As the jallikattu protest has proved social media’s strength, the factor has become a force to reckon with and this has prompted many of these pages to have a ‘news’ department that has college students working as reporters on the field.
However, on the flipside, in the absence of any regulation, unverified information goes viral many a time. Even in the recent farmer protests in New Delhi, when the national media did not pay much attention to the protests held by Tamil Nadu farmers at Jantar Mantar, members of some of the most popular Facebook pages from the city took it upon themselves to let the farmer’s voices be heard.
Teams from pages like Smile Settai, Chennai Memes and Awesome Machi were in New Delhi covering the event live.
“Farmers are the backbone of the economy and it was heart-breaking to see their voices going unheard. We sent a team there who uploaded live videos on our page, created posts and memes to garner support from the Internet community. We also coordinated with the locals there to ensure that the needs of the farmers there were met,” said Ram Kumar, co-founder of Smile Settai, adding, “We just don’t want to be an entertainment page but also want to bring to light topics that are ignored.”
In fact, the admins of the Facebook Page Chennai Memes were part of the team that went to New Delhi during the jallikattu protests to meet the union leaders. These pages have thousands of followers with multiple shares to each post.
“We have college students, including students of journalism who cover the events for us. We also have many engineering students who collect news for us,” says Gautham Govindaraman, founder of Chennai Memes.
To their credit, Facebook pages are one of the first people to get the information. “In case of any major incidents, we have followers who send the pictures of the incident to us which we eventually publish. We have someone reading these messages from followers all the time and we respond to the genuine ones,” says Gautham.
However, there are many unverified reports that have been going viral. Fact checking is an important tool used by the media professionals.
In journalism schools, students are taught to verify the news from at least two sources. There are basic ethics that professionals follow while covering news and there have been incidents where the face of a rape victim or minor was published on these pages and later removed, according to active media professionals.
“When we teach students about collecting information, they are taught how to collect perspectives from all sides and then publish the news. There is a legitimacy to the news. In the case of social media, verification is a problem,” says Dr I Arul Aram, professor of media studies, Anna University.
Journalism students are taught about objectivity while covering news but Professor Arul says that objectivity leads to a lack of sensitivity. The way the news is circulated online, strikes a cord with many people.
“People read what they relate to and the social media strikes a cord. For instance, when Sasikala was to become the CM, the traditional media talked about the legalities and the politics behind it. Social media made their views heard.”
Media experts say that the social media is a good platform to gauge public opinion. “These days any edit meeting in the newsroom starts with ‘What’s trending’ than the real news. News now is weighed not on the basis of what is of merit but is based on its popularity,” says journalist-turned-lawyer Sanjay Pinto, agreeing that social media is a powerful medium and has a string impact on how people process information.
“When a professional files a story, the copy goes through at least two people who check on facts before it goes to print or showed on TV. News on social media revolves around self-regulation,” says Sanjay, further adding, “There are two aspects to it. The information reached out to millions of people in a short span of time. The disadvantage is the legitimacy of the information.”
Social media experts say, online forums might not be a ‘the best place’ to paint an overall picture. “When you open Facebook, the timeline shows the feeds of people on your friends list, who often share the same point of view and the pages whose opinions you agree with.
We limit our consumption of information from sources that have same perspective as ours and often assume it to be the overall situation. This leads to polarisation, where the person who doesn’t agree with your views, by default is in the wrong. That’s why we see nasty online fights between two groups,” says social media expert Karthi Sekar.