It’s a Digital Dilemma Too

Digital News Websites need to be directed not to promote any single-sided story about any political candidate or political party. 

Recently, in Maharashtra, the bypoll elections happened for the two local assembly constituencies. Both of these constituencies are from Pune District. One is the Kasaba constituency where a very strong hold by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was observed traditionally, and another one is the neighboring Chinchwad constituency. During these bypoll elections, it was observed that many news websites were continuously uploading the news items using the same content (the text, photographs etc.) which seems to be mere copy-pasting of the same content on different websites.

The year 2020 marked with one wonderful documentary – The Social Dilemma. This documentary explained the impact of big tech-giants on the day-to-day life of the common man through social media platforms. It also threw light on the impact of social media platforms on the emotions and behavior of the people by relating that with the process of maximizing profits for the big-tech companies. It then created a stir in the society for checking, rechecking and examining the actual notion behind the use of such social media platforms. Many social media users got that alarming call about their individual social media addiction too. Such a situation gave justice to the title of the documentary – The Social Dilemma. Now it’s the time to think about Digital Media on the same line. Even if one may think that it is not related and applicable to the common man, it will definitely be applicable for the journalism industry in the country, as well as the Election Commission of India in the current situations. Such a dilemma about digital media may start as it is taken to be granted that digital media democratized media production on one hand, but one can observe an equally opposite situation on the other hand. Especially during the election campaigns! Here are the reasons. 

Recently, in Maharashtra, the bypoll elections happened for the two local assembly constituencies. Both of these constituencies are from Pune District. One is the Kasaba constituency where a very strong hold by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was observed traditionally, and another one is the neighboring Chinchwad constituency. During these bypoll elections, it was observed that many news websites were continuously uploading the news items using the same content (the text, photographs etc.) which seems to be mere copy-pasting of the same content on different websites. All such online news portals were highly hyper-local and provided campaign related news items about the prominent local political figures contesting the respective election with a large number on a day-to-day basis. Majority of such news websites were present with the ‘Digital Only’ media scene, i.e. for these websites their traditional Print/TV/Radio counterparts were absent. Such websites served as the Digital News Publicity Outlets for the respective candidates. Those news websites provided all the campaign-related digital news material specifically in Marathi, i.e. in the local language of the state, with a large number. Also, it was observed that such publicity material was not available in any other language like English with that much large number. As the links of all such digital news items from these digital news websites were being circulated by political enthusiasts through other social media websites and social messaging applications like WhatsApp during the election campaigning, it provided the necessary readership and viewership for the respective websites as well as the candidates. Even if those websites were hyper-local in nature and not-so-known names from the news industry, this was happening during the bypoll campaigning period as a major publicity practice for the political candidates.

The available research related to the nature of the Digital Newsrooms in the country suggests that the sizes of the such newsrooms for all such Digital News Websites are shrinking continuously and those have already started operating with the minimum manpower. Keeping this fact in mind and considering the hyper-local nature of such news websites, it must be noted that providing digital news items related to all major campaigning moments for prominent political figures with a large number by such websites was impossible without collective and collaborative efforts by such Digital News Organizations within themselves OR by the contesting political parties and their respective candidates within themselves OR by both i.e. by Digital News Organizations along with political parties and candidates all together. In such a case the possibility of paid publicity needs to be considered always while looking at the Digital News Domain for political campaigning; if such collective and collaborative practices are happening at all. Such a possibility is maximized due to the availability of a growing number of digital news outlets which are mushrooming not only in Maharashtra, but all across the country at present. Also, the roles of the professional Public Relations Officers and Public Relation Offices for political parties and political leaders needs to be supervised and evaluated against the cases of all such digital news items with the equally similar contents as it also suggests for the possibility of ‘Churnalism’.  

Churnalism Example – 1

Date - 12 Feb, 2023
Headline : वाकडचे कलाटे आणि वाकडकर कुटुंबिय कमळासोबतच

Links for same content from different websites :

The term ‘Churnalism’ (and not Journalism!) refers to the repetitive use or reuse of the content obtained from the sources like press releases instead of the original work by the reporter. Earlier such cases of using the same content as the news text were limited only up-to the news items provided by the major news agencies like PTI, UNI which were considered as the important news sources for unbiased and balanced news stories that served to the traditional media outlets, with a proper mechanism for gatekeeping available at their ends along with the gatekeeping happening in the traditional news organizations. Also, use of such news items was distinguishable due to the dateline used by the traditional organizations as they tag name of the agency directly or at least follow a practice to present the news as ‘agency copy’ and not their own news. Considering the current political scene and the functions of Political PR teams, the possibility of getting unbiased and factual news is already minimized. Also considering the fact that the proper gatekeeping function is almost absent for the Digital News Websites due to the lack of manpower, only copy-pasting of such biased content provided by the political PR teams seems to be happening at large, which then used directly as the news item by the Digital News websites. This is creating a bigger issue of churnalism through the Digital News websites on a larger scale. Here one needs to understand that due to the availability of technical tools, such practice is happening with a greater speed and greater amount as compared to the earlier traditional print and TV-Radio formats. If such a possibility is there, considering the growing number of all similar news items in the digital domain, one needs to consider the possibility of linkage of all such Digital News Websites with such channels of such Political PR teams who provide the digital content periodically and continuously during the election campaigning period.

Churnalism Example - 2

Date – 15 Feb, 2023
Headline : पोटनिवडणूक बेरोजगारी, महागाई अन् दादागिरीच्या विरोधात

Links for same content from different websites :

Considering the need for a free and fair environment for Elections, such an environment in the digital domain disturbs the spirit of democracy as digital news websites may publicize the publicity material which is promoted through the PR practice only. Due to this, those candidates who will be unable to afford the professional PR services, will not be witnessing their own publicity through digital news websites, as the probable news selection will happen not on the basis of the news values, but on the economic capacities of the political candidates. This will ultimately discourage and demoralize candidates from economically disadvantaged groups and weaker sections of the society from contesting such elections. This may affect the decisions of such socio-economic groups even in participating in election processes as voters in the long run, as the digital domain may not provide a way to voice their political demands and their own issues. As discussed earlier, one may consider that the digital media have democratized the media production and the content generation practice, but here, at least during the election campaigning, this is evident that such a practice is not getting encouraged, not even the journalism, in the digital domain.

To avoid such issues in a long run, as the practice of Political PR is prima facie responsible for disturbing the spirit of free and fair election campaigning practice, official PR Professionals and unofficial staff of the political parties and political candidates needs to be placed on record and considered to be the responsible players for such a practice for churnalism along with the related Digital News Websites. To identify churnalism, all Digital News Websites working in the domain of political campaigning can be asked to tag such a political content with a specific tag (such a tag may vary from ‘Churnalized Content’ to ‘News from Political PR’), which can be identified properly as this currently even happens for advertisement tag. Even if such a tag made available, Digital News Websites needs to be directed to provide fair and equivalent publicity to all the political parties and candidates who are involved in the particular election without favoring any particular party or candidate. Digital News Websites needs to be directed not to promote any single sided story about any political candidate or political party in a biased manner.

Churnalism Example - 3

Date - 18 Feb, 2023
Headline : ‘संपेल शास्तीकर, बटन शिट्टीचा दाबाल जर’; राहुल कलाटेंची मतदारांना साद

Links for same content from different websites :

Considering the possibility of paid promotional activities with the help of such a churnalized content, provisions related to the Paid News needs to be reconsidered with specific reference to Churnalism as in the digital domain the limitations related to the availability of the space (as witnessed in the traditional Print Media) and the time (as witnessed in the traditional Radio and Television slots) are not applicable as that for traditional media platforms. As this domain will be growing with a rapid speed, new definitions; if needed; needs to be framed with the help of proper prior research related with the Digital News for election campaigning. 

As such a practice will grow in an exponential manner in near future along with the growing number of Digital News Websites and Mobile Applications, technological tools including Artificial Intelligence need to be adopted for observing and monitoring such all experiences exclusively available in the digital domain. Search Engine Companies like Google, Mozilla Firefox can be involved in the mechanism of identifying and tagging such copy-pasted, plagiarized political content specifically during the election campaigning period and can be asked to flag that as potentially biased content. Such a mechanism needs to be available for all the languages including all the regional languages. Development and use of a Make-In-India Search Engine Tool that promotes such a practice for Free and Fair Election Campaigning processes can also be promoted. If needed, proper clauses must be included as the part of Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 that addresses the practice of Churnalism, as this may help to avoid future difficulties.  

- Yogesh Borate 
(Auther is Assistant Professor at Department of Communication and Journalism, Savitribai Phule Pune University, Ranade Institute Campus, Pune)

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