News in the Time of Social Media
Sunanda Vashisht on April 24, 2012
In Delhi power circles, Abhishek Manu Singhvi is known as suave, glib tongued and wealthy lawyer and politician. When the sex CD allegedly showing him in compromising position with a lady lawyer in court premises surfaced, this St. Stephen’s ,Cambridge and Harvard educated sophisticated Delhi boy did all the right things. He quickly managed to get a court injunction preventing television channels from broadcasting the tape, got the driver (ostensibly villain of the entire deed) to confess that he was merely a disgruntled employee taking revenge and got a completely absurd story about his dog who bit the driver’s wife planted in a friendly newspaper. What more could an exceptionally brilliant lawyer do? Singhvi had all his bases covered but unfortunately for him the year was 2012 and not 2007. Five years ago, all these measures would have ensured a perfect burial for the story. In 2012 when social media websites like twitter and face book have come of age, all the world’s ‘band aid’ was found woefully inadequate.
Hell hath no fury like a scandal broken on twitter. While the TV channels had a court gag order and could not show the tape, the media across the board wouldn’t even risk the mere reference or discussion on the issue. In fact the tape had been received by some media houses much before the court injunction (that much was leaked by the journalists on twitter) but for the reasons best known to them they didn’t take any action. Had there been no social media, this matter would have ended right there.
Unfortunately for Singhvi, as soon as news spread on Twitter there was no looking back. Inspite of the court injunction, the tape was leaked on you tube and Abhishek Manu Singhvi ‘trended’ for three straight days. In an age where attention span of people and life of news item is terribly short, this was quite a feat. Sure there were ‘dog bit driver, driver bit master’ kind of jokes abounding, but the emphasis was on how could a brazen deed performed in the court premises, where judgeship was allegedly promised in lieu of sexual favor be swept under the rug. The anger was palpable, the criticism was razor sharp and questions asked were very valid. How could an ordinary driver manage to execute such a sophisticated sting operation of this magnitude? How did he have access to the media channels? If Singhvi’s story was to be believed where did the driver find enough money to ‘morph’ the video? Was the act indeed performed in court premises? Was the lady indeed promised judgeship in nine months? Those who had seen the video swore that the tape was anything but doctored. The twitterverse was abuzz with questions that had no answers. A raging debate happened simultaneously between those who thought the act was between two consenting adults and this really was Singhvi’s personal problem and those who felt that Singhvi was a public personality, a Rajya Sabha member who had misused his position and offering judgeship for sexual favor was completely unacceptable. While all this was happening on Twitter, mainstream media chose studied silence. It was interesting to see them completely abdicating their space and leaving the ground open for people to discuss it on twitter
Eventually inspite of putting the brave face and pretending everything was hunky dory, the tremors were felt by Singhvi. With BJP taking a proactive role and parliament session about to begin, Singhvi had no choice but to resign. His resignation letter is an interesting bit of legalese which reveals nothing and does nothing to absolve him. In any case, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not put the genie inside the bottle again.
Sex scandals are nothing new and have rocked all governments of all countries across the world. Even in India this is not the first time a politician was caught with his pants down literally, but the curious thing this time around was how media reacted and how the grammar of news has changed. Media in India has forever been an old boy’s club. Few people made it big in Newspapers and TV channels and they dished out information and ordinary people had no choice but to accept it. They set agendas and shaped opinions. They refused to reveal their allegiances and ordinary person on the road had no way of knowing. Opinions were peddled as ‘news’ and real investigative reporting had taken back seat. For the longest time news was a one way street. It was probably not an exaggeration when Dileep Padgaonkar ex editor of Times of India was quoted as saying that he has the second most important job in the country.
Suddenly with the advent of social media and especially with twitter, ordinary people realized that they had a platform where they could voice concerns and give opinions. The news was not a one way street anymore. TV channels decided to boycott Radia tapes but these ordinary people armed with keyboard and broadband connection, forced them to debate it and brought the issue out in open. Media houses chose to show Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi wave in UP elections but ordinary twitterati knew better. There were numerous such incidents where the deep distrust for main stream media was evident but till Singhvi’s case there had never been a direct face off. Much of the influential Media downplayed the Singhvi issue as much as possible and Twitter took off in an exactly opposite direction. While main stream media suppressed, Twitter relentlessly pursued the case. In today’s day and age, gag orders and bans mean nothing. Despite repeated efforts, nobody in the government could prevent the Singhvi CD from going viral. Singhvi had to resign and mainstream media suddenly found themselves playing second fiddle to the Twitter. Grudgingly some of them admitted victory of social media while others screamed that social media had turned rogue and needed regulation. The agenda for the news had finally been set by people through a medium which is truly by the people, for the people and of the people.
Does this mean Social media is perfect? Of course not. Social media is as perfect or as imperfect as the world we live in is. There are rabble rousers, there are lunatic fringes, there are nuanced voices, there are passionate voices, and there are rhetorical voices, just as we have in real world. Social Media reflects the world we live in. The best part about Social media is that no one person gets to set the agenda, no one person is able to hijack the discourse, no one person is able to say ‘My way or Highway’. Social media regulates itself beautifully. Extreme voices find less takers and balanced voices get heard more. Today I find more nuanced debates happening in cyber sphere than television studios or op ed columns. Social Media is here to stay and Twitter is only getting started. Main stream media better wake up to the new dawn or they get left behind. In an era where people are increasingly turning to twitter for breaking news than watching their TV screens, media houses have much to worry about.
As far as Abhishek Manu Singhvi is concerned, he got caught at a wrong place at a wrong time, and in the era of Twitter that is unforgivable.