At this point, it has become almost cliché for us ‘traditional’ journalists to bemoan the rise and influence of social media pages that purport to provide the ‘news’. Prime among this new crop of media outlets is, of course, Routine of Nepal Banda, or RONB as its faithful like to call it. There are others out there, but RONB is the social media juggernaut, commanding a loyal following of millions across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. For the younger generation, i.e. young people 16-35, RONB has become the primary source of what’s happening. Forget newspapers and forget digital media portals; RONB is where the news is. Among this age group, RONB has become the media outlet of record.
This is not to say that the traditional newspaper of record – Kantipur – is no longer relevant. Among the older, more influential crowd, Kantipur and various other print and digital media still remain the go-to sources of the news. The far-reaching influence that the print media once commanded is indeed just as relevant as ever before. But at this moment, it is really just a matter of time. The older crowd is aging and the younger generation is consuming the news primarily through social media, whether it be Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or TikTok.
RONB, which started off as a Facebook page posting schedules for the once-ubiquitous strikes, or banda, has learned from and adapted the style of ‘journalism’ perfected by Buzzfeed – eyecatching, almost clickbaity content that is simply meant to arrest eyeballs. In the new age of social media, the measure of a piece of content is its ability to stop you from scrolling. As long as you stop and watch, even for a second, the content creator has succeeded. In the battle for attention, they’ve come out victorious. This should concern all of us, not just those of us in the media industry. The kind of ‘journalism’ that RONB pioneered in Nepal should worry everyone, because it is antithetical to everything we value in good journalism – veracity, verifiability, and verisimilitude.
RONB posts are small, bite-sized pieces of ‘news’ that viewers can consume as they scroll down their social media feeds. These posts are often one-liners that summarize a quote, an event or an issue, accompanied by an eye-catching photograph, but lacking any and all context, leaving them open to misinformation and the wildest of interpretations. In classic journalistic parlance, the ‘who’ and ‘what’ are privileged most over the ‘how’, ‘why’, ‘when’ and ‘where’. This is not to say that RONB attempts to deliberately mislead its audience – I don’t believe the page is actively malicious – but its content model means that most information that would provide a much fuller picture is left out, leaving viewers with an incomplete picture. And in journalism, an incomplete story is akin to spreading misinformation as it allows only a partial understanding of a complex issue to spread. Viewers feel like they know what is happening without really understanding why or how it has happened.
Then, there is the issue of accountability. The mainstream media has bylines and a masthead that lists the name of the editor and the publisher. Reporters, editors and publishers can thus be held accountable for the stories they write and if found wanting, they can be contacted, a letter to the editor can be dispatched, and if warranted, the reporter, editor and publisher can even be taken to court. With social media pages, there are no bylines, no masthead and no publisher. The page is a black box where complaints are ignored and there’s really no way to get redress unless you’re willing to go as far taking them to court.
Despite these issues, there are reasons why this kind of content is now king. The younger generation views the mainstream media with deep suspicion. There is a belief, not wholly unsubstantial, that the mainstream media is beholden to one or more political parties. The media takes partisan sides, they believe, and pushes narratives that benefit the old political order. This perception has only been bolstered by a rant by the new media darling, Rabi Lamichhane, after the Supreme Court stripped him of his positions as Home Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Member of Parliament. In a press conference, Lamichhane lambasted the mainstream media, calling out owners by name and providing ‘evidence’ of their own conflicts of interest. He gave them a collective soubriquet ’12 bhai’ or twelve brothers, as in 12 mainstream media publishers who act in collusion with each other in order to pursue vendettas against people or issues that threaten the old order. How much substance there is to Lamichhane’s claims is a whole other story but suffice it to say that a generation already disillusioned with the traditional media lapped up his j’accuse.
Disillusionment with the mainstream media is not bad in and of itself. There are legitimate reasons to be skeptical of what the mainstream media reports but this should not mean an abandonment of what makes journalism truthful. The process of journalism is one that goes through numerous gatekeepers, from reporter to desk editor to copy editor to finally the chief editor. All of these people are held responsible when something goes wrong. By subscribing wholly to social media news pages, the process of journalism loses relevance and value, leading to a generation that is no longer aware of what form misinformation can take and how to counteract it.
All of that said, this current state of affairs is no one’s fault but the mainstream media’s. By ignoring the young digital native generation, the media has sounded its own death knell. The media is no longer looking to the future and to innovations; instead relying on the crutch of their past relevance in order to proclaim their continued influence. This will not last and unless the mainstream media attempts to cater to the younger generation through mediums that they value – social media, explainer videos, infographics, podcasts, and the like. If we wish to slow the slide of young people towards misinformation and unreliable, unverifiable news, we — not they — will have to change.