Everyone’s on FB, but no one’s on FB

A couple of studies worth presenting with some context today.

Case study 1: No one’s on FB

The first write-up, in Nieman Lab, discusses how the Delhi gang rape case provided new avenues for Indian journalists to engage with social media.  The article is a bit undercooked.  The piece begins with the troubling line: “This discourse highlighted how social media offer an emerging space for storytelling — remarkable in a country where social media hasn’t had the same impact it has elsewhere.”

I question this assertion, which seems entirely based on low Internet penetration numbers.  For starters, which social media are we talking about? The authors lump social media together, which in the Indian case is a mistake.  Twitter has made almost no impression in India outside of English-speaking, urban elites.  The same cannot be said for Facebook, which through clever apps like FB Photos and FB Zero has managed to divorce the FB experience from English and (to an extent) from smartphone possession.  So are the authors talking merely about the echo chamber of journalists, activists and (rare) politicians who are currently shouting at themselves in the Indian Twitter-verse?  (That’s what it sounds like, based on some of the quotes that appear below) Maybe, but then the writers have limited their study by default by not acknowledging the wider discourse that might exist in the world of Indian social media.  This is a country with a huge number of social networks, including audio and mobile networks.  Who knows what people are saying over on Goonj or CGnet Swara.  It is fine to limit your discussion to an aggregated, American-themed breed of social media, but then acknowledge that that’s what you’re doing.  Anyway, most Indian journos use social media to talk to other journalists, not to sources.  To what extent THESE conversations shape news coverage – and accelerate the spread of certain media myths – is a topic worth exploring in its own right.

But then we get into murkier waters still.  What, exactly, is the impact that social media has had elsewhere, to which these authors are drawing comparison?  In the Guardian, Leo Mirani presents Indian activism in Kashmir as a counter-example to Malcolm Gladwell’s frustration with social-powered revolutions.  Mirani also makes the excellent point that Facebook activism is essentially the 21st century version of “nailing your thesis to a church door,” ie FB activism is really just another manifestation of how social activism has functioned for centuries.  So, so true.  So how are we defining the word “impact”?  If someone wanted to make the claim that social media has not had the impact in India as elsewhere, and they could, then they should do a side-by-side comparison of social media in the wake of the Delhi gang rape and social media in the wake of, say, Steubenville.  These are both incredibly sensitive rape cases in which social media played a dramatic role in shaping discourse and news coverage, and both cases proved to be cultural touchstones.  If we want to talk about relative impact, we have to first decide what impact means, and how to measure it.  Merely saying that India has lower Internet penetration than the United States is no grounds for asserting lesser “impact.”

The basic claim that “This case demonstrates how journalists respond to social media and how social media allows for new spaces for storytelling in India” actually feels generally correct to me.  Unfortunately, we’re not really seeing many numbers to support this assertion either.  Considering the hundreds of journalists – in multiple languages and media – who covered the Delhi gang rape case, the few interviewed in the Nieman piece can hardly be considered a cross-section.  Are we talking only about foreign journalists in Delhi and their English-speaking counterparts?  How much of the Indian media universe does an event/trend have to impact in order to be considered a “watershed”?  To be honest, I would have expected English-speaking journalists in Delhi to talk about the rape case on Twitter and FB.  They’ve been connecting with English-speaking audiences over social media for a while. But what about Hindi-language journalists in Jharkhand and Haryana? Did the rape case catalyze their coverage in any way? Did it change the nature of the conversation between journalists and sources, as measured in RT’s or the number of voices participating?  Did it change how media organizations’ coverage was perceived by audiences? Now these would be interesting metrics.  I just don’t find nearly enough hard support in this article to convince me that the Delhi gang rape case marked a shift or a change in the relationship between journalists and social media in India.

Finally, the authors conclude that “[Social media] offer starting points for news-gathering and distribution, but they haven’t replaced traditional journalism.”  So in other words, exactly the same outcome as in the United States.  Again, not entirely sure what unique light this observation sheds on the situation in India.

Case Study 2: Lots of people are on FB

By contrast, here’s an article that appeared on the front page of the Hindu a few days ago: “Facebook users could swing the results in 160 Lok Sabha constituencies.”  For those who want to parse the original study on which the article is based, it’s available here.  (Honestly – if you have ANY interest in Indian data journalism/elections/etc, read this study in its entirety.  It’s fascinating.  The authors of the vaporous Nieman report cited above, for example, might be interested to know that a third of Indian FB users live in towns with populations >500,000.)  There are places, of course, where this methodology is highly flawed, but the authors look at the analytics-based peer-to-peer online targeting used to great effect by Obama in 2012 and ask, “Could this happen in India?” And they conclude that it could, if you look at sheer number of FB users.  (Of course, the authors themselves admit that “We have used the number of Facebook users as an indication of the clout of social media instead of analyzing their behaviour to see if they are really active and showing signs of wanting to make an impact.”)  In other words, Indian social media users could be so apathetic that they’re never going to vote, or they could be so civic-minded that they already vote, in which case targeting them might or might not make any difference.  We have no idea how receptive these users are to political messaging, nor through what channels.  But considering the success that brand messages have had with young Indian audiences on FB, one never knows.

Conclusion

Both of these assertions can be true, and taken together they illustrate the unique situation of social media in India.  Despite its somewhat shaky support, the Nieman article is right in that the absolute penetration of Facebook in India remains low.  BUT the IAMAI study is right too, in pointing out that these users already possess enough clout to potentially have a significant impact on things like the political process.  Of course, there is a dramatic gap – as we’ve observed universally – between being able to affect politics (who gets elected) and being able to affect policy-making (what rules politicians make.)  Empowerment is about more than getting Facebook spammed by Rahul Gandhi or Narendra Modi come election time.

But essentially, journalists and politicians face the same challenge – figuring out how to use social media (an imperfect and not completely widespread tool) to inform opinion-makers and recruit new audiences, even while understanding how narrow the spread of these tools remains.

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