The puppeteers around us

Our collective mistrust about nearly everything is reaching pandemic proportions. And with good reason. We are constantly being manipulated, be it in politics, business, entertainment...you name it.
Last Updated 27 March 2021, 20:15 IST

How often does cynicism overtake you? Do you frequently catch yourself smirking or rolling your eyes at things you read, hear or see? Do you find it difficult to trust things on plain sight and wonder if there is an ‘angle’ to whatever it is you are reading, hearing or seeing?

You are not alone. It is more than likely that you regularly encounter cynics and people who give credence and mobility to conspiracy theories. In fact, cynics and conspiracy theorists have been having a field day for long now. And as it happens, every now and then, owing to incidents you read or hear about, your cynicism and distrust is reinforced and you are tempted to throw in your lot with the cynics.

A recent study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) found rampant adulteration in honey sold by major Indian brands, with 77 per cent of the samples failing purity tests for sugar syrup adulteration. These products, which had been touted as ’natural’, were apparently not. In the same vein, tagging toys as ‘educational’ when they are clearly not is not unusual either.

And then there is the great publicity machinery that goes into overdrive before a major film (or OTT) release. These are often accompanied by leaked whispers of its lead pair hooking up during the making of the movie. This is regardless of the existing relationship status of the actors (after all, a salacious scandal does grab more eyeballs, doesn’t it?).

In the case of a ‘theme’ movie (about say, football or bikes), stories do the rounds about how its lead actor (rarely, actress) is a closet football freak or motorcycle aficionado or something else guaranteed to be ‘click-baity’. A few months down the line, having garnered its quota of clicks, the romance/the football/the bike are given a quiet burial away from the public eye.

‘Puff pieces’ that present certain people in a good light are a regular feature of all publications now (often, in the service of that strange new being — ‘positive news’) and in addition to people from the entertainment industry, it is not unusual for politicians and businesspeople too to be the subjects of such pieces.

Arguably, these are less harmful and prosaic as compared to the fake news affliction that plagues many societies worldwide or the severe lack of trust that the ‘aam aadmi’ has in government announcements and schemes or indeed, in the day-to-day workings of the administrative machinery.

M Rajshekar, in his searing new work, Despite the State, documents in detail how governments in many Indian states — and this is true of both the political and bureaucratic class — have failed the people and have become living, breathing monuments of unabashed self-interest, completely lacking in any form of accountability.

Yet ironically, a seminal legislation passed some years ago — the outcome of the tireless work of activists — had attempted to achieve the exact opposite — foster more trust in the government and ensure accountability.

An exercise in building trust

When the RTI Act was passed in 2005, it was the outcome of years of struggle by activists who had been struggling to ensure that government schemes reached its intended beneficiaries as well as expose corruption. For years, these efforts had been stonewalled by the bureaucracy citing secrecy and other archaic provisions that effectively ensured zero transparency. The campaign that followed, spearheaded by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan and the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, among others, dwelt on the people’s right to information, their right to scrutinise the administration and engage in a public debate about its workings, omissions and commissions.

Over the last decade and a half, even as successive administrations have attempted to dilute its provisions, the RTI has proved to be a handy tool in exposing government shenanigans and thereby, dare I say it, even created a modicum of trust in the government.

The business of trust

While path-breaking legislation and the larger public interest could possibly keep governments in line, how can businesses handle the prickly issue of getting their employees, customers and suppliers to trust them? Hema Hattangady, former CEO of Conzerv, believes that trust is “created by authentic and consistent behaviour that is fair, empathetic and open in good times and bad”. The stress, she reckons, has to be on building a relationship and not approaching things in a transactional manner. Keeping and building trust is a 24/7 affair, though “if you really mean it, it’s no longer a tough chore. It’s just who you are and it is just what you do.” Communication, open and frank, seems to be the magic mantra to creating trust, in her reckoning. But, communication, especially of the marketing sort, can sometimes push people further down the distrust mode, as the recent ‘natural honey’ issue has demonstrated.

Advertising tall claims

Veteran advertising professional, author and thought leader, Ambi Parameswaran, when quizzed about advertising and trust, had several points to make. Quoting Samuel Johnson, who said, “‘Promise, large promise is the soul of an advertisement,” he believes that consumers view advertising in what he calls ‘suspended state of disbelief’ with the awareness that advertising does tend to glorify a product’s features. Of course, ‘caveat emptor’ (buyer beware!) has been a principle handed down to us since ancient times and so, it is perhaps difficult to completely lay the blame at the door of advertisements. One could perhaps rationalise the few instances of bad advertising in this manner.

Also, given that the media itself is under scrutiny, Ambi believes that shining a poor light only on advertising is not entirely fair.

A torturous journey

Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed, senior journalist with a respected magazine, accepts that mainstream media has suffered from a serious trust deficit in the eyes of the public in recent times. In part, he traces this to the proliferation of media outlets and the increasingly narrow concentration of media ownership. This, he believes, has led to media firms looking for a way to ‘stand out’, in a bid to attract more eyeballs and consequently, more advertising, which in turn has led to ideological bias in its news content, and opinion often masquerading as reportage.

The rise of social media has also affected mainstream media in unforeseen ways. A long piece by a journalist, written after in-depth research and fact checking is often pitted against a ‘viral’ WhatsApp message that was churned out on the basis of incorrect sources and the personal axe that the author has to grind. As the viral message is furiously transmitted, it acquires the solidity of truth. And that it is this ‘viral’ message that comes up trumps in the popularity department exerts a strange sort of pressure on the media, in the eternal race for eyeballs and advertising. This is the daily reality of the post-truth age we live in. Personal bias and agendas trump objective scholarship and research.

An era of manipulation

That we are in the ‘post-truth age’ is something that has been much written about. Given that this term is still something of a black box, it is difficult to fathom entirely what it means. But, suffice to say that the great paradox of our times is that while we have on our fingertips access to a great deal of information, this seems to have heightened and not reduced our trust deficit. As the past few years have demonstrated on a worldwide scale, it is almost ridiculously easy to push people down a pre-intended thought process rabbit hole by manipulating the information feed that they have access to on social media. Nameless and faceless algorithms can be tutored to nudge people in dangerous and destructive directions and almost completely obliterate the possibility of self-doubt.

Social discourse has almost broken down in many societies as warring factions, fully convinced of their own truth and with no trust in society’s conflict-management processes, battle each other for the upper hand. They are willing to die for their beliefs or even more ominously, kill for them too. This is perhaps the greatest danger to modern society almost entirely emanating from the prevailing atmosphere of distrust.

Is rebuilding possible?

How could societies possibly rebuild trust, especially in scenarios, where communication has broken down? What are the steps that advertising and media, could, for instance, take to regain trust?

Ambi Parameswaran believes in advertising’s potential to ‘educate’ consumers about products and services, and this being the case, believes that advertising should take its role seriously. In this regard, he cites the importance of ‘body copy’ in advertising (he rues the lack of it in much of today’s advertising) and also, the ad agency’s role in the consequences of an incorrect claim, both legally and in the eyes of the ‘Janata Janardhan’.

Vikhar believes that the road to building (or rebuilding) trust in mainstream media has to be through going back to the basics. Good, old-fashioned reportage about the afflictions of the citizenry is key, in his opinion.

This coupled with dialing down TV debates, which have now acquired the feel of gladiatorial contests, and lesser ‘curated editorial content’ in print media, could go some way in bringing the trust quotient back. Also, the nature of social media which permits many to hide behind a veneer of anonymity and spew vitriol and venom, might also need some tinkering with.

As for the rest of us, who look at neighbours, associates or social media figures through a suspicious lens, where could we begin? It is a tall order to begin ‘trusting’ as if by pressing a button, of course. Still, one must start somewhere.

The official dictionary definition of
trust is:

a) The belief that someone or something is reliable, good, honest, effective, etc.;

b) Reliance on the character, ability, strength or truth of someone or something

c) A person or thing in which confidence is placed

When viewed objectively, without being overly influenced by recent, trust-shaking events, can we state with absolute certainty that this sort of thing has completely vanished from our lives? Aren’t there sufficient instances of trust that would temper our cynicism and allow us the luxury of muttering, even if only to ourselves, “What a wonderful world!”

If there are, then clearly, our cynicism is overdone. If, on the other hand, there are sufficient reasons for cynicism, then a way out of this cul-de-sac needs to be found. As always, there is no replacement for reading and reflection. It is a given for all civilised and mature societies.

Perhaps, this quote of uncertain authorship could offer a beginning to rebuilding trust, in relationship spaces, as it puts the onus on us to begin communicating with an open mind and with a view to finding common ground:

“We’ve been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbour. We’ve built more computers to hold more information to produce more copies than ever, but have less communications; we have become long on quantity, but short on quality.”

The cynic might be tempted to dismiss this as mere sentimental piffle, but at the risk of appearing even more sentimental, consider also this quote from an Earth Day poster of 1970: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

(Published 27 March 2021, 19:46 IST)

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