We all know by now, the all too familiar term Godi Media. A media which has been purchased by a particular economic or ideological entity either explicitly through a formal accusation or through other ways of inducement or coercion. Either way, the media identity; be it a print medium or a digital one ceases to report or analyse news in a balanced fashion. They will start propping up certain kinds of news and downplaying some other kinds of news that may be prejudicial to their owners or patrons. The emergence of the Good or Lapdog media has of course led to an unexpected but welcome development – the emergence of a parallel and mostly digital media many of which promote independent journalism.
However, the reach of digital media is limited to what can only be termed an urban elite who read news on their laptops and iPads. Most Indians prefer a physical newspaper that they can hold in their hands as they sip their morning chai or coffee. When there is a near-monopoly on the media, the usual developments occurred. The monopolistic media corporations silenced several independent voices over the last two decades as they pandered to a political party and in the process began dismantling freedom of speech.
Those not in consonance with this particular ideology were either given very little space to express themselves or were lampooned and humiliated by anchors in toxic debates. Of course, this is a situation where the golden rule plays out – He who has the gold makes the rules. The entire issue needs to be looked at from the perspective of commercialisation reigning supreme even as ethics and norms are thrown to the wind. While earlier there was a stigma attached to behaving and working like an embedded journalist, this is no longer the case. Earlier such behaviour and functioning could jeopardise your entire career, today such a stance may actually further it.
There is a pattern that has emerged over the last few years. TV channels are prone to raise and discuss issues that show the government and the Prime Minister in a positive light. While the Prime Minister receives saturation coverage, often live, minute-by-minute coverage of him offering puja, press conferences of opposition leaders are often ignored. Anything that remotely questions the government is critical of government policies or reflects poorly on the Prime Minister is sidelined.
There is no conclusive answer on whether this pattern is by design or by default. Of course, media owners may have a disposition to a certain ideology. The Hindu for instance or the National Herald. They have had this disposition for years or even decades. But a more common explanation for this pattern is not ideological but plain economics. The government has emerged as one of the biggest advertisers in the media, much bigger than private businesses, and the media cannot afford to antagonise the piper, choosing to dance to the piper’s tunes.
That brings me to Elon Musk and Twitter and the question of the global godi media though I don’t know if that term has actually been used for them. Of course, Elon Musk buying Twitter will not be the first instance. Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post since 2013. But its reach is limited to those who read its print or the digital edition and the number is limited. Twitter of course is global, free for anyone to Tweet, and has a global reach that is unmatched
With his new purchase of Twitter with the stated aim of converting it into a private company, Elon Musk isn’t just diversifying his investment portfolio. The Tesla chief executive is also deepening his entanglement with one of the worlds’ foremost venues for public discourse — potentially hinting at future ambitions to influence the platform’s handling of free speech, content moderation, and digital censorship.
Of course, the ultimate aim of Musk’-share purchase remains unclear. But tweets that he posted just days after buying the stake indicate that Twitter’s status as an arena for debate may have weighed heavily on his decision to buy-in. The question of whether Twitter will be the godi media of Elon Musk is one that will keep cropping up over and over again as social media have taken on an ever-larger role in our public discourse and a major subliminal influencer and thought leader. The influence of social media platforms as influencers has only grown with the Covid pandemic and the accompanying lockdowns.
Musk named his priorities in a press release, echoing earlier statements he’s made about potential changes. “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” he said. “I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spambots, and authenticating all humans.”Musk has a lot more leeway over changing Twitter’s policies around what kinds of content are banned, of course, and when users are suspended.
There’s a lot of speculation about what Musk might do next. But what we know for sure is that whatever he does will affect a lot of people. Twitter has about 200 million users across the world – though it’s still far behind Zuckerberg’s Meta, with a ridiculous 3.6 billion users across Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp.
Twitter’s importance can’t be casually dismissed. It was designed to be a place for “breaking news”, where regular people become broadcasters by giving short bursts of information in real-time. The more people talk about a subject, the more likely it will “trend” and get the attention of mainstream news. Our political class and other celebrities are obsessed with Twitter too; they hold entire debates on primetime based on what folks say on Twitter. So, even if Twitter has fewer users, it’s still the place to be for influential politicians and newsmakers. So the question of whether Twitter will become the first global Godi Media is worth asking and the answer worth waiting for.
Dr Shantanu Dutta , a former Air Force doctor is now serving in the NGO sector for the last few decades.