NEW DELHI — Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, has cultivated and cowed large parts of the country’s normally raucous news media in recent years as part of a broader campaign against dissent.
One group remains untamed: A relatively new generation of scrappy, online-focused news outlets. With names like The Wire, The Print, The Scroll, and NewsLaundry, these publications lack big corporate owners that Mr. Modi’s party can court. They also don’t depend on government advertising money that officials can threaten to withhold.
Now, the platforms say, Mr. Modi is working to rein them in, too.
India’s media outlets had until Saturday to comply with new government rules that they say will force them to change or take down content if online trolls mount a concerted campaign of complaints against their coverage. It would also give the government sweeping new powers to quickly take down articles or other material.
The rules, they say, will force them to toe Mr. Modi’s line or close their doors as the prime minister pushes his most ambitious and controversial initiatives.
freedom of the press has eroded under Mr. Modi’s watch.
Still, while his efforts enjoy broad support in India, critics of his campaigns — from remaking the country’s money system overnight to changing citizenship laws to disadvantage Muslims — have found a home in the robust online space. Their potential audience is vast: India could have more than 800 million smartphone users by next year.
responded by threatening the critics and international platforms like Twitter.
In February, it also enacted online content rules that empower complainers. Online platforms must name a grievance officer who acknowledges complaints within one day and resolves them within 15. The complaint must be taken swiftly to a three-layer system, with a final stop at a government-appointed body that can order platforms to delete or change content.
The new rules also give the government emergency powers to take down content immediately if officials believe it threatens public order or the country’s security or sovereignty.
Netflix and Amazon. The full scope of the law is unclear; some people believe that it could apply to international news publishers like The New York Times.
The government has said it wants to protect average users from online abuse. Officials have cited the spread of deliberate disinformation, harassment of women, abusive language and disrespect of religious groups. Mr. Modi’s ministers have said the rules create a “soft-touch oversight mechanism” that would protect India and prevent “internet imperialism” by major social media platforms.
ownership structure behind many Indian media outlets makes them too dependent on advertising and investors, he argues, influencing their editorial decisions. With The Wire — owned by the Foundation for Independent Journalism, a trust — he wanted to explore a different arrangement.
The Wire operates from a crammed southern New Delhi office. Mr. Varadarajan sits in a corner. To save money after India’s stringent Covid-19 lockdown last year, The Wire vacated a floor.
“We have all been downgraded,” he told a columnist one recent afternoon who had looked for him at his old office upstairs. “Cutbacks.”
sudden increase in the fortunes of the son of one Mr. Modi’s most important lieutenants. They have also scrutinized business deals that may have favored companies seen as friendly to the prime minister.
At a recent meeting at The Wire newsroom, the conversation ranged from coverage plans for state elections, to how to shoot video quickly, to how to balance working at home and in the office as coronavirus cases tick up.
But much of the talk focused on the new regulations. Mr. Varadarajan told his staff that The Wire’s first court hearing had gone well but that the authorities were watching the digital platforms closely.
“Now that you know they will be waiting for opportunity to latch onto anything, look at it as extra responsibility,” Mr. Varadarajan said. “We have to be 150 percent careful to not leave any wiggle room to troublemakers, to not make their life any easier.”
The mysterious individual behind a new and rapidly growing online disinformation network targeting followers of QAnon, the far-right cult, can be revealed as a Berlin-based artist with a history of social media manipulation, a prominent anti-racism group claims.
Since Donald Trump left the White House, QAnon’s vast online community has been in a state of flux as it comes to terms with the reality that its conspiracy theories – such as the former US president being destined to defeat a cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles – amount to nothing.
That may explain why significant numbers have turned to a new far-right network, found mostly on the Telegram messaging app, that is growing quickly in the UK and globally and has amassed more than one million subscribers so far this year.
Called the Sabmyk Network, like QAnon it is a convoluted conspiracy theory that features fantastical elements and is headed by a mysterious messianic figure. Since its emergence there has been widespread speculation about who that figure might be. The person who first posted as “Q” has never been positively identified.
This week the British anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate will unmask Sabmyk’s leader, who it claims is 45-year-old German art dealer Sebastian Bieniek. It says Bieniek – who has not responded to questions from the Observer – has a history of creating online conspiracies and even wrote a book in 2011 called RealFake that detailed a campaign to deceptively promote his work.
But Hope Not Hate says the speed of Sabmyk’s growth serves as a warning of the opportunities for manipulation that exist on social media, particularly unregulated alt-tech platforms such as Telegram.
Gregory Davis of Hope Not Hate, which will publish its annual report into the far right on Monday, said: “His success in developing such a huge audience is a reminder that the QAnon template of anonymous online manipulation will continue to pose a threat in the years to come.”
Since 21 December last year, when Sabmyk was supposedly “awakened”, more than 136 channels in English, German, Japanese, Korean and Italian have sprung up, adding tens of thousands of followers on a daily basis.
Much of Sabmyk’s content is designed to appeal toQAnon followers; it features Covid mask scepticism, anti-vaccine conspiracies and false assertions that the 2020 US election was stolen from Trump.
Some is also designed to actively recruit Britons: one Sabmyk channel, the British Patriotic Party, uses the same branding as anti-Muslim group Britain First and posts about the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.
Other channels are entitled London Post and Liverpool Times, as well as the Great Awakening UK, a reference to a well-known QAnon trope predicting a day of reckoning in which Trump would rise against his liberal enemies. Others include WWG1WGA, an acronym for the QAnon rallying call “where we go one, we go all.”
Among the clues used to identify Bieniek are posts saying that the messiah Sabmyk can be identified by specific marks on his body. One post claimed that Sabmyk would have “17 V-shaped scars” on his arm, the result of a “prophetic ceremony at the age of 24”.
Hope Not Hate has found a since-deleted section on Bieniek’s website recalling a 1999 art exhibit in which, aged 24, he cut V-shaped wounds into his arm for 16 days in a row.
Attempts to connect Sabmyk to Trump have been made, including a clip that splices together instances of the former president saying “17”, and a doctored image showing him with a Sabmyk pamphlet in his suit pocket.
Bieniek has created countless false identities, according to the Hope Not Hate investigation, to promote his career as an artist. The group also says his German Wikipedia page has been deleted at least four times, most recently in January.
A list of Bieniek’s accounts has been sent to platforms including Telegram with a call for them to be removed on the basis of “inauthentic and coordinated platform manipulation”. Telegram has been approached for comment.
A rash of new start-ups are making it easier for digital creators to monetize every aspect of their life — down to what they eat, who they hang out with and who they respond to on TikTok.
Tens of millions of people around the globe consider themselves creators, and the creator economy represents the “fastest-growing type of small business,” according to a 2020 report by the venture capital firm SignalFire.
But as the market gets more and more competitive — and the platforms and their algorithms remain unreliable — creators are devising new, hyper-specific revenue streams.
One comes in the form of NewNew, a start-up in Los Angeles, that describes its product as creating a “human stock market.” On the app, fans pay to vote in polls to control some of a creator’s day-to-day decisions.
if you aren’t getting paid?)
Recently, a platform called PearPop has become popular for allowing fans to pay for interactions with their idols on social media. For $250, for instance, the TikTok star Griffin Johnson will comment on your video. If you don’t have $250 to spare, you can offer your best bid.
“Monetizing your social presence has traditionally only been accessible to those with a large following that can secure big brand deals,” said Cole Mason, the co-founder and chief executive of PearPop. “This is no longer the case. The idea for PearPop democratizes creator monetization by providing something that makes a lot of sense for creators with 10,000 followers and 10 million followers alike.”
Stir, is seeking to help creators split money for videos they make together.
“We think the future of creator monetization is collaboration,” said Joseph Albanese, the C.E.O. and a founder of Stir. “We let creators take any place they make money, whether it’s a YouTube video or Shopify store, and split the revenue with other creators.”
The crypto world has also proved enticing for creators looking to monetize interactions.
Rally.io, a crypto platform, allows creators to start their own digital currency in order to build independent economies with their fans. Fans can purchase the creator’s currency and use it to unlock exclusive or unreleased content.
The Clubhouse star Bomani X has begun offering his own $BOO Coin currency and the Twitch creator FanHOTS has introduced $FAN Coin; fans who hold the coin can use it to choose which character he will play in online games.
NFTs), which are pieces of digital art and media that live online. Though anyone can see an NFT on the internet — buyers do not get to “own” anything in a physical sense — they have become a fast-growing market. The pieces of digital media function as rare collectibles. The YouTube star Logan Paul recently sold $5 million worth of NFTs.
Elijah Daniel, 26, a creator in Los Angeles, is helping followers put a price on the creators. On Friday, he launched the Clout Market, which is a little bit like trading cards, but of influencers.
The Clout Market offers 10 million NFTs representing top creators including Trisha Paytas, James Charles, Bryce Hall, David Dobrik and Jeffree Star. The NFTs are designed to look like Pokemon cards with pixelated images of each creator. The cards carry parody names for legal purposes, Mr. Daniel said, so Tana Mongeau’s card reads “Tana Mongoose.”
The price for these items is determined by the creator’s relevance online. Mr. Daniel worked with a developer to create a dynamic pricing structure that adjusts prices in real time. (It pulls from social and analytics platforms data.) If a creator loses or gains followers or trends on Twitter, the price of the NFT Mr. Daniel created for them will go up or down.
Mr. Daniel said the goal of selling these NFTs is to let fans monetize the drama surrounding their favorite influencers. “A lot of fans will buy these for support,” he said, “haters will buy them to bet on people’s downfall.”
“Influencers and social media stars are making so much money off drama and scandals,” he said, “and most of them are fake. This is a way for the fans who follow along so heavily with everything to be able to invest in those scandals and make money too.”
He added: “If we have to go through another scandal, we all better be getting paid for it.”
“This is the first-wave of creators adopting new technologies to connect with an already engaged fan-base,” said Jeremiah Owyang, a creator adviser to Rally.io. “But instead of it being one-way and solely transactional,” he said, “the fans are as much part of the creation experience as the creator.”
Since then, the rise of digital media and its infinite screen-time options have cut deeply into the might of the big broadcasters. As the viewing audience fractured, opportunities for must-see prime-time interviews became vanishingly rare. Even the biggest one-on-ones of recent years have lacked the drawing power of the specials from two decades ago and more. The audience of 17.1 million for Ms. Winfrey’s interview of Ms. Markle and Prince Harry matched the number of viewers who tuned in when Caitlyn Jenner revealed that she was transgender to Ms. Sawyer on a 2015 episode of ABC’s “20/20.”
The Sunday night special was unusual in that it was not overseen by a network news division. Ms. Winfrey’s company, Harpo Productions, produced it, and CBS paid at least $7 million to license the show, according to a person with knowledge of the arrangement. (The Wall Street Journal previously reported the figure.) The deal was also a gamble: It was taped after the network had bought the rights, according to two people with knowledge of how the show was made. During the interview, Ms. Winfrey said she had been trying to land the exclusive with the couple for about three years.
CBS emerged the winning bidder despite Ms. Winfrey’s rocky experience at “60 Minutes,” where she was a special contributor in 2017 and 2018. In a 2019 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Ms. Winfrey revealed that the show’s producers had criticized her delivery, saying she had “too much emotion” in her voice, even when she said her own name. (Ms. Winfrey has maintained a connection to the network through her good friend Gayle King, an anchor of “CBS This Morning,” and she appeared on that show Monday.)
Further complicating CBS’s attempt to get the big get was the thicket of media companies surrounding Ms. Winfrey and the former royal couple. Ms. Winfrey has her own cable network, OWN, and is a major part of the streaming platform AppleTV+. Recent episodes of Apple’s “The Oprah Conversation” have featured her interviews of Barack Obama, Dolly Parton and Mariah Carey.
Ms. Markle and Prince Harry, for their part, signed a multiyear deal with Netflix last year to make documentaries and other shows. They also signed on to make podcasts for Spotify and released the first installment on Dec. 29. It included guest appearances by Elton John, Tyler Perry and other celebrities, as well as the first public utterance from their son, Archie.
The pact between CBS and Harpo Productions was largely focused on TV rights. The interview ran live on ViacomCBS’s newly rebranded streaming service, Paramount+; but at least for now it will not be available on Paramount+ for on-demand viewing. Instead, the special will be available on CBS.com and the CBS app for 30 days, a CBS spokesman said.
Originally slotted for 90 minutes, it ended up a two-hour show. Before the broadcast, CBS released teaser clips, and British tabloids that have been unfriendly to Ms. Markle shot back with anonymously sourced items on her apparent misdeeds.
The estimate of 17.1 million viewers will only grow after Nielsen tabulates some viewers who streamed the special, as well as out-of-home viewing.
Molly Jong-Fast has known great success as a writer but over the last year on The New Abnormal, her podcast on politics in the time of Covid, she has become both half of a crackling double act and an interviewer with a habit of making news.
The double act formed with Rick Wilson, a former Republican strategist and the co-founder of the Lincoln Project who is now taking a spell off-air. The producer Jesse Cannon has stepped in but the interviews remain largely the realm of Jong-Fast.
Years ago, Molly and her mother, the author Erica Jong, gave a joint interview of their own. Molly, the Guardian wrote, was “loud, arch and snappishly funny [with] the mien of a runaway train, words hurtling forth, helter-skelter.”
It remains the case. Before the pandemic, she threw famous dinner parties which brought unlikely people together. Now a contributing editor for the Daily Beast, she throws politicians, scientists, policy wonks and comedians together on a podcast, a form of broadcasting well suited to pandemic life. Down the phone – or up it – from Wall Street to the Upper East Side, appropriately socially distanced, I appropriate one of her own ways to start any interview. A few introductory remarks, then …
“Talk to me about that.”
And she does.
[the Conservative Political Action Conference] in Washington DC. As I was coming home, I got an email that said, ‘If you were at CPAC, you may have been exposed to a super-spreader, and you need to quarantine.’ So I actually called the school nurses at all my kids’ schools and I said, ‘You guys, what I do?’
“Since nobody really knew anything about the virus, they said, ‘Look, you can do whatever you want, but we would really appreciate if you would just keep your kids home for two weeks.’ I was like, ‘Absolutely. We don’t know anything.’ As someone who is not a doctor but who is completely obsessed with my own physical health in a totally deranged and neurotic way, I’m proud to say I’ve worried about every pandemic that comes. I was worried about H1N1 before.
“And you could see this coming. I have friends in Milan … You saw these stories about Milan, and you knew we were a week behind or we were two weeks behind. I had a friend in London … her mother had a fancy private doctor and the fancy private doctor would send her these letters about who was going to get treatment in the hospital and who was going to be left at home to die.
“So I had a sense that that stuff was coming, so I really made sure that everybody locked down way early in my house. Then I had nothing to do.
“So I said, ‘Let’s start a podcast.’ I had sort of been the driver behind it because I had wanted to do a podcast. Everybody has a podcast. It’s a thing. But I’m always interested in what other people have to tell me. So … I get a lot from it.
“Another thing about me is, besides being dyslexic and a horrible student, I have terrible, terrible ADHD, which has never been medicated. I don’t take medicine for it because I’m 23 years sober, so it just would be too complicated for me. And I’m a person who was, in my heyday, a terrible cocaine addict, so I would not trust myself for a minute with ADHD drugs.”
novels and a memoir about being the daughter of a writer who wrote a lot about sex. In the 1970s, her mum invented “the zipless fuck”. But I digress. As Jong-Fast likes to say to interviewees: “Continue.”
“But I’m super ADHD, so I get very bored very easily. So we get these people, and if they don’t say interesting stuff, I’m like, ‘Eh.’ I’m like, ‘This is very boring.’ So I think that has made the pod good, because I do these interviews and I get very bored. Then I’m like, ‘Come on. Get going here, people.’”
New Abnormal interviews are fascinating and often hilarious. That’s down to a mix of the ethics of podcasting, looser than for talk radio – as Cannon says, “FCC guidelines would never be able to handle what we do” – and the ethics of the Daily Beast, a New York tabloid in website form, pugilistic and intelligent, taking the fight to the man.
Another Jong-Fast interview technique, very much in the vein of the podcast’s one beloved regular segment, Fuck That Guy, is to ask key questions in the bluntest way possible. Take two recent examples. To the White House Covid adviser Andy Slavitt: “Can you explain to me what’s happening with AstraZeneca, because that seems to me very much a clusterfuck.” To Ian Dunt of politics.co.uk, there to discuss Brexit: “What the fuck is wrong with your country?”
What the fuck is that all about?
“Well, as someone who was interviewed a lot when I was young and would sit through endless mother being interviewed, grandfather [the novelist Howard Fast, who wrote Spartacus] being interviewed, always watching, I always think that the worst questions are the questions where you tell the person what you want them to say.
“Look, I get it. I write things all the time where I want people to say stuff, but you can’t really get them to say it anyway … Part of it is I always think you should make it so they’re comfortable enough to really tell you what’s going on and to let you in. Also, I think they know that I don’t have a malicious intent. I just want people to see who they are.”
What they are, in many cases after a year of lockdown, is suffering.
“I had Mary Trump on the pod again today,” Jong-Fast says, of the former president’s niece. “She’s a psychiatrist, so she and I always talk about mental health because I’m just a sober person, and when you’re sober you’re always in your head thinking about mental health. We were talking about how we really are in the middle of this terrible mental health crisis, and everyone is just in denial about it.”
Donald Trump has left the White House. The Biden administration is flooding the zone with vaccines. But we are still in the new abnormal.
“I’m always surprised no one sees that. So it’s like, ‘Well, I don’t understand why I have a terrible headache. It can’t be because hundreds of thousands of Americans have died.’ So it is weird.”
‘I wish we could get more Republicans’
The New Abnormal has featured Democrats – senators, representatives, candidates – and bureaucrats and technocrats too. But in both the very strange election year in which the pod was born and in the brave new world of Biden, few Republicans have followed.
“I wish we could get more,” Jong-Fast says. “I think I got one Republican guy who was running for Congress, but it’s not so easy.”
That was John Cowan, from Georgia, who ran against Marjorie Taylor Greene and her racially charged conspiracy theories – and lost.
“Yes, and he’s going to run again. He’s a neurosurgeon. I was thrilled to get him. But they’re not so interested in coming on, even the sort of moderates.”
She does the booking herself, so perhaps Congressman Adam Kinzinger or Senator Mitt Romney might one day pick up the phone to find Jong-Fast full blast.
“‘You are a fucking genius. Why are you so brilliant?’ I’m very good at schnorring people into doing things for me. I’m very able to just endlessly schnorr people. I think that’s key to getting the guests.”
I don’t know what schnorr means.
“It means you sort of just put the arm on people to get them to come on the pod. The guests are the big thing because the people who want to come on are often not people you really want.”
A lot of listeners want Wilson to return. Jong-Fast, formerly an unpaid adviser to the Lincoln Project, calls him “a very good friend” but is uncomfortable talking about his absence from the podcast – which was prompted by allegations of sexual harassment against another Lincoln Project co-founder and reporting on fundraising and internal politics.
Cannon calls Wilson “one of the most politically astute people in America” and “a genius”. And he may well be back, one day, to reconstitute the double act, the Florida Republican and the Upper East Side liberal lobbing spiralling profanity at the extremity, inanity and insanity of Trumpism and life under Covid-19.
But it’s not all about fighting back.
“I wish there were a little bit more good-faith want for people to interact with the other side,” Jong-Fast says. “Look, there are people on the other side, like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who are not good-faith actors, and you can’t even try. But there are people like Mitt Romney who, while I don’t agree with him on a lot of things, he’s a very good-faith actor. So I think there’s a real chance.”
If you’re reading, Mitt, if Molly calls … pick up the phone.