ViralSlide: Does 'Virality' Matter?

Take a look at the news-stories that really stirred our civic discourse in 2016: Rampal, central bank heist, teacher's humiliation by lawmaker or Tonu's murder. Think back another year: remember the #RichKids incident where a drunken teen (a former MP's nephew) without a license rammed four people with his SUV? Or the tragic death of Rajon, who's inhumane beating became a viral video sensation? See any patterns? Well – most, if not all, of these incubated and spread in the virtual world, before being channeled into the mainstream (electronic & print) media.

Social media has been playing an important role in breaking and prioritising news stories. Journalist Derek Thomson argued that, "social media is the new homepage." Many social media users now depend on sites like Facebook and Twitter for their news (globally, Facebook sends 3.5 times more traffic than Google). Once broken, news that catches the fancy of social media is rapidly shared. News that fails to attract the fancy of urban netizens (internet users), eventually gets sidelined in the media agenda; and by extension, in national civic discourse.

In the context of social media, 'virality' is the tendency of a text or photo (content) to be widely copied and rapidly circulated by internet users.

American thinker and author Malcolm Gladwell defined the 'tipping point' as "that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behaviour crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire." Virality is the tendency of online content to go beyond the tipping point. Emotionally evocative contents – funny, inspirational, quirky, daring, passionate, dramatic and unpredictable – often go viral. Recent research shows that negatively charged content is just as likely to go viral as positively charged ones.

The prime measure of 'virality' is the 'number of shares' (i.e. number of users who copied and propagated that particular content). Thanks to social media analytics, such propagation can be easily quantified and can thus function as an important compass of public opinion. In a sense, every 'share' on the internet, is an endorsement, a vote of support. The exact reasons for content going viral are still contested. But what is known is that sharing beyond a certain threshold triggers a sort of intellectual groupthink and includes a bandwagon effect. Thus viral content starts to self-propagate and wield its agenda-shaping power.

Now that we've established what virality is, let's ask how media professionals are influenced by it. Naturally, our journalists, reporters and editorial staff are constantly immersed in viral content and such immersion must influence their worldview and politics. Since the Shahbag protests and its macabre aftershocks, mainstream journalists and analysts have parroted the script from the pulpit, with little critical thinking. Soon, bloggers' arguments began to be included in mainstream analyses. When the #RichKid phenomenon drew flak from social media users, mainstream reporting too latched on to the online characterisation of 'an MP's nephew'. Our media failed to challenge the phrasing of 'hacking', in the wake of the BB heist (such language precludes the involvement of insiders). The brief PR campaign against SWIFT came to signify the stance media journalism would take on this issue. Such repeated failure to break from viral issues and their online framing, may suggest that to select and interpret 'worthy' stories, media professionals are, consciously or otherwise, relying on 'virality' as a metric; i.e. online popularity is driving the mainstream agenda and providing interpretations. This is an important shift that could replace 'merit' or 'newsworthiness' with 'virality' as the main criteria for agenda-setting.

Let's label this the 'Viral Slide' of media.

Why is this important? Well, because it affects the motivation and manner of how media journalism selects news stories. The proverbial free media has an onus of pushing an economic and a human development agenda. It must uphold meritocracy and undermine nepotism. Most of all, it must demand justice, criminal and social. Media that merely prints shop-talk or mimics mob sentiments – is neutered media. It is media that has conceded that 'news' is a business, and not a struggle; it is media that is no longer a passion and/or a duty, but a tangent to sales and advertising. This is also where the invisible wall between editorial and business functions becomes permeable, allowing for free-reign politicisation of media voices.

When Viral Slide occurs, i.e. when virality starts to lead the agenda, the urban concentrations of social capital and political clout exert unacceptable degrees of control and thus the structural integrity of a democracy is compromised. It leaves the commoners vulnerable to the rulers' wrath.

To understand how viral slide affects media, think of how the teacher's punishment episode was reported. The story was of 'an elderly headmaster's humiliation'. Why did our media not frame the incident from other angles? Why was it compelled to stick to a single story? There is so much to think about after an episode like that: should we re-conceptualise the balance of state and traditional justice systems in Bangladesh? How can lawmakers be discouraged from dispensing popular and instant justice? Are mosques at risk of being exploited as hate speech and propaganda sources? But even the intellectual discourse did not go past the sentimental outrage, symbolic remorse and vicarious penitence. Interestingly, the same was the case with most social media commentary.

It appears as though viral slide causes not only disparate uptake of viral stories, but also a transference of the lens through which such stories are framed. This is to say that mainstream media often frames stories just as they were framed on social media.

Let's go back to the example: in the #RichKids incident, the narrative was about a spoilt, rich brat whose politico-economic privilege exempted him from all consequences. Yet our media failed to ask why the police had escorted him off the scene, instead of putting the inebriated teen under arrest; or on whose authority they were acting thus. They failed to ask how parents should be held accountable for underage wards' offenses. It is as if social media has become the new frontier of public intellectualism. It is a discomforting thought that some months from now another teen will probably ram another rickshaw and the country will be busy identifying whose nephew he is.

Therefore, I posit that we, and our civil society, need to better understand the Viral Slide phenomenon. Some questions to ask would be: is mainstream media really imitating a narrow social media space? What are its socio-cultural ramifications? What is to be the sociopolitical, pedagogical and policy response? In a sequel to this article, I will write about why virality might be gaining influence and how to think about this.


The writer is a strategy and communications consultant.


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