Was Unfolding of Tehelka Incident Possible Without Social Media

Tehelka social media

It is almost impossible to find Twitter intellectuals to discuss stories of long-term national importance. For instance the recent US-Iran pact, which promises to curb expansion of Iran’s nuclear regime and which would decide how much Indians will have to pay for Petrol and Diesel (and subsequently for vegetables and food grains) in the next decade.

This is not to suggest that a case of sexual assault is less worrisome or that it is not of national relevance. But it is easy to establish one’s discourse, which is often emotional, in an understandable story such as a case of sexual assault. But we must not underestimate the power of social media and what its powerful opinion-makers are capable of.

The recent row involving Tehelka’s senior editors and journalists will go down in history as one of the saddest days in the history of Indian journalism, and yet as a classic social media case study.

On the night of 20 November, when it is usually the time for the ‘Good Night’ tweet with an inspiring quote or ‘how good the dinner was’ message, Tehelka’s Chief Editor Tarun Tejpal’s startling resignation had leaked on social media.

Tejpal submitted his resignation to Managing Editor Shoma Chaudhury stating that he indulged in act which was a result of his error of judgement and that he was going away for six months to do the ‘penance’ which ‘lacerates’ him. What he really meant was that he sexually assaulted a colleague.It was somewhat funny that his letter was more about ‘Tehelka-is-the-greatest-news-brand’ than an unconditional apology.

If it was an incidence not involving journalists either as victim or accused, the mainstream media would have carried the report in disproportionately large proportions. Because Tejpal is a senior journalist who could influence politicians, decision makers and the very industry he represents, it took some time for TV and print editors to gather courage and break the story.

That is exactly when social media had outdone the mainstream reportage. Most of the points of the weekend TV debates and print editorials were nothing less than archive junk for social media.

Tehelka is perhaps the most active magazine on social media, especially Twitter. As the sensational sequence of alleged assault unfolded on Wednesday and Thursday, the editors and Tehelka’s official accounts chose to condemn politics, economy and gender inequalities on Twitter than putting their own house in place.

Incidentally, supporting Indian women, Shoma Chaudhury had recently tweeted that the CBI chief must resign for his ‘enjoying rape’ remark. Among thousands of social media posts Between 20 – 25 November, a number of stories unfolded some of which went unnoticed. We take a look at the significant posts that raised eyebrows.

Shoma chaudhury tweet

20 November: Reports of Tehelka journalist’s assaults leaks on social media.

Around 8:30 pm on 20 November: Full text of Tejpal’s resignation does rounds on social media.

25 November: News leaks that Tehelka’s major stakeholder is planning to exit the venture.

25 November: Victim submits her resignation to Tehelka’s managing editor. News spreads on social media within minutes.

25 November: A Caravan magazine reporter releases list of Tehelka’s shareholders, shareholding patterns and salaries of Tejpal on Twitter

Rahul Bhatia tweet Rahul Bhatia tweet

26 November: For the first time Tehelka communicates its official statements through its social media accounts.

26 November: Zubaan Books, publishing house founded by noted feminist Urvashi Bhutalia tweets that she will not be part of the committee to probe charge of sexual assault against Tejpal.

Zubaan Books

Zubaan Books

11:30 pm on 26 November: Tehelka’s senior editor Rana Ayyub announces her resignation on Twitter.

Rana Ayyub tweets

12:30 pm on 26 November: Tehelka tweets its managing editor Shoma Chaudhary’s response to the National Commission for Women.

Tehelka tweet

The most unfortunate incident however was a series of humiliating messages against Tejpal’s twenty something daughter on Twitter. Ironically a few self-proclaimed feminists and women rights’ activists (both men and women) abused her on Twitter which compelled her to exit the micro blogging site.

What is interesting to observe is the flow of information and public opinion which made its way to the people clearly through social media networks, partly because journalists did not want to make enemies within their community and partly because of the dynamic nature of the medium.Social media played role of a double edged sword.

Within a short time after the incident, it provided us multiple perspectives, opinions and facts related to the incident. This would have been impossible in a pre-internet era. At the same time the medium lost its sheen through its explicit commentary and judgemental remarks. It now appears that slight caution in passing the verdict can take the credibility of social media to new heights.

Perhaps 2013 was the only year in recent memory, when bus and rickshaw drivers, a spiritual leader, political stalwarts and a senior journalist were charged of sexual assault and attracted nation-wide uproar. And whenever the subject is emotional, especially women-centric, Twitter and Facebook reformers want to change the nation and its mindset. I think it will take us a few decades to change mindsets and longer to change the nation.