'A diverse media is the cornerstone of a vibrant democracy': Meena Kotwal

The University of Michigan Symposium analyzed the influence and potential drawbacks of social media in shaping various aspects of modern society, from health and well-being to hate speech and misinformation.
Meena Kotwal, on why diversity is important in media.
Meena Kotwal, on why diversity is important in media.

"Journalism is supposed to be blind to caste and religion, but that is not true in the case of Indian media and that's perhaps the reason that India ranks 150th in global media ranks" Meena Kotwal, Founder and Editor-in-Chief 'The Mooknayak' , poignantly remarked at the lack of inclusivity and diversity in Indian media houses. 

Kotwal was addressing a session in a symposium on social media at the 3rd Annual Conference by the University of Michigan at the university campus located in Ann Arbor. The conference was held on 7th and 8th April. 

The symposium, which brought together scholars and practitioners from diverse backgrounds,  also discussed,  on the impact of social media on food, exercise, journalism, and democratic rights. 

Kotwal said that multiple research studies show that Dalit, Adivasi, and Bahujan employees are not found in senior positions in the media. She further lamented that while journalism ought to be steadfastly blind to caste and religion, this noble ideal is not upheld in Indian media. Kotwal adds, “One study shows that more than 80% of viewers in the US and UK prefer to view white anchors. Ironically, that is good, at least they have a choice. In India, we don't even have a choice. You can only view upper-caste journalists. They have captured media.”

She bemoaned the fact that only the upper-caste  is entrusted with creating journalistic content, contributing outrageously to the stifling of diversity and a dearth of meaningful narratives. Kotwal added that the works of The Mooknayak, a pioneering venture that features representation from Dalit, Adivasi, Pasmanda, LGBTQ+, as well as upper-caste individuals, highlight this importance of diversity. “The Mooknayak did what mainstream Indian media couldn't do - we consciously introduced diversity as a norm. Dalit, Adivasi, Pasmanda, LGBTQ+, upper caste. And we don't have massive plans. We pick up specific topics, and we visualize important stories.” Kotwal said. 

The symposium's first day featured speakers from law, policy, and media, who discussed the navigation of Indian social media and the Indian state and how the two mutually influence each other. Kotwal was part of a panel chaired by Joan Donovan, an American social science researcher and lecturer at Harvard Kennedy School at Harvard University. Among other speakers, were Karuna Nundy, Saurabh Dwivedi, and Madri Kakoti (Dr. Medusa). 

Saurabh Dwivedi, Madri Kakoti (Dr. Medusa) and Meena Kotwal
Saurabh Dwivedi, Madri Kakoti (Dr. Medusa) and Meena Kotwal

At the symposium, Saurabh Dwivedi, the noted journalist from The Lallantop, shared his experiences in journalism in India's complex democracy. Recounting a particular encounter, he spoke of meeting a self-proclaimed medical "practitioner" without any formal training who explained, "There are no medical resources here. Who else will help ailing individuals?" Dwivedi deemed this "the best criticism of the Indian healthcare system" he had ever encountered.

85-90% of India - particularly from marginalized communities - has been invisibilized in our media: Arfa Khanum

In their arduous battle against polarization, misinformation, and the overshadowing of historically underrepresented voices in Indian social media, influencers are increasingly adopting diverse, creative, and often humoristic tactics. This approach was extensively discussed during the second panel of the University of Michigan's symposium, where speakers delved into the subject of resistance against these daunting challenges. The panel was chaired by Srijan Kumar, an Assistant Professor at CSE, College of Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology, and included notable speakers such as Sushant Digvikar, the brain behind the popular satire account ROFL Gandhi, Jacinta Kerketta, and Arfa Khanum.

During the panel, Arfa Khanum, a senior editor of The Wire, delivered an enthralling speech on social media and mass movements in India. She acknowledged that a staggering 85 to 90% of India's marginalized communities are invisibilised in mainstream media, a grave flaw that results in their own vilification on social media every day. With deliberations ranging from genocide, journalism, activism to majoritarian movements, Khanum astutely elucidated how social media serves as a live tool that could make or break the futures of many. Thus, it becomes essential to take cognizance of the ways and means we create content, our intent, and the polarizing/de-polarizing impact it has in the larger context.

Elevating Diverse Voices and Demystifying the Vagaries of Social Media: Highlights from Day-2 of the Symposium

On the second day of the symposium, a series of student sessions focused on social media and society in India, which generated insightful discussions. This was followed by a thought-provoking panel on internationalization that was chaired by Tanushree Mitra, an Assistant Professor at the University of Washington. With the evolution of social media, online content has undergone a significant transformation in terms of mediums, themes, and messages.

While influencers steer content trends, they are increasingly beholden to algorithms and public demand. The session's speakers provided personal accounts to showcase the behind-the-scenes of creating content for mass consumption.

Panel-5 was headlined by Nikhil Taneja and focused on health and well-being. The speakers in this session used their personal experiences to shed light on the challenges they face while navigating health-related stigma, misinformation, and a growing online well-being culture in India. Their insights were both practical and inspiring, underscoring the importance of using social media for both personal and societal good.

In India today, hate is a hero. For political parties, it's a winner: RJ Sayema

The last panel on the second day of the symposium was all about navigating social media platforms and algorithms. The panel consisted of dynamic speakers like Sayema Rahman, Kaneez Surka, Abhinandan Sekhri, Mohak Mangal, and, Vishal Muttemwar.

Speaking about hate on social media RJ Sayema said, “Social media survives on eyeballs. Unpleasant speech attracts attention. This has created a platform for hate speech and fake news. Hate on social media is handy when it flourishes without resistance. Journalism is compromised in India as social media drives metrics."

Addressing the same Abhinandan Sekhri of Newslaundry says, “News is the first and last line of defense in a society where speech is being clamped down on. Now, the news is competing with entertainment. Through the same delivery pipeline. There's no cinema-newspaper division. Everything is on the same device.”

The two-day program at the University of Michigan had speakers from different spheres including, academic scholars, practitioners, and digital influencers. The main objective of the event was to bring light to the present situation of social media and society in India.

Meena Kotwal, on why diversity is important in media.
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