Apolitical fake news

For the last 4-5 years, the ills of “political fake news” have been well documented – documented well enough that I don’t even need to link to them (I think). However, there is another kind of fake news that doesn’t get the sort of (negative) attention it deserves – unbiased or apolitical fake news.

Before we describe such news, a couple of frameworks. Firstly, there are two kinds of media publications – periodicals and perennial. Periodicals deliver news at a certain periodicity – daily or weekly or monthly or whatever. Their job is to tell the reader what happened in the world (or the subset of the world that the publication focuses on) since the previous edition. Examples of periodicals include newspapers and magazines and the 9 o’clock (or whenever) news on Doordarshan.

The other side is perennials, which are “always on”. When some news breaks, their mandate is to break it to their audience as quickly as possible. When there is no breaking news, they need to make up something, or analyse, or have talk shows and shouting matches, or whatever. Examples of perennial publications include 24×7 TV channels and twitter.

The second framework is something I’ve written about a fair bit – on finite and infinite games. This was introduced by the late NYU philosopher James Carse. The basic concept is that the objective of a finite game is to win. There is a particular end point. In an infinite game, there is no concept of “winning”. The objective is to just continue playing. I think it’s a rather profound theory, and has consequences in lots of facets of life.

Including media. My argument is that periodicals play a finite game and perennials play an infinite game.

The objective of a periodical is to make each issue good enough that the reader/viewer continues the subscription until the next issue. This might, at face value, appear like an infinite game, but from the point of view of a single edition, it is a finite game. If the reader/viewer continues subscription (however you define it) till the next issue, you have “won”.

It is different with perennials because there is no discrete “next edition”. The next edition of a next edition is the next minute. And that makes the “game” mentioned in the earlier paragraph hard to play. Instead, running a perennial media house is like playing an infinite game, where your objective is to make sure that the viewer/reader “continues to play the game”, or continues to watch without switching channels or diverting attention.

In other words, the objective of a perennial media house (like a 24×7 media channel, or twitter) is to make sure users stay on the platform. Which is good.

Except that, over a period of time, some of these media houses have figured out that one surefire way of retaining viewership and viewer interest is by stoking viewer anxiety. When a viewer is anxious about something, they want to get as much information as possible about the thing they are anxious about, and continue to hunt for information. This means that they are going to continue to hang around the channel (or social media platform) in the hope of resolving their anxieties. Which means that these channels or platforms “win” the infinite game of retaining audience attention.

And how do these channels create anxiety? By creating outrage. By creating sensationalism. By resorting to fake news, of the kind that is certain to cause anxiety among viewers, in the hope that they will continue to watch (and consume the intervening ads).

I clearly remember the Kaveri riots in Bangalore in 2016 (the week my daughter was born), when Kannada 24×7 news channels took to showing the riots and arson live on TV. And giving reports in a rather sensational voice on how the riots were only going to increase and things are going to get worse. This wasn’t “fake” per se, but sensational and anxiety causing (we kept the TV on one whole afternoon wondering if it was safe to go to the obstetrician’s clinic (300m away from home) ).

And the Kannada 24×7 channels were at it again in 2020 during the covid-19 induced lockdown. One day (in May) suddenly one of them claimed that “all of Bangalore would get sealed down because of increasing cases”. It turned out that two small neighbourhoods were “sealed down” because of a high density of cases there. The rumours of “seal down” were clearly fake news, that clearly created anxiety among the viewers.

I’m only quoting one such instance from this period, but news channels kept at this business of fostering anxiety by saying things that weren’t true (I don’t normally watch these channels, but kept getting informed about these fake “news” by elderly relatives who as a rule keep watching news all the time).

What I’m disappointed by is that this kind of fake news gets no attention at all, compared to the more political sort of fake news which is easy to see through for someone with an iota of brain cells. Then again, the platforms that give footage to the ills of political fake news (twitter, some whatsapp groups, etc) are also perennial news sources themselves and so it doesn’t make sense to call out people of their own ilk.

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