Break Echo Chambers: An Interview with Maya Mirchandani

(This interview was conducted as part of my work with Prajnya Trust’s Education for Peace Initiative. It first appeared on the Prajnya Peace Blog on 27th October, 2018.)

In my work on peace education with school teachers, I have realized that mainstream media coverage plays a big role in how they perceive and interpret the world. Despite the access to multiple sources of news in analog and digital formats, there is a striking absence of critical media literacy among teachers as well as students. It would be easy to place all the blame for proliferation of hate speech on reporters, columnists and editors but that would be unfair because many professionals from within the media industry are committed to using their skills and the platforms at their disposal in the service of democracy, rule of law and human rights.

Maya Mirchandani is a well-known name in Indian journalism, particularly for her association with NDTV. With over two decades of experience in this profession, she has served as Senior Editor of Foreign Affairs as well as the New York Bureau Chief. She now hosts a show called ‘Wide Angle with Maya Mirchandani’ for, and is also an Assistant Professor at Ashoka University’s Department of Media Studies. Apart from this, she is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, where she is engaged in research about preventing and countering violent extremism. Her most recent publication with them is titled ‘Digital hatred, real violence: Majoritarian radicalisation and social media in India’. I enjoyed reading it, and got in touch with her to check if she would answer a few questions pertaining to this research and its intersections with her work as a media practitioner and academic.

Image courtesy Maya Mirchandani

Question: What got you interested in researching the proliferation of hate speech and the spread of majoritarian radicalization in India through social media?

Answer: Any medium of communication has the power to alter public opinion. Social media is not only no different but also perhaps the most powerful space one has ever seen. It is empowering the ordinary citizen, allowing them to air their views, to mobilize for change. Social media can be a significant force for good. However, as a mainstream journalist working in news television for over two decades, especially looking at political and social conflicts, it has been interesting to observe how social media is being used to spread ideological messages based on religion, politics, even culture. Majoritarian violence is often premised on a sense of persecution or ‘offendedness’ — as some scholars say — by a majority group. This persecution then feeds on what, in India, is called ‘appeasement’ by governments of minority groups, particularly religious minorities. Given the potency of this feeling of persecution to rally large groups of people together, it was natural for social media to become key to communicating it. I think the results of this are there for all to see. India’s faultlines of religion, caste identities, political identities have cracked wide open. Hate speech is a natural result.

Question: You have written about “how political groups selectively mobilize genuine religious devotion to manufacture both offense and a sense of being offended.” To what extent would you hold the media fraternity responsible for aiding this mobilization?

Answer: I think the job of responsible journalists is that of gathering information and placing it in context for readers/ viewers. To be fair, I think there are plenty of honest reporters who diligently report whatever they can from the field. The problem today is ideological news anchors who take positions or try to generate binary debates that feed a larger climate of polarization. Those are problematic. If media companies — especially TV — can take a strong stand on changing the format of some of their programming, I think things might become less vitiated.

Question: Since you teach broadcast journalism and media studies, what are the ways in which you engage students in thinking about topics such as caste discrimination, hyper-nationalism and lynchings related to beef consumption and cow protection?

Answer: Students learn through various pedagogical tools. These include readings, lectures and field work. The basic framework of any learning for journalists is the Constitution. Our freedoms are defined, our rights are defined, our restrictions are defined. Where any of these are violated, it is journalistic duty to report. That lesson is key.

Question: I appreciate your point about the absence of a clear legal framework to address hate speech and hate crimes in India which, in turn, give criminals the confidence that they will go unpunished. In addition to creating such a legal framework, how do you think educators can make substantial interventions?

Answer: In one line, by asking students if they would behave badly with someone face to face. If there is something they would not say to a person’s face, they should not say it online.

Question: As a social media user who participates actively in online conversations, what are your thoughts about the community standards and safety guidelines formulated by platforms such as Facebook and Twitter?

Answer: Community standards need to evolve to take in harsher political conversations and deepening polarization. I get the sense that tech companies are aware of this need but the nature of the beast is such that today’s effort is useless tomorrow. To be fair, I think companies are trying to adapt, especially in the wake of controversies over fake news in America, or hate crimes and hate speech in Europe. The European Union, especially Germany, has come down heavily on them for responsibility to take down material immediately. But technology is what humans make of it. So I think to only look at community standards and company responsibility is to deflect blame from ourselves and how we choose to use these platforms as human beings.

Question: I found it intriguing to learn from your paper that “India has been recognized globally for its negligible statistics on indoctrination and recruitment to pan-Islamist terror groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda.” What are the reasons behind this phenomenon?

Answer: It is simple. Indian Muslims are not immigrants, they are sons and daughters of the soil. This has been their land, their home for centuries. All over the world, ‘Indo Islamic’ syncretic culture is recognized and lauded for its contribution towards religious tolerance and harmony. Sufism is precisely that. Indian Muslims practise their faith differently, and live in a society which is multicultural and multi-religious. That makes for a people who don’t see others as the enemy, for the most part. This syncretism has proven to be the strongest bulwark against radicalization. These are lessons that the international community is seeking to learn from.

Question: Why is there a reluctance in the media fraternity as well as in the academic community about using the word ‘terrorism’ to describe violent extremism unleashed by Christian, Buddhist, Jewish and Hindu groups while it is readily used for Muslim groups?

Answer: I don’t think that is correct. Broadly, the Indian media goes by the Indian government’s classification of terror groups. So several North East insurgent groups have been classified as terrorist, left wing (Naxal) extremists have been classified as such. Sikh groups have been classified as terrorist and Hindu terror or saffron terror is an increasingly used term in the media, again based on specific inputs around acts of violence that have pointed to certain groups. Given the complexities and biases involved in individual judgement, most media houses are guided by the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act that lists at least 36 groups as terrorist in the Indian context.

Question: The Hannah Arendt reference in your paper also seems to have some serious implications for educators. Her ideas about the ‘banality of evil’, or as you put it, “the ghastliest of crimes are committed not necessarily by psychopaths or sadists, but by ordinary, normal, seemingly sane human beings acting, without question, on what they see as expected of them by those in power.” How does this knowledge shape your interactions with students in the classroom?

Answer: The reference was used to make people aware of the power of propaganda. It is insidious, and constant messaging has the capability to reinforce biases, even if they barely exist. Also in societies used to hierarchies in the context of taking orders, individual judgement is often in direct conflict with instruction from those in positions of authority. We can’t eliminate or eradicate these fundamental ways of being instantly. The only hope is to create awareness, hence the analogy.

Question: You recommend the creation of safe spaces “that allow extreme views to interact with each other in the hope of fostering dialogue and peace.” I think that is a great idea. How do you propose going about this at a time when journalists as well as academics have strongly defined political views and are unwilling to step out of echo chambers?

Answer: You said it — break the echo chambers! Create forums and invite people whose ideas you may not like, engage them. In some cases, learn to disagree without contempt. As long as your ideological opponent does not advocate violence against individuals or groups, they are entitled to their views, even if you disagree. That is a lesson in respect.