The past two years have accelerated the trends already buffeting the media industry pre-Covid: migration of readers and advertisers from legacy to digital media, entertainment replacing information, a losing battle against fake content, and so on.
Kitty videos went viral even as the virus shut society down. Social media became the new mass media.
Till three years ago in Nepal, ‘Facebook’ was synonymous with ‘Internet’. But in 2019 YouTube users overtook Facebook, and now a TikTok takeover makes dance routines on the platform consume nearly a quarter of the country’s bandwidth.
The power and reach of global digital platforms and online portals have transformed the way people stay informed, while some prefer to be deliberately disinformed. Since digital content can be manipulated and multiplied, it is easier for populism to replace pluralism.
As algorithms radicalise voters and confine them to echo chambers, elected demagogues across the world threaten democracies, and despots get voted to power.
The print media in Nepal went fully digital during the 2020 lockdowns, and even though revenue plummeted, readership hit the roof. Newspapers like this one resumed print editions and reclaimed loyal hardcopy readers, but there are many times more users online now for multimedia content. The economics of the media business has also changed, possibly forever.
Nepal’s economy was just beginning to recover from the downturn caused by the pandemic when the war in Ukraine scored another direct hit on fuel and food prices worsening hard currency reserves and the country’s balance of payments.
New restrictions on bank loans and imports have hit businesses hard, and this has had a direct impact on advertising — the main source of revenue for media companies.
Just when its role in safeguarding democracy and press freedom has become more vital than ever before, journalism struggles to survive and retain its relevance. This ends up undermining the independent check and balance role of the fourth estate in defending democracy.
Nepal’s media practitioners need to be more vigilant than ever — especially at a time when we see the largest, oldest and most vibrant democracies in the region and around the world being dismantled by leaders who have co-opted democratic institutions to propel themselves to power and remain there.
All this may look pretty discouraging for those who believe in an open society, and value tolerance, inclusiveness, and the freedom to express themselves. But the Internet has always been a double-edged sword, like all other technologies that preceded it.
Fake news, disinformation and gossip did not begin with the social web. They are as old as the written word itself. Elon Musk calls Twitter the global ‘town square’, but town squares through history have also been violent places – unleashing lynch mobs, witch hunts, burnings at the stake and public hangings.
There are equivalents of early newspapers inciting pogroms in Russia and Germany, later of radio in Rwanda sparking genocide. The only difference with online posts is their instantaneous amplification and global reach. And effect of this can be fast and brutal, as seen by the calls for mass killings of the Rohingya in Facebook posts, and lynchings in India triggered by WhatsApp groups.
Cancel culture, trolling and cyber-lynching by bot armies also dampen voices calling for moderation, science-based decision making, and acceptance of diversity.
Attempts to regulate Internet content collide head on with accepted norms of free speech. Where does one draw the line? It might first be important to distinguish between ‘journalism’ broadly defined on the one hand, and on the other, posts inciting violence or troll factories manufacturing hate on assembly lines.
These and other issues will be the subject of the day-long ‘Connectivity in the Age of Disinformation’ conference at the Himal Media Mela on 7 May, marking Himalmedia’s own 25th anniversary year. Media practitioners will be taking stock of the media’s role in these changed circumstances.
The death of print media is exaggerated. There is still power in print because the powerful read it. A survey in 2020 also showed that most Nepalis were not reading print media because roadside shops had stopped stocking newspapers and magazines.
That survey by Sharecast Initiative Nepal revealed 96% of Nepalis had mobile phones, and showed that 94% of those following the mainstream press are still reading the paper newspaper because they found it more ‘trustworthy’. Although respondents said they used social media platforms, more than 90% said they did not believe everything in it.
And that is the niche that Nepal’s mainstream press now need to fill: to be the credible source of news, present verified facts, correct online falsehoods, as well as to explain, interpret and analyse events and trends.
Gazing into the future, social media platforms will be useful dissemination tools, social media platforms will be even more entertainment-driven, and it will be the papers and their digital editions with credibility and exclusive content that will stay afloat.