Who pulled the trigger?

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“Yeh lo azadi (take your freedom)”.

Saying so, the 19-year-old pulled the trigger on peaceful protestors. 

Incidentally, it was the martyr’s day – 30th January 2020. On this day 72 years ago, a Hindu fundamentalist had killed Mahatma Gandhi.

History certainly rhymes – both criminal acts were perpetrated by majoritarian fanatics against people fighting for the secular character of nation.

The difference between the two perpetrators – one had a clear political mindset (however misguided) and a leader as a target, the other had nebulous politics of majoritarian pride and a nebulous target of ‘anti-nationals’/ ‘Tukde Tukde gang’. One was a political murder, the other was hate crime.  

The nebulous nature of hate tells us something. What can drive a 19-year-old to commit murder of unknown ‘others’? What miasma of hatred was he living in to give up his life for the hateful cause? Before setting off on his mission, he had written on his Facebook page, “Game over, Shaheen Bagh” and “wrap me in saffron on my last journey“. (Shaheen Bagh refers to another venue of protest where a large number of women and children were protesting. Depending on which news channel you saw, you either saw innocent women and children exercising their fundamental right or a grave conspiracy with a devious front. Saffron symbolises Hinduism.)

What happened earlier in indoctrination camps in deep jungles or hush-hush compounds in the towns, now happens openly on social media and TV. Conspiracies foment hatred while skirting around facts (and consequently shrugging off their responsibility to reality). The world is hooked on to a constant high of outrage. In a rapidly changing and increasingly unequal world, impressionable people (young and old. Oh lord, the old!), are being constantly bombarded with highly charged conspiracies, summary judgements and ready-made point of views. Most do not have the education to think critically[i]. The media eco-system has become so overbearing that one simply surfs over one outrage to next. In a sense, it creates a weather of ever-present hatred. The winds change direction merely to point one target to next – abortion, temple/mosque/ synagogue/ church attacks, Pizzagate, perceived slights to national honour or even something as innocuous as a girl smiling to camera or teens dancing for a meme… everything and anything is under the eye and everything and anything can be made to appear as outrageous.

In such a weather sometimes the flap of a misinformed butterfly, is enough for a hurricane of riot to be unleashed.

It was such weather of conspiracy and hate created by certain mainstream news channels around Hillary Clinton’s e-mails that created the fertile grounds for pizzagate conspiracy to foment on social media which resulted in innocent people receiving death threats and a person firing rifle inside the Comet Ping Pong restaurant in Washington, D.C in 2017.

It was similar weather created by certain mainstream news channels in India which consistently branded the protesting students as ‘anti-nationals’ sometimes falling as low as resorting to doctored videos[ii], that led to normalisation of hate against students. Two days before the incident of the teenager firing shots at protesting students, the Junior Finance minister of the country had openly sloganeered ‘desh ke gaddaronko, Goli maaro saalon ko’. Shoot the traitors. Here the traitors are understood as the Anti-CAA protestors.

Hate turned to violence.

Someone indeed did heed the slogan.

Who really pulled the trigger then? Should the teenager alone take the responsibility? Or should it also lie with the junior finance minister? Or some of the media channels? The ‘target’ of protesting students was in a sense, marked by a certain section of the media which routinely called them ‘anti-nationals’ and ‘tukde-tukde gang’. (tukde means pieces. It refers to the notion that these people aim to break India apart in pieces. Needless to say, this nomenclature was completely undeserved and fabricated for the convenience of powers-that-be.) 

Or should it be the advertisers who effectively fund these media houses? After all, the media houses choose to attract majority’s attention, because they can then sell that attention to advertisers. Majority’s attention can most easily be earned by news channel by­­­ championing majoritarian issues. It’s a win-win – political class is happier, advertisers are happier, business booms.
Hate is profitable. Most eyeballs will after-all come for majority of people who have majoritarian point of views.

Let’s agree that media does fuel hate.

Media Maths

How media is incentivised to turn a blind eye to societal ills

The maths is simple. Advertisers typically seek to reach the largest number of consumers, more often in the most cost-effective manner. These are the most important considerations. Media planning, largely, is a game of finding an optimum solution in delivering these three factors. The only nuances considered might be about a sharper definition of the consumer, consumer behaviour/ preference about the content, likelihood of skipping the ad… etc. Lately ‘brand safety’ has become an emerging concern, but largely for digital advertising inventory. TV, Radio remain very relevant and yet ‘brand safety’ conversations haven’t affected the way media dollars get allocated to them.
Even in the digital realm, the attempts at solving the problem are ham-handed – keyword based. (More on this later.)

Since media is often primarily supported by advertising, they want to deliver the highest number of viewers, and to hold their attention for the longest. The most effective way to deliver it is not through thought-through treatise of truth, or even-tempered narration of the big picture. Being logical, thoughtful or engaging with complexity of reality is a sure shot way of losing interest of your audience in the post-modern times of ours where there are just too many options for the mind to find its next hit of dopamine. Five seconds of lack of excitement and click… channel changed, tab closed, screen swiped.

The most effective way to deliver consistent attention of the greatest number of people, is through the spectacle of the roadkill. The idea is to show imagery that is so outrageous that you can’t bear to see it nor to look away. It’s the spectacle of roadkill. Its macabre, it’s tragic and it colonises your psyche. It’s a meme that is so outrageous that you can’t skip it, the grotesqueness drawing you in.

We are inadvertently incentivising news channels to peddle hate and serve the spectacle of the roadkill.

The news media has hacked our psyche. They have found the optimum trigger of holding our attention. This is the reason news channel pick a small clip that they repeat endlessly. It isn’t as if they don’t have any other footage. The idea is to find the grotesque, the curious, and the ambivalent and repeat it.

There you have it. Loads of attention.

Media is driving hatred because it is incentivised to.

By the lure of advertising dollars.

Nobody is going to hold advertisers responsible criminally. But now that we know how we have inadvertently incentivised hate, shouldn’t we (advertising fraternity) do something to undo the damage? It doesn’t have to be this way.

By remaining moral-agnostic, advertisers are effectively funding majoritarian politics.

Digital media works differently from broadcast media with its long tail of content creators and consumers. The feeds, instant gratification, and the ‘reaction performance’ culture means that there are many different ‘long tails’ of ‘spectacle of the road-kills’.
The flat earthers, the QAnon, the Mukbang … there are as many spectacles out there and they have found large audiences too.

The dynamics of media consumption might vary, but in the post-modern world today, viewership is majorly towards these spectacles-of-the-road-kills.

Contentcreators – from journalists and TV show producers to YouTube stars and Facebook group editors – are merely responding to the world they live in. They create more of the things that get them more likes, views and ad revenues.
So essentially the attention economy has incentivised the Flat Earthers to hunker down on their mistaken beliefs and for QAnon followers to believe in nonsensical conspiracies.

To move away from the road-kill spectacle, we need to fundamentally rewire our media ecosystem. The biggest shift that needs to happen is of rewiring the incentive – advertising money must incentivise kindness not hatred, truth not lies, healthy dialogue not unhealthy obsessions.

Ignorance is no longer bliss. The price of 21st century living is eternal vigilance. The post-modern challenge is this- you might not know enough/ it might not be in your interest to take a stand. And yet, not taking a stand is not an option. As Sartre said, a person is condemned by free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. Every choice – either of action or inaction – is our responsibility.

The beginning of a renaissance

Currently some conscientious brands have taken a stand and are pulling their ad dollars away from divisive content.

Recently, Renault pulled out its advertising from Republic Bharat channel in India which communalised a tragic lynching case (the channel often indulges in communal conspiracies).[iv]

Last year, Tucker Carlson’s show lost 70 advertisers in USA in response to his anti-immigrant rhetoric and tacit support for white supremacy.[v]

Even as I write, the list of companies boycotting Facebook is increasing.  This was in response to an appeal by a Civil rights coalition which includes Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the NAACP under its #StopHateforProfit campaign. They cited Facebook’s “repeated failure to meaningfully address the vast proliferation of hate on its platforms.” as the reason for boycott. Power to them.

The #StopFundingHate campaign has been successful in persuading/ shaming tabloids into being more responsible publishers. Due to sustained campaigns there has been a substantial drop in anti-migrant front pages in UK press.[vi] The United Nations has taken the campaign’s message on board – and has recognised the need to de-fund media outlets that fuel hatred.

2019 saw the launch of two major advertising industry initiatives, the Conscious Advertising Network (CAN) and the Global Alliance for Responsible Media. Both seek to address advertisers’ ethical responsibilities, including the need to tackle hate speech.

These are transformative times and it’s about time that the broader advertising community wakes up to this new responsibility.

Consciousness shouldn’t be this much work

The efforts I mentioned brought a lot of good change. But it needed a lot of nudging, a lot of efforts and considerable time on the part of civil society members.

Hundreds of volunteers, reporters, organisers had to work tirelessly to get brands to recognise the impact of their advertising dollars. This is truly inspiring and commendable on the part of civil society and shameful on the part of brand owners. Why should someone else carry the cross of your ignorance, your lack of consciousness?

Holding media accountable is a full-time job that costs money. Right now, it is not sustainable. Consider TheHoot.org from India. It used to report on media bias, but had to shut down in 2018 because they couldn’t hire experienced journalist who they could afford. Now it exists as an archive. Newslaundry.com does excellent work of raising awareness of media bias, incompetence. It is managing to grow with subscription from its viewers. But this illustrates the point. In a country of a billion and a $2 trillion economy, there are just a handful of small companies, driven largely by passionate individuals, surviving on a small section of concerned citizens’ subscription revenues.

This is neither sustainable nor desirable where companies keep ‘externalising’ their ecological (more on it later), civil and even ethical costs. The citizens are paying these costs – with increased hatred in our cultures, with increased uncertainty about our future, with increased room for corruption, with power not being held accountable.

We need a SYSTEMIC solution to this problem. And advertising industry has a role to play in creating & participating that system. We need to change the way we work to account for our responsibilities to the civil society. It can’t go on with activists having to check on us regularly.

How do we build this system which can be sustainable, accepted by all and non-discriminatory? I have an approach to solve this problem in mind. But before I get to the solution, it would be worthwhile to appreciate the nature of the beast – why is hate such a big problem now? Who benefits and how incentives are stacked against the civil society? What are the specific mechanisms of fomenting hate? What are the challenges we would need to overcome to build a system to reduce hatred being propagated with ad dollars in the world?


[i] Most Students Don’t Know When News Is Fake, Stanford Study Finds, The Wall Street Journal, Nov 21, 2016

[ii] Forensic experts say Kanhaiya video was doctored, February 19, 2016, India Today https://www.indiatoday.in/india/delhi/story/forensic-experts-say-kanhaiya-video-was-doctored-309626-2016-02-19

[iii] Hate Speech in Pixels: Detection of Offensive Memes towards Automatic Moderation, Benet Oriol Sabat, Cristian Canton Ferrer, Xavier Giro-i-Nieto, Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya – UPC, Oct 2019

[iv] Renault has stopped advertising on Republic Bharat. Will Nissan be the next?, Ayan Sharma & Jayashree Arunachalam, May 30, 2020, Newslaundry.com

[v] Tucker Carlson’s Show Bled 70 Advertisers in Less Than a Year, GQ, Luke Darby, August 20, 2019

[vi] Five ways that Stop Funding Hate supporters have made a difference, https://stopfundinghate.info/2019/08/16/five-ways-that-stop-funding-hate-supporters-have-made-a-difference/ , June 16, 2019

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