair I was invited by the MEA to a conference on public diplomacy back in early December and I spoke there. And I think the mountain is moving. Some of the things I said at the conference about the role of Twitter and Facebook, they have embraced.
Q: The huge support for Anna Hazare and his anti corruption movement flared up by social media would have further reiterated your point.
A: That’s one classic example that I am now using. The fact that Anna Hazare, a 72 year old Gandhiite went on a hunger-strike and the fact that he mobilised five million people and the fact that within 96 hours, the government accepted the need for the commission indicates just how powerful the viral digital campaigns can become.
Q: There was also criticism in a section of the media that Anna Hazare’s supporters themselves probably had little clue about the specifics of the Lokpal Bill and its possible implications. Since opinion leaders on social media are not journalists and often don’t have their facts right, do you think they will be taken seriously in the long run?
A: No. Each of them have a vote. They have phones because they need to know what’s going on and that’s because of the mobilization of information. Whether you are in a village in India or China or England, I can tell you there are places where Twitter has revolutionised the community. Because, suddenly someone tweets saying that apples have arrived or fresh milk has arrived at the local store… Communities are becoming more active. What the Anna Hazare case as with many other places – in Syria, in Libya, in Tunisia, in Egypt, or BP or British Airports Authority or TEPCO in Japan – has shown the power of instant information to challenge those in positions of power. The revolution in Egypt took less than two weeks. Anna Hazare took 96 hours. In the old days, it might have taken several months to mobilize support. He might have died in 21 days and he might have had just a few hundred people with him. But there were five million people who were part of a digital campaign. That’s the message for politicians.
Q: But where do you draw the line between cyber-hooliganism and activism? Even after the judge said that Maria Susairaj could walk free since she had spent three years in jail for destroying evidence in a murder case, people are enraged and screaming for her blood on social networks.
A: I wouldn’t call it cyber-hooliganism. I would call it empowerment. What people are saying over a drink, or over their dinner table, or in their workplaces is now becoming viral in the digital space.
Q: Does it become right because a lot of people feel that way?
A: I’m not suggesting it’s right or wrong. What I’m saying is that it shows the mobilization possible whether it is those kind of cases or Anna Hazare. I don’t think technology can be controlled. These are complex times. Remember, yesterday, Obama died on Twitter. So, who believes Twitter? We could not get away by putting on BBC much of what appears on Twitter. It’s gossip. It’s unsubstantiated and as yesterday proves, it could be wrong.
Q: You call it empowerment but what if the majority is wrong? Isn’t there a flip side to what we cannot control, especially with gossip?
A: Of course, there’s a danger if the majority is wrong but life is like that. Not everything is right. It’s our job as journalists to make sure that what we report is right. What you are talking about is the phenomenon of modern digital technology, the pluses and the negatives. It is a negative but the death of Obama yesterday, it’s our job to make sure that what we report is right. As a journalist I would ask the same question too but I think you are exaggerating one side of the coin. Yes, there are negatives to everything in life. It’s the greatest time in journalism because of the instant nature of information mobilisation. It’s become a richer profession. It means we have to be even tougher on what we report and how we report.
Q: Most newspapers around the world used quotes from the Abbotabad tweeter who happened to be live-tweeting the Osama raid though he was two kilometres away from the incident. What could he have seen? All he knew was that there were helicopters in the area.
A: The Obama administration had full operational control. Four helicopters, 79 personnel and they were watching the whole thing. They thought they had full control of the information state but they didn’t. Because there was a tweeter, a real time interpreter of what was going on.
(An edited version of this interview appeared here.)