Digital media was used extensively by various parties during the campaign of the general election 2019.  Credit: File Image

Among other things, a key phenomenon witnessed in 2019 general election is the unprecedented surge in use of digital media in campaigning, even as traditional media – print and electronic – has been more or less relegated to the backyard, if not rendered totally inconsequential. And given the high voltage political drama witnessed by the minutes and hours during the election campaign, often bordering on the bizarre, it is hardly surprising that campaign managers of most political parties are increasingly relying more on digital media platforms in order to keep pace with the day’s developments.

Backed by an army of tech-savvy youth brigade, major political parties have set up their own digital media war rooms to take on political opponents where contents are being churned out 24×7. And instead of being dependent on journalists to carry forward their campaigns, the parties are utilising digital platforms more and later amplifying them through social media.

Without any experience in traditional media, many professionals from diverse backgrounds and expertise, who are otherwise passive supporters of political parties and not active politically, have been roped in for campaigning and they are actively churning out content on the go like never before, especially on social media. They are acting as force multipliers by creating and sharing content. So much so that unlike in the past when political leaders set the agenda and drew strategies, this time around it is the digital media experts who have taken over that mantle. Hence, besides the dusty trail, campaigning has also moved to the virtual world this election. And given the high stakes involved, no political parties are willing to take any chance when it comes to harnessing the digital world.

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Actually, the role journalists – especially the more accomplished ones – played in earlier elections of this country has been somehow usurped by the new breed of digital media practitioners. Electorate too is no longer dependent on newspapers and news channels to get their daily dose of political updates. This can be gauged by the fact that parties are now keen more on making a particular campaign trend number one on Twitter, rather than try to make it to news headlines. No wonder, practitioners of traditional media might perhaps be watching with horror how the medium has lost its pre-eminence in the electioneering.

So, where do media stand in all these? Does it signal the end of the road for journalism as we have all known over the years? Well, to be honest, the process has already begun. And not suddenly now, but over the years. In fact, its downslide can be partly traced to the day internet was born and hastened further when smartphones swamped the society in recent years, with social media only further accelerating the process.

Actually,print media (and later broadcast media) catered to the society at a time when there was no other means for an individual to access news and information. It was a one-way communication in which the end-user didn’t have much of a choice and had to gulp down whatever was dished out.

Electorate too is no longer dependent on newspapers and news channels to get their daily dose of political updates.

Actually, print media (and later broadcast media) catered to the society at a time when there was no other means for an individual to access news and information. It was a one-way communication in which the end-user didn’t have much of a choice and had to gulp down whatever was dished out. The least a person then could do was to write a letter to the editor of a newspaper, if he or she was dissatisfied with a particular news item or had to put forth his or her views, but with no guarantee that it would be ever published.

However, the emergence of new medium has changed the dynamics altogether. Now, an individual can decide what to read or listen or watch – and not just editorial content, even advertisements. He/she has been given the option to choose, which is unavailable in the earlier format. In fact, today, he or she is not just a passive receiver, but also an active content creator – Wikipedia, free online encyclopaedia created and edited by volunteers around the world and hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation, is a perfect epitome of this new media world order.

The new age media has, thus, made the entire business of dissemination of news and information more interactive, and hence democratic. It has empowered the end-user, which isn’t the case in the traditional format. And as feedbacks are instantaneous, a webcaster has the option to modify a message or even pull it out in the face of adverse criticisms.

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Not only that. A webcaster has the option of selecting and targeting his/her target audience anywhere in the world, unhindered even by geographical barriers. The new medium is also more grassroots-oriented – anybody can now start his/her own website at minimal cost from any corner of the globe and start web-publishing/broadcasting stories on themes of his/her choice.

Again, there are many individuals who have monetised their social media accounts due to the sheer number of visitors and have set cash registers rolling, while there are those who have taken to various social media platforms, particularly Facebook and YouTube, to report news.

Fact is, there are several limitations in traditional media. While the cost of production is becoming prohibitive by the day, there’s no universally-acceptable scientific and transparent means of evaluation. Hence, claims regarding circulation, readership or even viewership are mostly self-proclaimed, if not assumed. But thanks to technology, this has been made possible in digital media. No webcaster can fudge the figures regarding the actual number of visitors on his/her page or the number of hits and shares of a particular content, besides the geographical location of a visitor. This has also enabled advertisers to make wise decisions while placing their advertisements, besides measuring their impact – number of hits or individuals reached. In traditional media, the advertisers had to assume that their advertisements had reached the intended target audience taking into consideration a newspaper’s or a new channel’s profile and reach.

Further, unlike print or broadcast media, there’s no time lag in the digital medium. There’s no “deadline” (in typical media parlance) as content can be webcast 24×7 and a webcaster has the option of programming content based on the target audience’s time of convenience.

All the grey areas of traditional media have thus been sought to be addressed in its digital avatar. And social media has only added to the momentum as various social media platforms are being increasingly used even by newspapers, news channels and news websites to amplify content and hence create impact. So, journalists in some mainstream publications are asked to write the same story in three formats – for social media, website and the print version. The digital media has thus opened new vistas in terms of interactive communication.

Last, but not the least, conduct of a section of those in the profession of journalism and certain publishing groups and news channels in recent times has also left a lot to be desired, thereby creating a dent in the overall credibility of the entire medium and ultimately accelerating the process of its fall from grace.

Now, while digital media has opened the floodgates, the last word on its final shape is yet to be heard. It is expected that several new dimensions will be added to it in the coming days. While most news websites, though interactive, are fairly close-ended and monitored, it’s the open-ended social media platforms that can become a cause of concern – as there’s no way to verify content and anybody can share any information, fake or otherwise, proliferation of fake news and spam always loom large.

(The writer is an independent journalist based out of Guwahati)

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