How Social Media Content Creators Exploit Kashmir’s Pain?

   

by Bazila Bilal

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With zero accountability the page owners get away with anything by simply deleting the posts or issuing an apology. While the stories of grief and tragedy continue to serve as a ‘staple’ of Kashmiri audiences the so-called news pages also continue to operate without facing any backlash.

An elderly woman grieves the tragic loss of six lives in the boat capsize incident in the Batwara area of Srinagar on April 16, 2024( KL images: Sahil Mir)
An elderly woman grieves the tragic loss of six lives in the boat capsize incident in the Batwara area of Srinagar on April 16, 2024 ( KL images: Sahil Mir)

“May I be sacrificed for you; may I be sacrificed for your name,” utters a mother as a Facebook page admin (mistaken as a journalist) leans forward to attach the mic to her shawl. Beside her, another mourner, the lady’s sister, seeing the cameras rolling, tries to adjust her inconsolable sister’s hijab.

“He was seven. He was nine. He would have just turned nine,” the mother says in confusion, struggling to answer the ‘journalist’s’ questions. “How many children does your daughter have? What was her son’s name? How old was he?” the social media content creator (now CC) continues to probe. The mother, pale and breathless from grief, struggles to free herself from the hands holding her from behind to let some air in, while the mic slips from her shawl again.

Suddenly, a picture of Showkat Ahmad is displayed from the window. It is his mother and everyone’s attention—including the CC’s – shifts to the window. She screams, “Look at the hero, everyone. Look at his bright face!” She is Showkat’s mother.

The video was filmed just hours after a boat capsized in the Jhelum around 7:30 p.m. Shared on the same date, April 16, the video has amassed over 11,000 views on YouTube and 178,000 views on Instagram, featuring a sensational Kashmiri song in the background and has been widely shared. Hours before posting this video, the same Facebook page conducted a live telecast showing people sitting on the banks of the Jhelum awaiting the retrieval of bodies. The 24-minute live broadcast, misleadingly captioned “26 people died” to attract viewers, has garnered 15,000 views on Facebook.

“He was born after five daughters. I shredded my feet walking barefoot to shrines, from Makdoom Sahib to Sonwar, telling those who asked about my slippers that they had broken,” recounts Showkat’s mother, clutching a framed photo of her son to her chest. Showkat, a 40-year-old labourer, and his son Haziq, age 9, were among the nine people who went missing in the waters of the Jhelum on April 16.

Showkat’s mother, walking with difficulty, approaches the wooden almirah displaying family pictures, followed by the CC who now, inside their home, holds a microphone in her hand, another filming. Pointing to Showkat’s pictures she continues to mourn. The grieving mother, oblivious to what was unfolding, continues to murmur. At times, losing composure, she screams and beats her head with her hands. As she struggles to control her emotions, other women gather to comfort her.

The widow then pulls out a phone from her pocket and dials Showkat’s number. The CC, indifferent to the mother’s sorrow, callously asks, “Did his son drown too?” A lady from the background answers, “No, he did not,” sparing the mother further torment. “Is he alive then?” the CC persists. When no one answers the call, Showkat’s mother places the phone to the CC’s ear and looks towards the sky, shouting, “Showkat sahib, where are you? It is getting late, my beloved. Where are you?” While the mourners try to convince her that Showkat is alive, she does not believe them. Devastated, she looks around and asks the mourners, “Did my Showkat feel suffocated in the waters?”

Locals found the body of Showkat’s nine-year-old son on April 27, while Showkat was still missing.

The video, capturing disturbing scenes and posted at 7:22 pm on April 16, reached an audience of 1.6 million on Facebook, 300,000 on YouTube, and 162,000 views on Instagram. It included a disclaimer stating that Showkat’s mother, deeply affected by the news of the drowning, had turned ‘mad’.

The Journalism Story

Like in the rest of the world, journalism in Kashmir has been evolving for a long time. From the publication of Kashmir’s first weekly newspaper, Tohfa-e-Kashmir, in Maharaj Ganj to the establishment of Radio Kashmir Srinagar and the launch of DD Kashir, a 24-hour channel, journalism in Kashmir has managed to keep pace with advances in science and technology.

However, social media has completely transformed the face of journalism by altering the nature of human relationships and the exchanges that take place between them. At the heart of this transformation is the growing culture of Facebook content creation in Kashmir which has infected the valley like an epidemic and continues to spread. Commoners mistake the CC as the journalists.

Copied from social media, this AI-generated image shows how citizen journalists are managing the show in Kashmir, in the wake of the Gandbal tragedy (April 2024) in which six individuals died as the boat capsized.

In the name of bridging communication gaps and reporting, these self-proclaimed journalists have transformed social media into an information witch hunt. This new norm exploits those in distress, extracting sensitive personal details and broadcasting them for public consumption, thus commodifying human emotions. From buying front-row tickets to witness executions in the Middle Ages to now paying for content that showcases people grieving over the bodies of their loved ones, we as the audience need to rethink the choices we make while consuming content on Facebook. With an internet connection, a microphone and a camera, every other person on the internet has become a self-proclaimed journalist.

Bandwidth Consumption

According to The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (2019), the advent and usage of mobile Internet for social media networking is more than a decade-old practice in Kashmir with a mobile subscriber base of 11408435, there are over four million people who use the Internet.

While a portion of the population is now becoming aware of concepts like media literacy and social media hygiene, there remains a large group who are unaware. With microphones and cameras thrust upon them during what might be the most vulnerable times of their lives, people, already weakened from their suffering, tend to collapse and divulge the reasons and causes behind their tragedies, sharing their details, which they would have otherwise kept secret from the world.

In some cases, individuals start looking at these CCs as messiahs, as seen in the Srinagar boat tragedy when a mourner desperately begged a CC to bring his son back by holding his chin which is a gesture of submission.

For these CCs, however, these intense moments merely serve as fodder for their pages or live streams, consumed by strangers. Their cameras spare no one, recording or live streaming everything and everyone from bereaved families to their homes, and even making intimate family matters like divorces public. Upon entering private properties, men, women, and children are pictured without consent and posted online where being an interactive and engaging platform these incidents are left for strangers to openly debate, discuss, and comment upon, wreaking havoc on the families involved.

Often, these CCs also assume the role of judge, as the parties involved feel compelled to reach out to them to counter the allegations being made against each other, turning the issue into an internet trend that stretches for weeks with videos being released by different parties titled ‘version of ABC incident’.

Team B

A fraction of vloggers and YouTubers then use these live streams to increase their reach by making reactionary videos and edits from those clips, further adding to the plight of the victims until a new incident occurs and the previous issue loses relevance continuing the cycle. Having gained their reach and views, what happens to the previous cases and the victims remains largely unknown, and due to a lack of awareness and regulations, these cases are rarely reported to the police or covered by mainstream media.

Hundreds attended the funeral of six individuals who tragically lost their lives in a boat capsize in the Batawara area of Srinagar on April 16, 2024
Hundreds attended the funeral of six individuals who tragically lost their lives in a boat capsize in the Batawara area of Srinagar on April 16, 2024

As widely as the content is produced, it is equally liked and in demand among the public. People download the clips to share in their WhatsApp groups and to post as stories, giving the content even more reach. Referring to a video clip of deceased Haziq Showkat’s mother, where post the drowning of both her husband and child she had suffered mental derangement and was captured lying on the road laughing surfaced on one of the platforms, 50-year-old Naseema says, “I found the video while scrolling Facebook and I could not get it out of my head. I had to take three pills in a single day to control my blood pressure.”

Academic Research

According to a study conducted by Associate Prof Bryan Mc Laughlin a researcher at Texas Tech University it was found out that people with higher levels of problematic news consumption are “significantly more likely” to experience poor mental and physical health. Talking about the 24-hour- news cycle, Mc Laughlin stated that it can create a “constant state of high alert” in some people, making the world seem like a “dark and dangerous place”. He further adds, “For these individuals, a vicious cycle can develop in which, rather than tuning out, they become drawn further in, obsessing over the news and checking for updates around the clock to alleviate their emotional distress”.

An article quotes Moazum Mohammad, former vice president of the now defunct Kashmir Press Club, who argues that “Because of this unchecked and unregulated practice, there’ll be a trust deficit between the general public and journalists.”

Referring to these CCs as “pimps”, Bashir Manzar, editor-in-chief of the daily Kashmir Images argued that they are giving a bad name to journalism and the responsibility lies with the people and government to tackle them.

Tariq Bhat, a senior journalist working with The Week suggests that, “Everyone can’t be a journalist. Such people are just there to create confusion and at least a person should be a media graduate.” He further states, “My point is when the state is not doing anything, the journalist community led by Kashmir Press Club should frame a body of all unions and keep a tab on this menace.”

Kiana Boston, a media scholar, describes sensationalism in journalism as a norm and Journalism, as the biggest perpetrator of sensationalism. Mentioning the media’s desire to feed people’s hunger for entertainment and instant gratification, Boston writes, “There is also a lack of consequence for media outlets that sensationalized stories.”

She further writes, “Media outlets are satisfied with the interaction they received through sensationalism. At this point, sensationalism is far too engraved in our society for it to suddenly up and disappear and media outlets don’t seem to be slowing down the output of sensationalized media.”

Joy Wiltenburg in her article True Crime: The Origins of Modern Sensationalism refers to “sensationalism”  as “the purveyance of emotionally charged content, mainly focused on violent crime, to a broad public, which despite their low or even negative informational value, such reports have substantial emotional impact.”. Stressing on the impact of sensationalist crime reporting he states, “irrespective of the intent of their originators, who may see themselves as neutrally conveying factual material, the crime reports exert substantial political and cultural power. Representations of crime influence people’s conceptions of their lives and communities far out of proportion to the actual incidence of criminal activity.”

The Abundant Pages

The mushrooming of these social media pages, with businesses entirely running on the misfortune of others, ignites fierce competition among them, leading to further shameless displays of insensitivity and sheer cruelty to be the first one to ace the job of sensationalizing these very private moments. Thriving on numbers through sensationalism and shock factor, they gather what to them is just “content,” and in the process, even the dead are not spared. By capturing and releasing images and videos of dead bodies without the consent of relatives, they snatch the right to dignity and fair treatment of the deceased.

The same was seen in the case of Adda Shakeel from Ompura Budgam after the 4-year-old was mauled to death by a leopard on her birthday. When pictures and videos of her shredded body were circulated on social media, the family urged people to remove the images because they did not want their daughter to be remembered like that. In yet another incident that took place in July 2023, the family of Haseena Bano, following her death, was forced to state a social media trial.

“We did not want to play this gutter game. The matter is still under investigation,” said her son in a video statement. “But since a fake and fabricated narrative is being spread on social media by my relatives in the name of ‘family version,’ we as the primary family were forced to present our version of the story,” he adds.

Bazila Bilal

Having abandoned all their ethical duties, they consciously choose to post content without any fact-checking to be the first in the rat race, which can also lead to rumour-mongering and distortion of truth, ruining lives.

A Case study conducted by Ab Rouf Bhat, PhD scholar, Media Education Research Centre, University of Kashmir, and Dr Syeda Afshana, Professor, Media Education Research Centre, University of Kashmir in March 2019 concluded that “Social media is widely misused in Kashmir as hundreds of news pages and WhatsApp groups run by self-styled journalists spread “news” without checking the authenticity of the facts.”

With zero accountability the page owners get away with anything by simply deleting the posts or issuing an apology. While the stories of grief and tragedy continue to serve as a ‘staple’ of Kashmiri audiences the so-called news pages also continue to operate without facing any backlash.

(The author, a Srinagar-based freelance Journalist, is a student of Philosophy and English Literature. Ideas are personal.)

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