In this new era of alternative facts and fake news, traditional media are forced to walk a thin line. Faced with declining circulations, low viewership and falling revenues, they can ill-afford to avoid giving a platform to nationalists. Social media have no problem lapping up every word these rightwing leaders say, and have become the main sources of news for most people who eschew mainstream newspapers and TV channels. These online sites are not constrained by fact-checking what they publish, and are content to shoot first and ask questions later, if any. Their only concern is to drive traffic to their websites and monetize the clicks.
This has put traditional mainstream media in a bind, and they have to devote time, money and effort to also pursue such stories. This can be seen in the US, where despite being labeled as ‘fake’ and ‘failing’ by the president, most respectable news outlets still report his every outrageous utterance and tweet lest they are viewed as leftwing elitists, or worse, become irrelevant. There is a fear of being left out and ignored, or falling behind in this age where clickbait stories and silly listicles are viewed as legitimate journalism by many millenials.
In Kuwait too, statements by MPs against expats make the headlines on a daily basis. Most of what they say is inapplicable, irrational or wildly inaccurate, but is wholeheartedly consumed by citizens and expats alike, who then dissect these comments by cheering or dissing them in online forums. Unlike the ‘letters to the editor’ of yore that provided a glimpse into reactions to various stories, and which were selectively published at the discretion of the media outlet, the Internet provides instant feedback. How a particular story is trending can be immediately gauged by the number of ‘likes’, comments and shares it elicits.
Call it the democratization of the media landscape. For better or worse, the stranglehold of traditional media outlets over the dissemination of news has been weakened. Apart from a host of independent and sane voices, this liberalization of the media has resulted in a free-for-all, allowing those with racist, sexist, xenophobic and other deviant views to get equal billing with mainstream media on social networks. Traditional media are now straining to make their voices heard by people who are in their own social and search bubbles and echo chambers, where news outlets of all stripes are mostly preaching to the choir.
So it is no surprise that many politicians and personalities have figured it out that the only way to promote their brand is by making offensive and shocking statements that the mainstream media cannot ignore to avoid being seen as haughty. These comments then go viral, bringing publicity to these people, and ironically, monetary gains for the media outlets too. This is a vicious circle that cannot be easily broken. Historically, it has been seen that boycotters only hurt themselves. Politicians who boycott elections – even though they may have a valid reason to do so – very often find they are ignored by the regime and voters and risk being sidelined or forgotten. The media too faces this dilemma. It seems in today’s world, the moral high ground can be a very lonely place.
By Shakir Reshamwala