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Are HASHTAGS the Social Media Equivalent of Television’s ‘BREAKING NEWS’?

by Shruti Puri
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July 3, 2017Social Media1 Comment

Do you remember the first time you heard of something called the ‘breaking news’? Well, I for one, being a kid, had taken it in the literal sense as if something in the newsroom had broken. It was only later that I realized the true import of the words, which basically meant some important event had occurred somewhere and by the time of the broadcast, was still unfolding. Yes, it was first heard during the 90’s Gulf War when the American channel CNN made it popular. And as has been the case around the world, especially in our part of it, since all things American have had to be emulated, our news broadcasters adopted it promptly like dutiful children absorb ‘pearls of wisdom’ from their parents.

Furthermore, had it been mere adoption of the words ‘breaking news’, it wouldn’t have made an iota of difference to anyone but given our penchant for overdoing things or stretching things a bit too far, the words were used incessantly. In fact, as viewers, very soon we got tired of looking at the TV screens, for the words more or less made a permanent fixture there. The spread of the words was so quick and all encompassing that even our good old public broadcaster – Doordarshan – did not quite remain immune to it and adopted the same in due course.

Advent of the Modern Age

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That was circa 1990’s – the pre Internet era when the information superhighway was still in its infancy, and things like mobile phones let alone smartphones were the stuff of science fiction. However, with the dawn of the new millennium and thereafter, things that were part of science fiction, became a reality as they moved from laboratories into the shelves of retail stores. The era saw a humungous growth in the spread of computers, mobile phones, and the Internet so much so that at present many of us cannot think of life without them. The spread and convergence of the above three led to a revolution of sorts whereby the modern age came to be described as belonging to three distinct phases:

  • First industrial revolution where development in printing technology, railways, telegraph etc., took place
  • Second industrial revolution where assembly line manufacturing came into being
  • Third industrial revolution where information technology aided by the spread of computers and Internet, holds sway

Era of the Internet

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The growth in information technology witnessed a huge development. In fact, it made the term ‘global village’ a reality. There is hardly a segment concerning human civilization that has remained untouched with the inexorable march of the Internet, be it in the fields of education, sports, government, entertainment, media, retail, business and commerce, tourism, transport, science, language, or religion, you name it and they have it – The Internet.

In fact, the one area where information technology has touched our lives in a major way is communication and by its extension, the social media. By communication I mean sending or receiving emails through popular portals such as Google, Yahoo, Sify or company specific portals and chatting through text or video on popular platforms like Skype, Facebook, Hangout, WhatsApp, etc. Besides, the growth in smartphone based applications touching almost every conceivable domain under the sky has made our lives easy.

The World of Social Media

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Media to me has always been about one-sided communication – reading newspaper, magazines, or listening to news broadcast on radio or television. The perception changed with the rise in a phenomenon called the ‘social media’ where people can set up accounts on popular digital platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, or LinkedIn. This phenomenon allows us to communicate through chat, post information through text, images or video in the form of articles and blogs, or even use it as an advertising medium a la social media marketing.

Importantly, the growth in social media allowed us to get even with the existing media channels in terms of analyzing and dissemination of what we call NEWS. In fact, gone are the days when the so called opinion makers used to force their views on us by posting articles on newsprint or appearing on television, and we were bound to accept them with a pinch of salt. Now, thanks to social media, we can present our point of view as well. Interestingly, the sweep of social media has become so all pervasive that it seems to have dwarfed the influence of even the mainstream media, and has willy-nilly forced the mainstream media to become a part of it.

The Coinage of HASHTAG (#)

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What was once a part of the syntax in writing computer programming languages, the hashtag or # came to be associated with the depiction of some campaign or important news on social media. Its extensive use has often made the ‘people who matter’ sit up take cognizance of it and in many cases, act upon the issues flagged by it. Even election campaigns have come to be woven around hashtags – as evident in the US, France, UK, and India.

HASHTAG as the Social Media Variant of BREAKING NEWS

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If an analogy can be drawn, a hashtag can be said to be the equivalence of the good ol’ ‘breaking news’ that we are so used to see on news channels. As the term ‘breaking news’ signifies something important – a far cry from its oft repeated usage in Indian news channels where it signifies almost anything – and is meant for everyone to take notice of, the hashtag too depicts something important – to be followed and act upon. However, as social media is used by everyone, like its mainstream counterpart, it is subjected to abuse as well. The same hashtag symbol, which is used to draw people’s attention to bring in change for the betterment, can be used for ulterior motives by people with vested interests.

The ‘OTHER’ Side of Social Media

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The ulterior motives find expression in the form of fake stories (with or without hashtag) that are meant to denigrate an individual, a group, or an organization. In fact, the menace of fake stories circulated on social media platforms including WhatsApp has seen people falling prey to them. In the recent American presidential elections, there was so much mudslinging going on between parties and individuals with media playing its role as well – and we thought only Indians excel in these. These fake stories have earned the euphemism of ‘Post Truth.’ Surprisingly, ‘Post Truth’ has made into the Oxford dictionary as well. These stories err. Post Truth ones, can range from the comical to the diabolical where the latter has even led to the loss of life. Let’s discuss a few of such fake stories, which initially, had people believing in them:

Answer a number and see your phone explode

According to this fake news, if someone receives a call from the number 777888999 between midnight and 3 A.M., the phone will explode, killing the person instantly. The news, using scaremongering tactics, asked people to forward the same and warn others of the danger. And as it happens with many of us, instead of giving it a thought, we forwarded the same to warn our near and dear ones, thus adding fuel to fire.

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New Rs. 2000 note with a Nano GPS chip

This was probably done with a good intention to warn unscrupulous people that are habitual of hoarding currency notes without paying any tax on them. According to this fake message, the new Rs. 2000 note introduced post demonetization had an embedded NANO GPS chip that carried a signal reflector capable of giving location coordinates of the whereabouts of the notes. For me, wish this news was for real as it would have caught people stashing cash inside mattresses, walls, and other goddam places. But some people never give up and they even make the video wherein they proved that the new currency has a chip. It’s up to you now, whether to believe it or take it with a pinch of salt:

Jashodaben Criticizing the PM Modi

When your heart as well as mind is full of hatred, your deeds found no bound to limits. All Modi lovers and haters know who Jashodaben is, but for the unversed, she is the wife of our Prime Minister Narendra Modi but unfortunately separated their ways long back. The fake news we are talking about was really in bad taste and meant to hit below the belt by the political adversaries of Mr. Narendra Modi.

This fake news showed the estranged wife of Mr. Modi, Mrs. Jashodaben, holding a placard attacking him personally. By merely looking at the picture, one couldn’t guess if it’s real or a mere photoshop, but a close introspection and the actual image in hand, it is easy to differentiate between the real and the fake image. Have a look yourself at the fake image vs real image:

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It was actually the copy of the RTI filed by Jashodaben Modi to find out the marriage documents that Mr. Modi has provided in his Passport application. The whole case started when Jashodaben was asked to show her marriage certificate (as she didn’t have any) when she applied for her passport.

Lynching in Jharkhand

This typically falls in the domain of the diabolical where seven innocent people in Jharkhand were lynched on mere rumors that were circulated on WhatsApp that child kidnappers were on the prowl. The tribal became so reactive that they started attacking any stranger nearby their village thinking them of the member of the child lifters’ gang. Here’s the fake message goes:

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Modi declared as best PM by UNESCO

I know many of you still believe in this piece of NEWS. Well, this is not the reality as first of all UNESCO has not right or authority to declare a person best or worst. It works to “spread peace and security by promoting international collaboration through educational, scientific, and cultural reforms in order to increase universal respect for justice, the rule of law, and human rights along with fundamental freedom proclaimed in the United Nations Charter.”

Secondly, no organization in the world declared our PM Modi as the best Prime Minister. Though many people believe him to be one of the best PMs India ever had, this does not imply that he is the best PM of India. Here the viral message goes:

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Even the ace Indian Snooker and Billiards professional player, Pankaj Advani, fall the prey of this fake message. He later posted another tweet realizing the hoax behind the message:

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Fake tweet by Sagarika Ghosh on Yogi Adityanath

It’s not only the social media that is participating in spreading fake messages among the crowd but the mainstream media fraternity too plays a crucial role in this. Few months back, Sagarika Ghosh, wife of Rajdeep Sardesai, tweeted on her official account a fake story about the recently elected CM of UP – Yogi Adityanath.

Since the day he has been appointed as the CM of Uttar Pradesh, he has been analyzed critically for each of his actions and the mainstream media has left no stone unturned to malign his image among the crowd. Let’s see what Sagarika Ghosh tweeted and how she was shown the actual mirror of truth:

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Later on when a Yogi supporter filed a defamation case against her for trying to deteriorate Yogi’s image with a fake news, Sagarika instead of apologizing tried to put the blame on Yogi’s supporters by stating that she never tried to malign Adityanath’s image. The damage was done to her, though she deleted her controversial tweet and posted another one stating:

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End of Quota in UP Private Colleges by State Government

Well, we all know that against his image of a staunch Hindu believer, Yogi Adityanath has done quite a commendable job after taking charge as CM of the biggest state of India. He has started several initiatives for the benefit of the commoners giving a strong base to the central government’s ‘Anti-corruption’ drive. But the followers of Yogi Adityanath went too far and started a story, which later became trending on every social media channel, about the ‘end of quota’ in the private medical colleges in UP.

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This move was appreciated by many leading newspapers and media channels but later on it was revealed that there was no such ground behind this rumored story. The authorities at the State Medical Education Department refuted the rumor in no span of time by stating,

“RESERVATION WAS NEVER A PART OF THE ADMISSION PROCESS IN PRIVATE SECTOR MEDICAL AND DENTAL COLLEGES AS PER THE PREVALENT POLICY MADE IN 2006. THERE HAS BEEN NO CHANGE IN ANY POLICY WHATSOEVER.”

Modi breastfeeding Media on TIME’s Coverpage

Without getting into the political battle between the current government and the opposition, let’s come straight to the point. During the election campaign of 2014, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in a reply to an RTI stated that the central government spent around Rs. 1,100 crore on the election campaigns and advertisements. Based on this information, the rumors started spreading in the market that Modi took into confidence many media channels using this money. And thus this image started circulating with the message that the renowned TIME magazine too took a dig at Mr. Modi by using this image on their magazine’s coverpage:

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But the reality was something different. Here’s the actual image shared on TIME’s coverpage, which was morphed and given some other color:

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Through this cartoon the cartoonist was trying to portray during election campaigns parties spent money incessantly and how the big corporations, like a mother, feed (through money here) these parties to grow for their own benefit.

Conclusion

The growth in social media has empowered people to use it as a tool to bypass systems and directly address the powers to face an ordeal. This was in ample display when central ministers like Sushma Swaraj and Suresh Prabhu took cognizance of such messages and provided succor to affected people. At the same time, the menace of fake news has led to social discord and killings as well. Thus, it is incumbent upon us to sift grain from the chaff – REAL NEWS FROM THE CLUTTER.


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