By definition journalism suffers from the narrative bias. In other words, in most conditions, only the spectacular is newsworthy. To take a popular example, “dog bites man” will never make news because of its sheer predictability – it simply doesn’t add any information content.
As a consequence, journalism “suffers” from what I call the “spectacular bias”. A spectacular event is much more likely to be reported compared to an unspectacular one. This has several implications.
Firstly it leads to distorted and suboptimal choices. For example, following the two fires in Volvo buses in 2013-14 people stopped traveling by buses of that particular make. This was irrational because even after those accidents Volvo buses continued to be safer than buses of any other make. Yet, the fact that Volvo buses had been involved in the accidents were. Ade the focus of reports and that led to irrational responses. Related to this, I usually ask in lectures I take if anyone has seen a headline that says “Ashok Leyland bus catches fire,people die” and if not, if it means that Ashok Leyland buses never catch fire.
Now that it is established that journalism suffers from the narrative bias and spectacular bias, let’s take it one level further – what about people who get their news exclusively from social media? Let us assume that news that is shared widely on social media is a subset of news that is reported in the mainstream media (it is a reasonable assumption that anything that trends on social media will get immediately picked up and reported by the mainstream media).
What kind of news will these people (who get news exclusively from mainstream media) consume? If a news item makes it big in the social media then it implies that the news item has something about it that is spectacular, and something that is spectacular relative to anything else that is reported. Now considering that news itself is a collection of spectacular stories, what this implies is that what gets shared on social media is spectacular when compared to other spectacular stories, or these stories are doubly spectacular!
Considering that news itself can cause significant irrational decisions among people, imagine the kind of impact that consumption of news solely via social media can have! Without going into merits of the news, we can safely argue that it leads to irrational decisions and opinions.
Now let us consider one such class of people who mostly consume news via social media (we are making a leap of faith here). Temporarily going into anecdata territory, let me quote examples of possibly irrational behaviour by NRIs here. First there is this relative who left India about a decade back. About a year or so back he started this Facebook community called “Bangalore – Water Issues and Solutions” . None of his actions or statements from earlier had indicated that he has any interest in this topic.
Then there is my wife who has been living abroad for the last seven months. Glancing at political status messages on her Facebook feed you see the Uber rape case, Leslie Udwin’s documentary “India’s daughter” and the case of the death of IAS officer DK Ravi. Clearly spectacular among the spectacular. Or take my own case – I’ve been out of India for more than a week now, and lacking good traditional sources of getting news from back home (websites are too cumbersome, I’m relying on social media too).
The consequent “double narrative bias” (since what you consume from social media undergoes two levels of narrative bias) means that NRIs, lacking good sources of news from back home, are likely to have a warped view of the happenings in India. This implies that their idea of India is likely to be largely shaped by this bias and unlikely to be representative of what’s actually happening (I’m by no means giving a clean chit to resident Indians here, since several of those too suffer from this double narrative bias. But proportions are smaller than that for NRIs).
From this point of view the decision by the current government to extend online voting rights to NRIs needs to be called to question – since there is good reason to believe that their idea of India suffers from two levels of narrative bias (NRIs are currently not barred from voting but they need to travel to India to cast their votes. A change in this rule has been proposed).
This concept also helps us understand why political views of NRIs is likely to be much more polarised than that of the general Indian population (as exhibits note both the campaign to deny current Prime Minister Narendra Modi a visa to visit the U.S., and the reception he received when he ultimately went there). Their view is shaped by double narrative bias which leads to suboptimal opinions.
This double narrative bias also presents a good business opportunity – for media houses to target the diaspora. While most Indian publications have websites these are just repositories of news, and only news that has been widely shared gets mileage. This ends up reinforcing the double narrative bias.
What we need instead is a daily quick bite of news that can be consumed easily. This might lead to several NRIs to subscribe, so that they can get a quick understanding of what’s happening back home. (The economists espresso is a good template to follow for this one). And can serve to eliminate at least one level of narrative bias!