Saturday, June 22, 2024

Media gains from false narratives: A socio-economic  analysis

Shirin Akhter, Vijender Singh Chauhan

In the complexly woven design of India’s social, political and economic framework the media serves as both a beacon and a betrayer of truth. Its role in shaping public opinion and influencing political outcomes is profound, yet this influence is often manipulated unethically. The symbiotic relationship between media outlets and the government leads to the propagation of false narratives, distorting public perception and undermining democratic principles, favouring the wealthy and strong at the cost of the poor and weak.

This article critically examines the nexus between the Indian media and the BJP government, exploring how financial incentives and political pressures drive biased reporting. It further delves into the consequences of these media practices on democracy, economic stability, and social cohesion. Through understanding these dynamics, we can better appreciate the urgent need for a free, fair, and independent media landscape to foster a healthy democratic society.

Several exit polls in the 2024 general elections predicted that the BJP-led NDA would secure around 400 seats, far exceeding the actual results. CNX Exit Poll predicted NDA to win around 401 seats. ABP-CVoter Exit Poll suggested BJP alone would get 370 seats, with NDA expected to cross 400 seats, while some exit polls were able to give fairly accurate estimates. This disparity suggests that those presenting a false picture chose to do so deliberately.

Why would media houses choose to publicise news and narratives they know are false? Misleading and false narratives can be tools for influencing public perception. For instance, if voters are made to believe that the incumbent government is projected to win, it can create a bandwagon effect, where people feel inclined to support the perceived winner. This phenomenon can demoralise the opposition and suppress dissenting voter turnout.

Many media outlets in India enjoy being patronised by the government, receiving attention, funding, and prominence in exchange for favourable coverage. Government funds are critical to the operations of many newspapers, and there have been instances where the BJP government has refused to advertise with newspapers that do not support its initiatives. This financial leverage creates a bias where media outlets are pressured to endorse government policies, leading to unbalanced reporting.

Conversely, journalists critical of the BJP government, especially those reporting on the impact of its policies on minorities and other vulnerable sections of society, face significant harassment. Female Muslim journalists, for example, have been subjected to online abuse, including rape and death threats, often from accounts linked to BJP supporters. Moreover, journalists in states like Uttar Pradesh have been targeted with false charges and physical attacks for their critical reporting.

Recently, the opposition INDIA coalition announced a boycott of TV debates hosted by anchors perceived to be close to the BJP. This decision underscored the partisan role of these media outlets, which have often acted as mouthpieces for the ruling party, dedicating shows to supporting the BJP and criticising the opposition. This demonstrates the significant influence the ruling government wields over mainstream media in India, often resulting in biased reporting undermining democratic principles. The media’s role in disseminating a pro-government narrative not only distorts public perception but also hampers the essential function of journalism in holding power to account.

In a democracy, the media is crucial in ensuring transparency, accountability, and informed public participation. Free and fair media provide citizens with accurate and unbiased information, enabling them to make informed decisions during elections and everyday civic life. A vibrant media landscape, featuring a plurality of voices, fosters healthy public debate and exposes corruption and abuses of power. This media ecosystem is essential for maintaining the checks and balances that underpin a robust democratic system.

Any government genuinely interested in economic development will strive to strengthen media freedom for several reasons. Free media serve as a watchdog, ensuring that government actions are transparent and accountable. This oversight helps prevent corruption and misuse of power, which are detrimental to economic development. Independent media provides valuable feedback on the impact of government policies, highlighting successes and areas needing improvement. This feedback loop is essential for effective and responsive policymaking. A transparent media environment fosters investor confidence, attracting both domestic and foreign investments. Accurate reporting helps markets function more efficiently by providing businesses and consumers with reliable information. A diverse media landscape also helps bridge societal divides by promoting understanding and cooperation among different groups, contributing to social harmony and stability.

Conversely, a government that stifles media freedom is anti-people and detrimental to economic and social well-being. Suppressing media freedoms erodes public trust in government institutions and undermines democratic processes. Without strong and independent media, government policies may go unchecked, leading to ineffective or harmful economic policies.

The economic interests of neo-liberal media are linked to advertising revenue, which is tied to viewership ratings. Sensational or skewed news can attract more viewers, boosting ratings and, consequently, advertising revenue. Large corporations benefiting from government policies influence media narratives, ensuring content aligns with their economic interests. Media companies often have close ties with political entities. By presenting news in a manner that favours the incumbent, the media can curry favour with the government, potentially leading to regulatory benefits, subsidies, or favourable coverage in other news segments.

Aware citizens should be cautious if they observe media uniformly supporting the ruling party for several reasons. A media landscape that only praises the ruling party can indicate suppression of dissenting voices and a threat to democratic freedoms. Singular media support for the ruling party may signal creeping authoritarianism. In such environments, the manipulation of information to serve political ends rather than public interest becomes prevalent, distorting reality and undermining democratic decision-making.

Overly favourable discourse towards the ruling party can lead to widespread scepticism about the impartiality and credibility of news outlets. If the public perceives media predictions as biased, it undermines trust in media as a reliable source of information. Biased media can influence public perceptions and behaviour, potentially undermining the fairness of decision-making processes crucial to a democracy.

Favourable media coverage can lead to less critical scrutiny of government policies, allowing potential governance issues to go unchecked. It can demoralise opposition parties and their supporters, weakening democratic checks and balances. This behaviour also has economic implications. It can influence market behaviours, leading to speculative investments based on perceived political stability, where perceptions are not grounded in reality.

Public and private sectors may allocate resources based on expected political outcomes influenced by media reports, potentially resulting in inefficient investments that harm the deprived sections of society. Constant exposure to fake news and reports can create a sense of inevitability, affecting the public’s psychological well-being and reducing civic engagement. The public might make decisions based on inaccurate news, leading to misinformed political, social, and economic choices.

A divisive and polarised media can exacerbate political polarisation, creating a more divided society and undermining social cohesion. Free media are crucial for exposing human rights abuses and advocating for civil liberties. A lack of critical media reporting on the government can indicate potential human rights violations and suppression of civil liberties.

A democracy thrives on debate and discussion. If the media uniformly supports the ruling party, it stifles public discourse and prevents the airing of alternative viewpoints, weakening the democratic fabric. To ensure that people do not fall prey to false news deliberately publicised by big corporate-owned media houses, a multifaceted approach and a diverse set of reporters is necessary. Implement educational programs and public awareness campaigns to teach citizens how to critically evaluate information, including understanding the methodology and potential biases in news reports. 

Establish regulatory bodies to enforce standards for conduct and reporting on news channels and implement penalties for spreading false or misleading information. Develop ethical guidelines for journalists on how to report responsibly, including clear communication of limitations and potential biases. Facilitate public debates and expert panels to discuss the reliability of news and its varied impacts.

The entanglement of media with political power in India presents significant challenges to the ideals of a democratic society. As media outlets increasingly align with government interests, often at the expense of truth and balanced reporting, the public’s ability to make informed decisions is compromised. This not only distorts democratic processes but also undermines economic and social stability. The need for independent and free media is more urgent than ever, as it serves as a watchdog, holding power to account and ensuring transparency. To safeguard democracy, it is imperative to cultivate a media environment where diverse voices can thrive, and critical scrutiny of government policies is encouraged. By promoting media literacy and establishing robust regulatory frameworks, we can combat the spread of false narratives and foster a more informed and engaged citizenry.

Dr. Shirin Akhter and Dr. Vijender Singh Chauhan hold positions as associate professors at Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi.


Don't Miss

Related Articles