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‘Media and Countering Disinformation in South Asia’, August 19, 2019

C3S Article No: 34/2019

A Roundtable discussion was organized by the Center for Asia Studies (CAS) and the US Consulate General, Chennai. It was led by Mr. Dan Shelley, Executive Director, Radio Television Digital News Association, United States; and Chaired by Cmde. R. S. Vasan IN (Retd.), Head, Strategy and Security Studies, Center for Asia Studies (CAS); and Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies, (C3S). The event was held on August 19 2019 at C3S. The discussion laid emphasis on media and countering of disinformation in South Asia. It also highlighted the key challenges pertaining to media in South Asia and other major countries such as USA and China. The three other experts who joined the session were Colonel R. Hariharan VSM (Retd.), Retired Officer of Intelligence Corps, Government of India; Peer Mohamed, Founder and CEO,, Chennai; and Mr. Rajaram Muthukrishnan, Investor and Director, Voice Snap Services Pvt. Ltd.

Cmde. Vasan welcomed the gathering. Ms. Sujatha Srinivasan, Chief of Press Team and Senior Media Advisor, US Consulate, Chennai introduced the speaker. Mr. Dan Shelley is a veteran Edward. R. Murrow Award-winning radio, television, and digital media executive, serving in key news leadership positions with iHeartMedia, Radio One, CBS Television Stations, and Journal Broadcast Group. He began his career at KTTS-AM/FM in Springfield, Missouri. He has been a member of the RTDNA/F board of directors for nearly two decades, serving terms as the Association’s chairman in 2005-2006 and Foundation chairman the following year, as well as chairing the programs, awards, and convention planning committees.

Mr. Dan Shelley placed it on record that the views he would share during this event were his own, as a private citizen, and do not reflect those of the U.S. government.

He spoke on the challenges he faces as a responsible US citizen when battling disinformation. According to him, disinformation flourished during the 2016 USA elections and the recent 2019 Indian elections. This was especially through social media platforms. The intelligence community has become now more ethnic-specific. The rise of disinformation can be juxtaposed with advancements in technology. Mr. Dan was of the view that USA is not as sophisticated as promoting disinformation as are other countries such as Russia. President Donald Trump does not consider disinformation as a serious threat, because doing so may lead to consequences on his Presidential campaign of 2020.

Mr. Dan Shelley stated that his personal view was that there is some probability of risk in disinformation spreading in the upcoming US elections. He also touched upon disinformation campaigns in India. There was reference to social media apps such as TikTok. He expressed that there is an increasing number of disinformation campaigns within India which lead to violent incidents and even killings.

In this light, Mr. Dan has recently held workshops with the journalists in South India where strategies were shared for handling disinformation. He emphasized that journalists are the “last line of defence” for preventing disinformation from reaching the common people. Disinformation should be abolished and tackling it must be seriously considered as a responsibility by journalists. Precautions against the issue have to be taken. This issue involves not only the credibility of the media but that of the government as well. The speaker also mentioned about the importance of education in journalism. The aspect of protection of press rights was discussed, given these rights are often facing threats.

Cmde. Vasan added that disinformation is a widespread issue across the globe. Social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Tiktok, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are at times misused to spread disinformation among the public. Another matter of concern is that the youth is often addicted to social media and are hence vulnerable to the threat of disinformation.  It must be noted that disinformation is spread by the sources specifically targeting certain groups of people.

For instance, there is the past incident when disinformation was spread in Bangalore that natives of North-East India (NEI) were being attacked. Instead of verifying the reports, the government provided extra trains to enable panicked citizens to return to their homes in NEI. It was only later that the government realized that it was a case of mischief-mongering. Giving his views on the abolition of Article 370, Cmde Vasan stated that the Indian government has taken measures against the spread of disinformation. He described the Internet blackout in Kashmir as a necessary move. It was deemed imperative, because many people have started taking actions based on the disinformation, instead of first cross-checking the messages sent via social media platforms. Hence there is an increase in radicalization partly due to social media platforms.

While comparing the extent of disinformation in India and the US, Col. Hariharan stated that part of the blame lies within the media itself. He called for citizens to ensure disinformation does not gain ascendency. It is the responsibility of not only the media but every citizen of that particular country. The media generally operates within a distinct system and makes its own decisions.

To the question on how the media can be free from this system, Mr. Shelley answered based on Indian and South Asian perspectives. According to him, India is a complex, multicultural, multi-religious, and diverse in many other ways. The country is presently emerging amidst a perilous situation. This trend is observed among some other state actors in the South Asian region. In fact, every journalist is a part of the media business enterprise. Today, these journalists have many interests and are trying to forward them through the media. Journalism has become contaminated due to disinformation. In order to control this situation, some measures have to be taken. Technological measures can be adopted to develop a counter-narrative. There has to be a rethink by the media on government policies. Education is one of the best methods to counter disinformation. Disinformation now spreads much faster than terrorism. There needs to be a technical solution, as China and Russia have been able to handle it through social credit system. The question arises on how the media has been manipulated regarding Russia’s alleged intervention in the previous USA elections.

Mr.Peer Mohamed spoke on the way in which people have now become aware of fake news. He has surveyed disinformation in the last five years. The public has been able to identify disinformation. People have started cross-checking the news or texts received on WhatsApp, Facebook, etc. The survey shows a positive changes in countering disinformation. The speaker shared his past career experiences as a journalist. At one time when previously working for another media firm, he had been singled out by his superior for adopting a particular stance about the government. Mr. Peer is currently helping run an organization in India that aims to counter media imbalances. In this age, the digital media holds more scope than print media. Large scale disinformation is difficult to counter with small scale checks. Mainstream narratives can be countered by digital entities in the long term.

Mr. Rajaram Muthukrishnan stated that the media has been a monopoly catering to the elitist community. This is a practice in most countries. These media houses have been controlling access to information. The media, governments, NGOs and other actors support each other in this phenomenon. The common people have to suffer for this. The media which has lost its credibility needs to note that credibility has to be earned.

Ms. Asma Masood, Research Officer, C3S, highlighted that disinformation also prevails via ‘omission’. That is, the media avoids coverage of certain ongoing or past developments which in turn can adversely affect the audience’s perceptions. Another challenge lies wherein the growing numbers of young journalists with little experience are handling reporting duties, which may impact the quality of journalism. She recommended that media students participate in workshops that can inculcate objectivity in journalism.

Mr. Dan added that in the US, the proliferation of digital media has had a negative impact on the print media. Due to this factor, employment aids has declined. Newspapers are struggling to sustain themselves in USA. He concluded that journalists should not rely on one particular range of sources, but pursue a variety of sources to ensure objectivity.

(The views expressed by the discussants are their own.)

(Compiled by Ms. Situ Kumari, Research Officer, C3S.)

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