From reel to real, Instagram straddles entertainment, news

  • The social media platform vying to be a top entertainment destination has inadvertently become the prime location for urban Gen Zers to consume news

Shephali Bhatt
Updated8 Jan 2022, 09:49 AM IST
Instagram is fast becoming the primary platform for news consumption among young urban Indians.
Instagram is fast becoming the primary platform for news consumption among young urban Indians.

In August 2020, Pushpal Maheshwari and Anshul Vohra started an Instagram page called News Line. It was a passion project for the ISB alumni, then 24, who wanted to deliver “quick news and explainers” in a format that would appeal to 16-to-24-year-olds, who spent more time on phones and social media. A year on, their account has garnered over 45,000 followers, mainly from Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru, with about 40% between 18 and 24.

“This is a group that doesn’t want to sit in front of a TV from 9-10pm to watch news. They want their news on their phones, where they spend most of their time, and they want it in crisp, snackable form,” says Maheshwari, co-founder of News Line, who works as a product manager at a consumer-tech startup in Bengaluru. The duo started “repackaging” news reports into short videos paired with trending songs and aesthetically designed text-based carousel posts.

Fetching thousands of followers in a year on Instagram is no big deal if you dance to trending tunes or post memes and cat pictures. But for News Line’s co-founders, whose private accounts have just about 1,000 followers, this growth is unexpected. To them, it indicates that Instagram is fast becoming the primary platform for news consumption among young urban Indians. It has led to the rise of “Instagram journalists” like Faye D’Souza, who commands over a million followers, a rarity for a news reporter anywhere in the world. CNN’s Anderson Cooper is the only other influential journalist whose Insta-following runs to millions.

Some entertainment content creators like Andre Borges (@borges.andre) and meme accounts like Andheri West Shit Posting have pivoted to share news-related posts with their hundreds of thousands of followers. Borges, who has been active on Instagram since 2014, started sharing news on his account over two years ago for one simple reason: Political propaganda accounts were growing on the app and painting a biased picture of what was happening in the country. He decided to combat it by posting verified news from credible sources for his 222,000 followers.

Balram Vishwakarma, who started @Andheriwestshitposting on Instagram in September 2018, says he too shifted gears to news in March 2020 because it seemed plain irresponsible to be shitposting during a pandemic. “I cannot post memes around a cliched Lokhandwala character when a person is paranoid that his parents might die of covid or when they think the roof of their slum home would collapse in heavy rain and cyclones.”

No one saw this shift coming, not even Instagram. In June 2021, Adam Mosseri, head of the photo-and-video-sharing platform, had declared his ambitions to make the Meta-owned company a top entertainment destination. News was not a part of the plan.

Newsfluencers told Mint that 16-to-24-year-old urbanites are at the heart of this shift. For many users in this demographic cohort, called Gen Z, news has become a means to stay relevant among peers. “There’s a lot of emphasis on not coming across as someone who is apolitical,” says Garima Kunzru, 24, a content writer from Mumbai. “We are in a hurry to be seen as individuals who care (about what’s happening around us).”

Since they spend most of their screen time on the app, the likes of Kunzru use Instagram to show their world that they, too, care. It’s a sea-change from a few years ago when Instagram was supposed to be an archive of memories. Now, besides following friends, celebrities, and content creators, they also follow mainstream and independent media outlets and journalists—like Faye D’Souza, Arun Singh, and Ajit Anjum—on the platform. They get daily news fix while scrolling through the feed or checking Stories and Reels.

Maheshwari points out that infotainment creators paved the way for the rise of Instagram journalists on the app. “For Gen Z, the lines between news and information have been blurred,” he notes. The popularity of reels on subjects like finance, health and law, proved that there is a market for serious content on the app. “The supply-side got smarter, basically,” he says. People realized that if you offer relevant content in a format that users like, it will work even on an app dominated by #wanderlust and #foodgasm.

In other words, Instagram has become what YouTube was five years ago, says Arun Singh, a broadcast journalist (@thejhumroo). “People are looking for all sorts of content now.” Singh posts news-related videos as well as comedy sketches for his 102,000-odd followers on the platform. While the funny content may be pushing his follower count, his news videos get the most engagement in the form of comments and messages, he says. “News is, after all, everything that is trending. Everyone has an opinion on it,” he adds.

Gen Zers, says Kunzru, also feel an invisible pressure to share opinion on a news-related development. “There’s this expectation that if you’re using the app to show your happiness and sadness, how are you not expressing it for the news?” Kunzru admits she finds herself wondering, “Why are people not talking about this?” on several occasions. She shares news on Instagram that affects her, that she feels will also affect her friends.

The proliferation of news on Instagram has also pushed more news from marginalized communities into the mainstream discourse. Srishty Ranjan, 24, a postgraduate student, uses Instagram Stories to disseminate news from her home state of Bihar “so that it doesn’t get invisibilized like it usually does.”

Gen Zers like Ranjan are instrumental in “helping stories from the hinterland become part of urban English-speaking audience’s news diet,” says Srishti, who uses only one name. She is outreach and partnerships manager at Khabar Lahariya, an independent media outlet comprising only women reporters with a special focus on stories from the UP and MP region. Three years ago, their team noticed that all media outlets were doubling down on their Instagram strategy. Soon after, Khabar Lahariya, which has garnered 13,000-plus followers on the app since starting in 2015, picked its key long-form stories, originally published in Hindi, and converted them into shorter English clips to share with the mainstream audience on the platform.

Repurposing news videos for Instagram is a chore. “It takes about 2.5 hours to change video dimensions and make aesthetic embellishments to make a news report Insta-friendly,” says Sahil Valmiki, founding editor of Dalit Desk, a news site dedicated to the marginalized communities. So far, though, it has been worth the effort for the site’s Instagram account with over 24,000 followers, which the team set up in December 2019 when it felt the platform was just beginning to move from a personal space to a platform for general awareness.

In August 2021, Dalit Desk’s Instagram page reported that a nine-year-old Dalit girl was allegedly raped, murdered and hurriedly cremated by a priest and his accomplices at a crematorium near Delhi Cantonment. The horrific crime got mainstream media’s attention thanks to Dalit Desk’s reach on Instagram, says Valmiki. “When we first posted the news, multiple users shared our post, asking their followers as well as mainstream reporters to look into it. That’s how mainstream media was informed.”

Since then, Dalit Desk has gotten 20-25 mentions from its follower base of 24,000 every day. “Users tag us in Stories, or comments section of a news-related post, asking us to tell the real story behind a particular situation that reeks of caste-based violence,” says Valmiki.

The trend is now spilling over into the urban millennial’s feed.

About two years ago, Sharanya Sridhar, a 30-year-old gourmet bakery owner from Hyderabad, uninstalled all news apps from her phone. Reason: “I get all my news from Instagram. Faye D’Souza and my friends share everything that needs my attention.”

It’s the “ultimate lazy person’s cheat sheet to events in general,” says Kopal Doshi, a millennial digital marketer based in Mumbai. For people in her social circle, Twitter used to provide that earlier. “But now there is too much misinformation/ propaganda and links to click. These days I even get breaking news through Insta stories shared by friends,” she says.

Unfortunately, as the lure for news grows on the app, so do attempts by politically motivated people to delegitimize actual news, says Borges, who frequently gets hate comments from trolls on his news-related posts.

“Instagram guidelines are some of the worst in controlling propaganda,” he says, a sentiment echoed by many newsfluencers. Valmiki of Dalit Desk says his team had to take a two-day break on account of the toll that misinformation and hate-mongers took on their mental health when the page called out an actor for her casteist remarks in a video. “You think the quality of users on Instagram is better than that of Twitter, but we see how the subject of caste turns even reasonable people into trolls,” says Valmiki.

Instagram seems to be aware of these limitations. In an emailed response, a Meta spokesperson says, “We share society’s concern with misinformation which is why we have taken aggressive steps to combat it—from creating a global network of over 80 fact-checking partners and promoting accurate information to removing content when it breaks our rules.” Right now, Meta has “a high number of fact-checking partners” in India, the same as in the US, and about 10 fact-checking partners can fact-check in 11 Indian languages, the spokesperson adds.

But that isn’t the only issue with news gaining ground on Instagram.

“On Instagram, there’s no structure to consuming news," says Maheshwari. "We’re not consuming it consciously, it’s just a part of our feed." He finds this pattern both sad and unsustainable. News Line is slowly trying to move its followers onto its app dedicated to bite-sized consumable news.

While followers don’t seem to mind Instagram journalists doing paid partnerships to sustain themselves, Maheshwari says it does eventually impact their reach. Ergo, Instagram may be useful as another channel of disseminating news, but much like creators, even news reporters and media outlets cannot rely on the platform alone for sustenance. Paid partnerships notwithstanding, "Instagram is very inconsistent with reach in general," says Valmiki. “People stop and read something only if it looks good.”

Faye D’Souza’s news-related posts might be the only exception to this rule. In the last two years, the number of ‘likes’ on her carousel posts–featuring text on a plain grey tile–have gone up tenfold.

Doshi from Mumbai, who is among the million users following D’Souza, argues the format is aesthetic in its own way. “The way the text is structured across carousel posts makes it easier for one to consume important bits of the news without having to deep dive into a long read,” she says.

Ranjan from Bihar disapproves of this obsession with snackable formats and aesthetics for news. “News should not have to look good for it to catch our attention,” she says. “I worry that this obsession will soon lead to people making insensitive reels out of a news report just to make it more palatable for the privileged class to consume at the expense of the marginalized communities directly affected by the news." And that it will diminish the sanctity of news. "Not every issue needs to be danced to," she says.

An even bigger concern is that as more and more readers become content with reading a snazzy nut graf (a paragraph summarizing the story) instead of subscribing or paying to read the whole article or watch the full report, it will weaken the financial support required by individual journalists and media outlets to do actual reporting and newsgathering, eventually forcing Instagram journalists into rethinking their content and distribution strategies.

A short, aesthetic summary of news may seem lucrative right now, "but it cannot and should not serve as a replacement for actual news reports," says Ranjan. And we wholeheartedly agree.

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First Published:8 Jan 2022, 09:49 AM IST
HomeIndustryMediaFrom reel to real, Instagram straddles entertainment, news

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