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People wiser than ever in the new media age, but politicians haven't noticed

Zafar Bhat. Dated: 1/2/2018 10:50:52 AM

Compiled by Zafar Bhat
Jammu, Jan 1
Categorically, much is made of how the 24-hour media cycle has a disturbing influence on politics in India and elsewhere. But perhaps it's not so much the change to the timing of publication but the change to the nature of the sources that is causing the disruption.
Whereas, in the pre-internet model, news and opinion was presented to the public by organisations that were highly hierarchical. Media corporations had a chief executive, an editor, news directors, various section heads, sub-editors, a chief of reporting staff down to the lowly reporters.
However, they were, and to some extent still are, like military organisations, though the average reporter may be allowed a little more initiative than the average foot soldier. Nonetheless, media outfits were highly directed. Together, they worked well. The political hierarchy produced the daily song sheet and it was repeated once in the newspaper and once on the TV news. It was the received wisdom. The discussion agenda was defined.
Notably, then came the internet, which is the opposite of hierarchical. Rather than the top-down hierarchies of traditional media, it is a network, with links in all directions. Using it, people have a far wider selection of sources of news, opinion and information. In response to the ease of publication, people created new news and information sites where experts could speak directly to the public.
Particularly, sites such as The Conversation, Online Opinion, Pearls and Irritations, Crikey and dozens of others sprung up around the world. (So, of course, did sites run by ignorant, opinionated, non-experts.) The result was that a greater political literacy and more nuanced discussion among people interested in politics replaced the pre-internet received wisdom. We now see a trickle sideways. It's far easier for many voters to become better informed than most MPs about a lot of issues.It has perplexed
politicians. By and large, they have remained stone-deaf and trapped in their hierarchy.
Some politicians think the internet can be used to by-pass the hierarchical traditional media and talk directly to the voters. But all they have done is become just tiny nodes in the vast new network of sources of political information, and not very trusted ones at that.
These days, the political-information network publishes every MP's reiteration of the song as it happens, and people see it for the insincere, boring confection that it is. The same political-information network is equally attuned to pouncing on the slightest deviation from the song sheet as evidence of disunity.
Meanwhile, in the political-information network, ideas and suggestions are tossed about, picked up and tested, found wanting and improved, and generated and regenerated in a way that doesn't happen in the world of the political hierarchy.
Until the world of the political hierarchy behaves like the political-information network, people who now get their ideas, information and opinions from that network will hold politicians in contempt. This is because they know that, in the network world, ideas, information and opinions are tested. The ideas on the political hierarchy's song sheet, on the other hand, are not.
The political hierarchy must behave more like a network where ideas are put forward and exchanged; new ideas are not squashed for fear of frightening the horses; and differences of opinion or view as policies evolve are not seen as evidence of "disunity". Otherwise, they can only expect disconnection and distrust.
The result of people enriching themselves from the information-rich political-information network and the trickle-across phenomenon can be seen in opinion polls, especially this year. Despite the best efforts of people with vested interests and narrow ideologies to spread misinformation, time and time again the opinion polls show the public getting it right and the political hierarchy getting it wrong.
Pertinently, the bizarre thing is that, for so long, politicians have spoken about the "wisdom of the Indian people" but, at the very time the political-information network is making the people wiser, the politicians tend to ignore them more.Thirty years ago, we had a political hierarchy and media hierarchies. Now, we still have a political hierarchy but with Internet-based media networks. The mismatch has been quite destructive.


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