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Watershed in reporting

The unprecedented rains and the resultant floods that ravaged Chennai last week saw the emerging force of social media —- WhatsApp, Twitter, Faceboook, which manfully rose to the occasion by disseminating, on a war-footing, memes and jokes, proving the age-old adage: when the going gets tough, the tough get going, while the rest get extraordinarily silly.

Agreed, that is a tad unkind summation, when the fact of the matter is social media also came in handy in reaching out to the people in distress, on a real-time basis, with some absolutely whacky rumours.

‘Crocodiles are lurking in Puzhal lake’. ‘A tsunami is set to strike the TN coast’. ‘Mount Vesuvius has been displaced by the flood waters and is going to erupt over Perumbakkam’. ‘Velachery is missing’.

Okay, the last two were made up. The thing is all manner of rumours started doing the rounds and many otherwise well-meaning, intelligent people fell for them because the warnings were claimed to be issued by — why not? — NASA. On social media platforms, especially on WhatsApp, the rule is: no matter how puerile or ridiculous the rumour is, as long as it is attributed to NASA, it would find plenty of takers.

NASA, for the rest of the world, is an American space research agency. Here it is the American space research agency involved in: analysis of weather patterns over these parts, specializes in aerial-shot photographs on Deepavali day and undertakes pioneering studies on local urban legends and confirms them to be true (sample: ‘according to a report submitted by a team of scientists from NASA, if you make a paste of Tulasi, coriander, lemon leaves and kezhanelli keerai and apply on the outside of your throat, it cures all cancer including in others. Mera Bharat Mahaan’).

But more than the rumours, it was the memes that dominated the narrative. Memes are truly representative of the underlying ethos of social media platforms: No matter what the crisis is, howsoever severe it is, someone somewhere, in the true spirit of crowd-delivered wisdom, will respond irresponsibly.

The thing about memes is that they strike a chord with the larger public and that is because they are mostly in-jokes dipping into existing narratives or taking off on popular cinema lines.

So how to make a simple meme? Here it is:

Picture of Cooum in spate —-> a staid accompaniment to a news report in regular media.

Picture of Cooum in spate with a mug of Vadivelu —-> ‘Lol-worthy’ meme on the happening social media.

In these parts, memes are anything that carries a picture of some actor alongside them. Seriously, that is all to them.

And we had plenty of these during the floods, and it should be a matter of great satisfaction to all those who had really suffered during the floods that the rest of the city was not sitting idle but partaking of their sufferings by also making that Met department official Ramanan a popular meme-material.

But what of the traditional media, how did they cover the floods? Well, for sheer immediacy of news relevance, TV news was hard to beat, especially those helpful scrolls that carried important alerts, except that they came conjoined with ad scrolls. ‘Water from Chembarabakkam Lake released into Poomer underwear. Heavy inundation in inner areas’ is what they came across as.

But news channels also sent their reporting teams into the heart of trouble to give us the real sense of the situation. Many intrepid journalists gave us a first-hand view of the flood waters by taking a ride on one of the safety boats, courageously unmindful of the risk and the fact many of those trapped in hip-high waters were still waiting to be rescued in the same boats.

News channels also pressed into service — for the first time in these parts, they claimed —- drones to provide the viewers bird’s-eye-panorama of the havoc created by the rain water. After a couple of aerial shots, it came across as both-legs-in-air, twist-and-turn and tap-two-shoes-as-if-dusting-off-the-dirt-stuck-underneath-them dance routine of Kamal Haasan — some kind of fancy fetish that becomes comical after repeated viewing.

Still, the view from the top of Velachery Main Road with a couple of heavy lorries wading through the flood waters gave us this great insight: It is actually easier for the traffic to move on Velachery Main Road when it is under floods.

So that leaves us with the print medium. What was our main story? Well, we gave wall-to-wall coverage to all the memes.