Rishabh Pant, Lata Mangeshkar and the eyeball-feeding frenzy

Charred remains of cricketer Rishabh Pant's car after it collided with a road divider on the Delhi-Dehradun highway in Roorkee. Photo: PTI
Charred remains of cricketer Rishabh Pant's car after it collided with a road divider on the Delhi-Dehradun highway in Roorkee. Photo: PTI

Summary

We must stop privacy violations of the kind seen in free-for-all video clips of celebrities in distress.

Two tragic events, one that happened at the beginning of 2022 and the other at the end, highlight the rise of a prying and free-for-all publishing economy.

On 30 December, Rishabh Pant, India’s star wicketkeeper and batter, survived a car crash. After the early morning accident, visuals of an injured Pant started being shared on social media. Even a picture of his X-ray went viral. Soon, images of an injured Pant were being broadcast by TV channels as well.

Lata Mangeshkar, India’s most famous playback singer, died in early February last year. Before her death, videos and pictures of her struggling in the hospital she was admitted to went viral.

Of course, we human beings have always been voyeurs, in a way, but earlier we would sit and talk about the lives of others. Now just gossip is not enough. We also need pictures and video clips to satisfy our need to know.

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Hence, the examples of Pant and Mangeshkar raise several important points.

First, Pant and Mangeshkar were clearly not in a position to decide whether they wanted their pictures and video clips to be put out there. Consent went out of the equation entirely.

Second, the pictures and video clips first went viral on different social media, putting pressure on the mainstream media (websites, TV channels and newspapers) to up the ante. Something similar was observed when veteran actress Shabana Azmi had a car accident in January 2020. In the event of an accident, there is nothing wrong in publishing a picture of the state of the vehicle, but publishing pictures of an injured celebrity in a state of distress is not done.

Third, this trend of publishing videos and clips of celebrities in distress is part of a much broader phenomenon of a population wielding millions of smartphones with cameras, trying to document everything around them. Annie Ernaux summarizes this situation in her book The Years: “What mattered most was the taking of the photos, existence captured and duplicated, recorded as we were living it—cherry trees in bloom… a baby minutes after birth, places, events, scenes, objects, the complete conservation of life. With digital technology, we drained reality dry."

It’s almost like instead of experiencing the experience, we want to perpetually record it and show the world that we were out there recording, by posting pictures and video clips. Cheap internet, cheaper smartphones and free social media where one doesn’t have to pay to publish have fed into this phenomenon.

A good recent example is that of Virat Kohli hitting two consecutive sixes off Pakistani bowler Haris Rauf in a T20 cricket World Cup match. There were so many people in the stadium who were busy recording this on their mobile phones instead of watching Kohli hit these sixes right in front of their eyes. Also, it is worth remembering that the match was broadcast live. Hence, anyone’s mobile phone recording couldn’t have possibly been better than what was broadcast and was available for posterity.

On a more general note, many middle-class weddings have turned into social media events now, with even a hashtag made out of the names of couples getting married.

Fourth, this trend has also ended the tyranny of the editor. Until around a decade and a half ago, to be able to publish any content, one had to go through a gatekeeper (the editor) who would decide whether the content on offer was good enough to be published or not. At the same time, considerations like consent, the ethics of the situation involved, etc, were also taken into account (not always, but at least more often than not). Now it’s practically a free-for-all.

Fifth, with the tyranny of the editor gone and the business model of the media in trouble, the content already available on social media provides free material to the mainstream media. Of course, the breadth of this content can vary from Pant’s accident to a newly-married celebrity couple holidaying in the Maldives and posting pictures on Instagram which get picked up all across the media. This is something that the media doesn’t have to pay for.

Now, while a couple putting out their honeymoon pictures for everyone else to consume is a choice they make, pictures of celebrity accidents going viral or celebrities being treated for a disease in a hospital is something that goes against the very idea of consent and violates the privacy of an individual.

Sixth, the trend shows us an age-old lesson that any market incentivizes, irrespective of whether the right choice is being made or not. Social media and the mainstream media will stretch the limits in order to get eyeballs.

Seventh, while I am no technology expert, there has to be a way for social media companies to be able to filter such content. As Jonathan Taplin writes in Move Fast and Break Things: “YouTube has very sophisticated content ID tools that screen for porn before it can ever be posted." If possible, similar tools can be used in cases like Pant and Mangeshkar. Further, some well-made educational videos might be of help.

Eighth, finally, it might well be worth remembering what Maggie Nelson writes in The Argonauts: “How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy?" Everything that needs to be sorted cannot always be sorted.

Vivek Kaul is the author of ‘Bad Money’.

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