J-POD || Podcast || “Coronavirus has made us realise how networked we are. Even the ‘News-Finds-Me’ generation is seeking out news now” || PSU media effects research don, Prof Shyam Sundar

***

Media education in India is the bright sun on an otherwise dark horizon, but it’s a bit of a blur. Although there are hundreds of journalism schools across the country, some of them as expensive as B-schools, serious academic research is an exception. 

Nothing is measured professionally, consistently and independently. Only the most banal trends and phenomena are studied by scholars. And there is not one single proper media journal worth its name. 

The result is that the impact of the explosion of media in India is mostly a matter of opinion and anecdote, not quantifiable facts vetted by scholars.

*** 

It is not too difficult to see where the problem lies. 

J-schools in India are mostly assembly lines, churning out industry-ready products each year. The managements and the faculty, for the most part, are not over-interested in producing anything substantive. And so aren’t students and the industry.

And as always, there is that big question in India: who is interested in these things?

***

To understand this gap in Indian media academics, it is instructive to look at the curriculum vitae of my guest for J-POD today: Prof S. Shyam Sundar.

A PhD from Stanford University, Shyam is the James P. Jimirro professor of media effects at Penn State University in Pennsylvania. And the founding director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at PSU.

Identified as the most published author of internet-related research during the medium’s first decade, Shyam’s work investigates the social and psychological effects of digital media, from websites and social media to smart phones to robots.

He is the editor of the first-ever Handbook of the Psychology of Communication Technology. He has served as the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. He has sat on the editorial board of 18 other journals. And he has testified before US Congress on technology issues on numerous occasions. 

In short, Prof Shyam Sundar’s CV is 83 pages long. 

Not bad going at all for the mechanical engineer who wrote music reviews at City Tab magazine in Bangalore and continues to be the host of the Jazz Spectrum at the Lion 90.7 FM station at PSU. 

In this episode of J-POD, Prof Shyam Sundar discusses the role of social media during the COVID pandemic. 

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2.04: “The COVIC lockdown is a forced experiment in looking at how life might be when it is almost completely online, or non face-to-face. We come away with a deep appreciation of the basic mammalian instincts of touching and feeling and hugging, and our resilience.

3.12: “There’s a lot more hunger for news now. There’s an active seeking out of news even in the younger “News-Finds-Me” generation which does not otherwise consult traditional news. And news media are rising to the occasion, bypassing traditional means of production.

8.00: “The primary gratification people get from social media is a sense of community, to be together with other people, to commiserate. We can celebrate that commonality, even through 10-second videos on Tik-Tok. We used to think of online media as another medium just like broadcast and print, for news and information. It still is for some organisations, but it has become secondary.

12.20: “People turned to the big screen to watch films and TV shows. For utility-based functional kind of news, of what is open and not, whether you can step out or not, or where you can lend a hand, people turned to social media feeds like Facebook and Twitter on the phone.

17.10: “One of the projects we are looking at is how health misinformation on social media is affecting people differently, especially senior citizens who are more vulnerable and have less amount of literacy in terms of using digital tools. Their willingness to believe video stories compared to text stories, or to trust what a lot of other people have liked or forwarded a story, unaware of the use of bots.

23.02: “Coronavirus has made us realise how networked we are and that we cannot be isolationists like some people in the right wing want to believe. It could well be that a lot of people are seeking out information that reinforces their biases, like in an echo-chamber effect,  because there is no corrective offline information like bars, restaurants and events where people might challenge them in a face-to-face setting.

26.34: “We do not know what the extent of COVID would have been without social media. It has certainly played a big role in enforcing a lot of precautions although we do not know how effective that has been. Would more people have gone out or got affected without social media? My anecdotal observation is that there would have been a greater appetite to socialise.

29.20: “Contact tracing apps underline the personalisation-privacy paradox. In her book Surveillance Capitalism, Prof Soshana Zuboff talks of personalisation taking away our privacy. Any technology that individualises your experience needs to be that intrusive. In some countries like South Korea and Singapore the equation between service and sacrifice is less weighted than in the US.

33.45: “In general, the pandemic has opened the doors for the limits of free speech but the ability for everyone to have a say has dramatically increased, across all kinds of media, especially social media. It has shown the ability of governments to cut down or shut down the internet, but there are technologies which you can use to bypass government surveillance as you have seen in places like China and Hong Kong. 

35.22: “Because of social media people don’t feel they need to actively look for information and search for the right sources. Instead, they get into the mindset of, “If it’s important, the news will find me”. So they are bombarded with all kinds of news.

“What most people psychologically even at this state of evolution in this domain don’t really factor in is that my social media friend does not have the journalistic skills and ability and background to verify the facts before transmitting that story to me.

“There’s been a general undervaluation of journalistic sourcing, and an overvaluation of journalistic ability of laypersons. You don’t realise that the friend or neighbour who sent you a story doesn’t have gatekeeping abilities, to fact-check.

40.00: “The pace at which fake news and misinformation is being produced far surpasses the capabilities of the moderation methods of various fact-checking and social media organisations. This imbalance can only be solved with some artificial intelligence technology which flags fake news, satire, opinion, commentary automatically at a scale human beings can’t.

42.50: “Twitter and FB have announced various initiatives for the 2020 US election. Maybe we can potentially rule the fake news that comes out of an economic incentive. But the involvement of governments through sophisticated bots they will always find ways to circumvent the safeguards. It’s an ongoing cat and mouse game.

44.06: “In general, there is greater realisation by social media firms that they are no longer a mere platform, that they are indeed at some level publishers.

49.02: “Three pieces of jazz music Indians should listen: Vijay Iyer with Rudresh Mahanthappa; Bluenote, the New York City jazz club; Jazz at Lincoln Center.

50.48: “Indian journalists should not despair. The appetite for news has increased and there’s a tremendous upsurge in the psychological value of news. People have seen what damage misinformation can do. The power of journalism is felt more now than ever before.”  

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