Issue 5

‘It’s only words’ – The Normalisation of Hate Speech

The first prime minister of India, Pandit Nehru said that India is a country held together “by strong but invisible threads … a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision, and yet very real and present and pervasive”. India’s national identity, according to our Founding Fathers, is not derived from commonalities of religion, ethnicity, language or even geography. Our idea of nationalism is spelled out in a constitution enshrining secular, pluralist and democratic ideals, where the many competing identities of its citizens can exist simultaneously. They hoped that the idea of India, an idea that embraced differences would eventually dissolve the many particularities that divide us and that casteism and religious hatred would gradually lose their divisive appeal. The boldness of this idea was predicated on that most basic and most important democratic principle – that in a democracy we don’t have to agree with each other on everything but only on the civic rules of engagement. One could be a proud and patriotic Indian and yet question the highest authority in the land. 

That bold idea has been increasingly tested in the years since independence and has come under serious threat since the current political dispensation came to power. The success of caste and religion-based electoral math has led to an unprecedented coarsening of political rhetoric. Indian democracy, once considered extraordinary for its scale and enduring existence has in recent years been enfeebled through increasing threats to religious minorities and xenophobic jingoism. This decline is most visible in the increasingly strident, unrepentant hate speech by public figures, further emboldened by the seeming impunity. 

According to a study done by NDTV in 2018, use of “divisive and hateful language by high ranking officials had increased by almost 500%” since 2014. The report states that there were “124 instances of VIP hate speech by 44 politicians, compared to only 21 instances under UPA-2”. The sitting Chief Minister of the most populous state in the country has famously spoken about the “love jihad” conspiracy where Muslims are allegedly on a mission to convert young Hindu women through marriage to Islam. The Home Minister has spoken of Bangladeshi immigrants as “dimak” or termites “infesting” the Hindu Rashtra, chillingly reminiscent of Nazi propaganda against the Jewish community in the 1930s. Others have warned of the “green virus” and on and on it goes. While there has been some retaliatory rhetoric from Indian Muslim politicians, the current climate of hate has clearly been instigated by the right-wing Hindu nationalist ruling parties and there is little hope of redress when the impunity to this discriminatory language is accorded from the highest office in the land. 

Unfortunately, the normalization of divisive, sectarian and hateful speech is not just limited to words. Words have power and, in this era, where we are seamlessly embedded in a continuous stream of communication coming at us through specific vehicles of our own choosing (Television, Twitter feeds, Facebook and Instagram timelines, or Subreddits), we are trapped in echo chambers which reinforce the same messaging.

What happens when hate speech is normalized and streamed into our daily media diets?

There is no globally accepted legal definition of hate speech and it is a highly contentious and much debated issue. Most democracies, including India (but not the United States) have some kind of definition and policies toward hate speech (such as Section 153A and Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code which criminalise, respectively, speech that seeks to promote enmity between different groups and speech/acts that outrage/s religious feelings) but these are toothless paper tigers, seldom enforced and hence with little or no power of deterrence. 

Scholars have defined hate as identity-based feelings of extreme negativity towards others and hate speech as language meant to vilify the ‘other’s’ identity to the extent that the ‘other’s’ legitimacy and humanity itself is called into question. Comparing illegal Bangladeshi immigrants to termites and characterizing Muslims as “the green virus” savages their very identity and constructs them as undeserving and contemptible, and this ‘other’ then becomes ‘less than us’. This classic insider-outsider status others the minorities to an extent that they are then seen as threats to the majority or traditional Indian (read Hindu) values which is followed by a call to arms to eliminate the threat of these ‘outsiders’. In other words, the normalization of hate speech is a slippery slope marking the beginning of marginalization of minorities and their construction as enemies deserving to be killed before actual violence is visited upon them. Cue the beef ban and public lynching of Muslims with impunity, the love jihad conspiracy theory, celebration of “goli maron saalon ko” (Kill the traitors) and many such atrocities which have unfortunately become so common place that they barely make the ticker tape on our favourite news channels. 

This kind of vitriol that was once limited to the margins of our society and considered extremist and “out there” has now been mainstreamed into our political and social discourse. It has jumped from the lecterns of politicians to WhatsApp groups, our Facebook and Instagram timelines and pitched battles in increasingly coarse and sectarian language are being fought among family members, school friends and work colleagues. Our political leaders’ vitriol has given licence to the general populace to give voice to their basest instincts and heed the clarion call of violence. Research shows that as the mainstreaming of this violent language continues unabated and unpunished, media and society stop labelling it for what it is and simply view it as rude, unfriendly or at worst insulting. This is extremely dangerous as history has taught us over and over again that hateful propaganda has been a primary tool of authoritarians leading to repression, violence and genocide. Words in the hands of masterful communicators have the power to hurt and not only the minorities because hatred hurts the entire society where it is bred and practised. 

Hatred, along various axes has always been a part of our history, but the fact is that this normalization of hate speech in our everyday political and social parlance is unprecedented and poses unique challenges to the “Idea of India” as a secular, pluralist democracy.

Purnima Mehrotra is the Associate Director – Research and Capacity Building at the Centre for Social and Behavioural Change, Ashoka University. She has experience across industries – education, research, advertising and non-profit.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Issue 4

The COVID-19 Vaccine: Will It Flatter To Deceive?

Since the ending of 2019, the shroud of ‘SARS CoV-2’ virus has engulfed the world. The pandemic has taken a toll of more than 1.2 million lives worldwide and a renewed tsunami of a second wave of infection looms large in the horizon. Such catastrophic infection rates along with loss of human lives has also seen massive economic downturns and widespread unemployment. The Center for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), has reported a 27% rise in unemployment rate and a 38% loss in market capital by the end of May and August 2020 respectively. 

Under these challenging circumstances, scientists across the globe are racing against time to design an effective anti-SARS CoV-2 silver bullet in the form of vaccines or drugs. An efficacious protective vaccine appears to be the most promising means to contain the spread of SARS CoV-2 since the virus has shown few signs of mutating from the highly contagious to a weaker avirulent form. This is in sharp contrast to what was witnessed in case of the influenza pandemic of 1917-19. It has been estimated that the availability of a vaccine will prevent the loss of nearly 375 billion US dollars per month from the global economy and also prevent the loss of millions of lives.

Scientists and biotechnologists are burning the midnight oil to put together an ideal vaccine against SARS CoV-2. But what is this ideal vaccine? It is one that is safe, devoid of side effects and at the same time induces a robust and protective immunity in the body to counter future attacks from the virus. In field trials, the average protection rate should be greater than 80%. Furthermore, the protection should be long term. It should be cheap and preferably a single-dose vaccine. Transportation of the vaccine should be easy and companies should be able to mass-produce it in a short time. Unfortunately, not all existing vaccines fulfil all of the abovementioned criteria. 

Since the first vaccine was invented by Dr Edward Jenner in 1796, the field has progressed exponentially through the incorporation of an array of methods, namely- attenuated live agent, killed virulent agent, DNA vaccines and  mRNA vaccines to name a few. In the elusive search for the SARS CoV-2 vaccine, all possible avenues are being explored. About 300 such attempts are being witnessed in different laboratories.

While there are multiple avenues being explored to combat the CoVID19 pandemic, the question looming large in all of our minds is when will the vaccine be available in the market? Obviously, the candidate vaccines undergoing phase-III trial with most promising and favorable responses, will be marketed first. Phase-III trial is a multicentric one involving a large cohort, who are to be followed for a reasonably long time to assess the protection rate and duration of protection. It needs 3-6 months for the trial in cases of coronavirus infections. Until then our wait continues. Moreover, even if a protective vaccine is available, it may take- years to produce large quantities of doses for the world population. Therefore, it will require a well-planned immunization program.

               One might ask, what will be the protection rate, how long will the protection persist and does the vaccinated population need to wear masks, maintain social distancing or carry out the required sanitation measures.

 Regarding protection, none of the existing vaccines (for CoVID or any other diseases) imparts 100% protection. If a vaccine shows effective protection in 80% of the vaccinated population, it is considered acceptable. In case of the SARS-CoV2 pandemic situation, even 30-70% (an average of 50%) protection rate by multicentric trial on cohorts, would be acceptable. This is because if 50% population is protected through vaccination and another 20-30% have already developed herd immunity, the magnitude of active cases and active spreaders will come down to controllable limits. However, one apprehension still persists, that critical changes in viral antigen due to mutation might outsmart the immunity which has already developed. This phenomenon is observed in case of Influenza virus time and again. The issue can be tackled by careful surveillance of the viral genome and constantly incorporating new vaccine candidates as and when required.   

As far as duration of protection is concerned, the time is not right for any comments. Even if a candidate vaccine produces short term immunity of 3-6 months, it is acceptable under the current scenario considering the ever-burgeoning infection rates. Even short term immunity will significantly reduce the impact of the ongoing pandemic.

Finally, we will conclude by discussing the post vaccination situation.  A variable period in the aftermath of vaccination is expected to be no better than the present situation. Partial lockdown, wearing of masks, adherence to sanitation and social distancing will be continued. This is because of the fact that the vaccine might not give 100% protection. Production of adequate doses of vaccine to cover all the population will take a long time, possibly extending into months or years. To make matters worse the virus might mutate, thwarting the mass vaccination effort.

Thus, there are many variables to conquer the raging SARS-CoV2 pandemic. Our last hope might be the mutation of the virus in such a way, that it loses its infectivity and virulence, similar to what happened in the Influenza (spanish flu) pandemic of 1917-19. Until then, let us make masks a fashion statement, observe hand sanitation and maintain social distancing.

Dr. Kasturi Pal is an Assistant Professor and DBT-Ramalingaswamy fellow in the Department of Biology at Ashoka University, where she teaches courses in Physiology, Advanced Biochemistry, Developmental Biology and Advanced Cell Biology

Some candidate vaccines appear to be promising. Following is a short list of the potential candidate vaccines:

  • Category A :
PlatformDeveloperCurrent status
1.Non-Replicating Adenovirus Expressing Truncated ‘S’protein(rADV-S)International Vaccine InstitutePre-clinical
2.Replicating recombinant measles virus spike proteinUniv’ Health Network, Canada;Center for Disease Control and PreventionPre-clinical
3.Replicating MV-SARS recombinant vaccine expressing ‘SARS-CoV’ AgInstitute Pasteur Phase-III trial
4.Subunit vaccine- using receptor binding domain (RBD) of SARS-CoV spike ‘S’ proteinBaylor College Medicine(Sabin)NY blood center(NYBC)Pre-clinical
5.Subunit Vaccine using SARS recombinant spike protein plus delta-inulin.V19Vaccine Pty Ltd, AustraliaPhase-I
6.Virus like particle expressing ‘S’ protein of SARS and influenza M1 proteinNovavaxPhase-III
7.Inactivated rSARS CoV-E virus.CNB CSIC, Univ of IowaPre-clinical
8.Covishield-Oxford (Replication deficient simian virus- S11-Ch AdOx1 nCoV 19)SanofiA Licensed Product
9.Whole Virus containing surface structural glycoprotein Ag of SARS CoV2.Oxford University/Astra ZenecaPhase-II
  • Category- B  (DNA Vaccines)
PlatformDeveloperCurrent status
1.DNA prime protein S437-459 and M1-20Institute of Immunology, Sanghai Medical College of Fudan, ChinaNo Information
2.SARS ‘s’ DNA primed and HLA-A restricted peptidesSan Yat Sen Univ’, China        -Do-
3.3a DNA Vaccine State key Laboratory of Virology, China        -Do-
5.DNA ‘s’Protein + IL-2State Key Laboratory, ChinaNo Information
6.p-IRES-ISS-S1Jilin Univ’, Academy of Military Medicine          -Do-
7.M and N DNA vaccineInstitute in Japan, Taiwan and Hong KongPre-clinical
  • Category-C (mRNA based vaccine)
PlatformDeveloperCurrent status
1.Antigen protein specific mRNA encapsulated in lipid Nanoparticle(LNP) inserted into a cell, which acts as a factoryfor translation into exact 3D specific Ags of the virus, here SARS-CoV 2.Moderna TX IncPhase III

Indian Vaccines:   

PlatformDeveloperCurrent Status
1.CoVaxin (Inactivated virus)Bharat Biotech (Hyderabad)and ICMRPhase II trial
2.ZyCov-D (plasmid DNA vaccine)Zydus Cadila LtdPhase II trial
Issue 4


Psycho Pass is an Anime show set in a futuristic dystopia, where the omnipresent surveillance “Sybil” system that monitors aptitude, psychic health and latency to commit crimes. Set against this background, a crime unit that investigates into a series of murders that set the stage for one the most compelling and complex Anime series in recent years.

The anime questions the ethics and effectiveness of looking at one through their genetic predispositions and their unconsciousness instead of their self-awareness and free will. Throughout the show we watch Akane, a new member of the police department, grapple with the moral ambiguities that come with such a system, and what cost would we have to pay for our security. With continuous references to literature and socio-political, and moral philosophy effortlessly woven into the plot, what begins as a well-executed alteration of Orwell and Philips  Dick, soon turns out to be a giant clash of philosophies.Though the show does pick up a little slowly, 

The characters are also very carefully constructed, each character almost representing a different political philosophy. What’s more interesting is to watch all of them navigate the situations they’re in but also navigate each other’s beliefs. Other than it’s plot, the show does a very good job with its graphics and its soundtrack, both doing a very good job at supporting the dark themes the show covers. 

Overall, with a thought-provoking narrative, complex characters and beautiful animation, Psycho-Pass is a thrilling anime from start to finish.

Issue 4

how i’m feeling now – Charli XCX

Written and recorded over six weeks during the COVID-19 lockdown, Charli XCX manages to capture a lot of emotions that one may have felt during this unusual year through this 11-track electro-pop album. There’s catchy club-like songs including claws and anthems that manage to transport you to a party with friends, there’s also more serious tracks like forever and 7 years which convey feelings of love and longing. For those of you who may be wary of electronic music, this album is a great introduction to a sub-genre called bubblegum bass––a futuristic take on pop music, with electronically altered vocals and digitally exaggerated background sounds. To sum it up, this album is a fun way to virtually escape your house for 37 minutes, and enter Charli’s catchy, exciting electro pop world!

Issue 4

Editor’s Note: Issue 4

Image: REUTERS/Mark Makela (All credits to the owners)

CNN’s Van Jones broke down with tears of relief on live TV, minutes after President-Elect Biden was projected as the winner of the election. The basic decency and empathy in Biden’s victory speech were jarring as it finally faced us with the vitriol that President Trump had normalised in his time in the White House. It was surreal to realise the scale of the havoc one man had wreaked on the existence of millions across his country. The comfort brought by his ousting and the reassurance of basic human rights felt like a shooting star, brightening this dark, painful year. There was much to celebrate — Harris’ historic appointment as the first Biracial, Black, South-Asian Woman in the VP’s office, safeguarding of LGBTQ+ and women’s rights, a promise to fix systemic racism and a much too late acknowledgement of COVID and science. Of course, the very next moment, we were reminded by the victors themselves of the work left to do after taking a breath to celebrate. 

Much can be written about this election, including an unfortunately located press-conference with Trump’s lawyer Rudy Guliani at a landscaping store placed between a crematorium and an adult-toy store. But in keeping with the chaos that is 2020, it wasn’t the only the major event taking place. Closer to home, the Bihar elections are projected to end with a razor-thin victory for the NDA-alliance by a mere 12-15 seats as opposed to an expected landslide. While not great for our already anxiety-ridden lives, these too-close-to-call elections spell hope for democracy and strong oppositions 

It would be impossible to write about the events of this year without mentioning COVID. It feels strange to write the words hope and COVID in the same paragraph, but that is what this month has brought us. While parts of Europe and America see 2nd and 3rd waves and new lockdowns, other parts of the world show us that irradicating the virus is possible. Australia has begun to return to normalcy, after seeing many subsequent days and weeks without new infections and deaths. And most importantly, Pfizer Inc. has just announced the most awaited scientific discovery of this decade, a possible COVID vaccine.

As I write this note, I think of everything else I should be listing here. Arnab Goswami’s arrest and the subsequent national debate, the upcoming festival season, the reopening of educational institutes in India, the yet to be examined impacts of the virus on various industries, the many, many aspects to both the aforementioned elections. This is by no means an exhaustive list. These events leave us with much to think about. What does the Biden presidency mean for us? When will we get the vaccine? Does a vaccine mean our learning to live with COVID indefinitely? Only time will give us answers. But as we had set out to do with this magazine, we bring you another issue where we have tried to analyse bits and pieces of this chaos.

Isha Deshmukh, Karantaj Singh and Shrishti Agrawal

Issue 4

A Vaccine isn’t The End – Distributional Challenges Lie Ahead

On Monday (9th November 2020), Pfizer announced that its COVID vaccine proved to be 90% effective against coronavirus in its early test results sparking hopes for the arrival of a vaccine before the end of the year. Adar Poonnawala, CEO of the Serum Institute of India also said that a vaccine might be available in India as early as January 2021. As of November, 11 vaccine candidates are in their third phase of testing, all hoping to be available by early to mid-2021. Although the approval of a safe and effective vaccine would be a breakthrough in our fight against COVID, its distribution will continue to be a major challenge, especially in India. 

A worldwide consensus has emerged that the distribution of the COVID vaccine would be done in stages, with those that are most at risk being the first to be vaccinated. However, with extremely limited vaccine supply, the implementation of this consensus becomes murky. The Union Health Secretary, Rajesh Bhushan said in a press briefing that India plans to vaccinate 30 million frontline health workers in its first phase. However, the plan includes only health workers and does not apply to essential workers, who are also at a pronounced risk of contracting the virus. Moreover, the plan also excludes those over the age of 65 and those with comorbidities. If these numbers are taken into account, the vaccines required for those considered the most vulnerable would far outweigh its availability. CDC’s Kathleen Dooling projected that the number of healthcare personnel, essential workers, people above the age of 65 and people with high-risk medical conditions account for more than half of the US population. Once approved, the demand for a vaccine would skyrocket, making vast quantities of doses difficult to obtain. In such a situation, it is unclear how the decision of who gets the vaccine first will be taken. 

Vaccines can only be shipped at tight temperature ranges in order for them to remain effective. The Moderna and the Pfizer vaccines would require a shipping temperature of -20 degrees Celsius and -70 degrees Celsius respectively. The Oxford-Astrazeneca Covishield vaccine and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin need to be stored at 2-8 degrees Celsius. Efficient widespread distribution of a vaccine would thus require a high-capacity, well-oiled cold supply chain with last-mile connectivity. 

India, under its Universal Immunisation Program, already transports other vaccines at 2-8 degrees to newborns and their mothers. Every year, around 400 million doses of vaccines are administered under the UIP through the help of the existing cold supply chain. Although the government has already begun mapping out cold storage facilities, India would need to significantly ramp up its cold supply chain if it aims to vaccinate its population against COVID-19 along with the existing vaccinations under UIP. Along with sizable government investment, private cold storage facilities and existing food cold chain supplies will also need to be tapped for the distribution of the vaccine. Further, erratic power supply in most parts of India exacerbates the problem of low cold chain capacity. 

Pravish is a student of Political Science, International Relations, Economics and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

Issue 4

Reforming Antitrust Law To Regulate Big Tech

On November 10, 2020, there were two landmark events in the universe of antitrust law – China drew up its first set of antitrust laws to address anti-competitive practices in tech firms, and Europe laid out its first charges against Amazon for abusing its position as an e-commerce giant. Just last month, the United States filed a case against Google, alleging that it abused and furthered its position as the dominant search engine by unlawfully impeding its competitors. Google has also faced similar charges in India over the past three years. These include abuse of dominance across the search engine market, Android smartphone market as well as the Google Flights service. 

These cases bring to the forefront a larger structural problem at the intersection of technology, economics and the law: how can traditional competition law, which was designed to ensure free markets for brick-and-mortar stores, be reformed to include firms in the digital economy? 

Firms in the digital economy here refer to tech platforms like Google, Amazon, Facebook, ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Ola, and food-delivery apps like Swiggy and Zomato. They have gained an increasingly larger market share in recent years, and have faced few to no competitors. Here’s where regulating competition among them becomes tricky: these firms rely on the principle of network externalities, where an increase in the people using the service improves its quality. One can argue then, that the firm can only succeed when the number of people using it increases. So then, is regulating competition and ensuring the reduced market share of a firm really the best move, especially when these firms have provided services to customers at low rates? A counter-argument to this can be made regarding predatory pricing, which refers to cutting prices below cost in order to increase market share. This is considered to be anti-competitive as it drives competitors out of the market since they cannot keep up with such low prices. 

Concerns such as predatory pricing are similar across firms in the digital economy as well as regular brick-and-mortar stores. However, the unique features of the digital economy, such as network externalities, consumer lock-in effects, and usage of collected consumer data for targeted marketing are new problems that haven’t impacted businesses in the past. This calls for countries to update their antitrust laws, in order to sufficiently address anticompetitive practices among firms of the digital economy.

One way to contextualise this issue is to look at the history of American antitrust law framework, as done by Lina Khan in her seminal paper Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox. She explains how the current laws focus on regulating competition through a consumer welfare perspective which primarily looks at keeping consumer prices down. She stresses the need for restoring traditional antitrust laws that looked to preventing companies with large market shares from exploiting their dominance. 

To do this she suggests two approaches: First, to reform antitrust law in a way that it preemptively prevents a firm from becoming the dominant player in the market. This means making laws against predatory pricing more robust and scrutinising mergers that allow firms to acquire valuable data and leverage it, i.e. introducing a component of data threshold to mergers, apart from existing laws on monetary thresholds. Second, is to accept that online platforms are inherently monopolistic or oligopolistic and regulate them accordingly. This reforms antitrust law such that it allows a firm to become dominant and take advantage of the economies of scale, but neuters its ability to exploit its dominance. This includes ‘public utility regulations’, which allow a firm to maintain business across multiple lines of business while ensuring that it does not unfairly advantage its own business or unfairly gain market power. Another reform is ‘common carrier duties’ which require platforms to ensure open and fair access to other businesses, similar to the argument made regarding net neutrality.

Although Khan’s paper was primarily written in the context of American antitrust law, the arguments made can be applied to Indian competition law as well. To implement such reforms in an Indian context, Shah, Parsheera and Bose look at the Competition Act 2002 and propose certain changes to make it suitable for the digital economy age. 

They propose that the CCI use a “recoupment test” to differentiate between firms that have slashed prices competitively versus those who have done so in an anti-competitive manner (such as predatory pricing). This test checks whether a firm that currently has low prices can sustain these prices in the future and still remain solvent, or whether they would need to increase prices in the future (after having gained significant market share and kicked their competitors out of the market.) This would mean an amendment to the current definition of predatory pricing from being about merely cutting prices below cost to include the recoupment test too. 

Parsheera et al. also suggest that the CCI examine the role of investors, in cases where the same Private Equity fund has invested in the leading firms in a market. Examples of this include Tiger Global investing in Flipkart and Shopclues, ShopBank in Flipkart and Snapdeal, and so on. In such situations, the common investor could determine the level of competition in the market. This could lead to harmful outcomes such as high prices for consumers, as well as reduced quality and types of products.

There have been other reforms suggested by politicians such as Elizabeth Warren, who called for “Breaking up Big Tech.” However, experts like Charlotte Slaiman, a former antitrust lawyer in the US Federal Trade Commission, says that such solutions are unfeasible as it is difficult to determine which parts of a firm belong to which broken off entity. Nevertheless, regulators can take a retrospective look at mergers that they may have given a green light to in the past. In the Indian context, the CCI can reassess previous mergers and antitrust cases with respect to current situations of the market. This can allow for an ex post facto correction of possible anti-competitive mergers.

As Big Tech becomes increasingly intertwined with our everyday lives, it’s important now more than ever, to consider the tradeoffs of its current benefits to future disbenefits. Whether it’s trading data for the ‘free’ service of social media, or getting deep discounts on your Amazon purchases, there are significant downsides. By amending our laws to consider the economics of the digital economy, we can continue to reap the benefits of technology while sheltering ourselves from its potential pitfalls.

Samyukta is a student of Economics, Finance and Media Studies at Ashoka University. In her free time, she enjoys discovering interesting long-form reads and exploring new board games.

Issue 4

Breathe Again

‘I can’t breathe.” That wasn’t just George Floyd. There were a lot of people who felt like they couldn’t breathe.” 

– Van Jones. CNN commentator/ Former Obama Administration Advisor. Nov. 7, 2020. 

George Floyd’s last words— a rallying cry, and an anthem for those protesting the injustices and discriminations of race and colour in America. Floyd, an African American, was killed during an arrest by the Minneapolis police in May this year, when an officer knelt down hard on his neck for over 8 minutes, suffocating him to death. The incident sparked off a summer of unrest, as racial violence erupted on the streets of major American cities. 

Unable to contain either his relief or his tears as Joe Biden was declared America’s new President-Elect, Van Jones said what was on the minds of 74 million American voters who cast their ballot for the Democratic candidate in this uniquely divisive election, held in the midst of a pandemic. “If you’re Muslim in this country, you don’t have to worry that the president doesn’t want you here. If you’re an immigrant, you don’t have to worry if the president is happy to have your baby snatched away or sent dreamers back for no reason,” Jones elaborated. His emotional response to the election result has gone viral on social media— evidence of the steam that’s been let out of the proverbial pressure cooker that America has been for the months during a tense, vitiated election. 

When Joe Biden launched his presidential campaign, he said he was launching a battle for the soul of America. When he chose Kamala Harris as his running mate he sent a message. Harris, who, with Indian-Jamaican roots identifies racially as Black and is married to a White American Jewish husband is a symbol for all — immigrants, African Americans, racial and religious minorities. And, when Biden accepted the office of President at a rally filled with honking automobiles in the Northeastern state of Delaware on Saturday night, he promised a return to decency in US politics. But how easy will this be to achieve? 

Four years was more than enough to see the divisions sown by an emboldened White Supremacist extreme right-wing rise to the surface of everyday America. Vitriolic campaigns, often dictated by hate-filled propaganda and misinformation have fed economic grievance and fear, created enemies where none existed and propagated the perception of White identity, faith and culture under threat. Trump’s supporters on social media and his allies in the mainstream media further weaponized hate to perpetuate his agenda willfully; discrediting Democrats, political activists, journalists — just about anyone who questioned him — along the way.

From the ban on travellers from six Muslim countries to Neo-Nazi rallies in Charlottesville to antisemitic attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh, and the most recent incidents of racial violence that sparked a reinvigorated Black Lives Matter movement, to his deliberate characterization of #BLM protests as violence by ultra-left angry mobs, to his targeted campaigns against Joe Biden calling him a corrupt socialist who wanted to take away public wealth from the Whites for ‘others’, America’s spiralling descent into domestic chaos will perhaps be the abiding memory of Donald Trump’s single-term presidency. Even as he threatens lawsuits to challenge the result, Biden’s message to the public is one of unity. ‘We can be opponents, we are not enemies. We are Americans.’ he said. An important message— one that recognizes America’s current political reality. 

In his bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, conservative author JD Vance exemplified the rightward shift of the poor, white, blue collar American— originally largely Democrat, but one that felt left out of an inclusive politics that he suggests, seemingly prioritized racial minorities. If 74 million Americans voted for Biden, 70 million more chose, unsuccessfully, to re-elect Trump. The underlying message is this—  Trump’s win in 2016 was not a one-off. It is in fact symbolic of deep divisions within American society which is seeing both newer Democrats and newer Republicans push towards the extreme ends of their ideological compasses. 

Decency in politics demands empathy, integrity, courage and tolerance. It demands the ability to listen to your opponent, to live with differences and most importantly it urgently demands an expansion of a middle ground. Sitting halfway across the world, often forced to deal with the aftermath of the follies and misadventures US policy in lands far away from its own shores, one could argue that the soul of America was lost a long time ago, or that the Democratic party’s intentions of speaking for true democratic values are hypocritical. But if you’re in the continental United States, Biden’s pledge to engage and empathize in the wake of social conflict and armed violence in a population known globally for political correctness and liberal principle; and his pledge to rebuild partnerships with traditional allies around the world is an important, necessary step towards  America’s healing— both at home and abroad. 

Maya Mirchandani is a journalist, a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 


Targeted ads: Is there an ethical, economically-viable alternative?

By Samyukta Prabhu

Online platforms like Facebook and Instagram have been widely discussed for reasons ranging from increased user data collection to rising misinformation and election manipulation. At the same time, rising internet penetration globally has improved access to information and opportunities like never before. While assessing the current state of the internet, therefore, there is an urgent need to address its limitations, while ensuring that its strengths are not curtailed.

One way to do so is to address the common thread that ties together the above-mentioned pitfalls of online platforms – targeted advertising. However, the contention surrounding targeted advertising is that it is the primary business model of such platforms, thus being viewed as a necessary evil.

To better understand the nuances of this issue, it is helpful to explore how the business model of targeted ads works. This can help us assess the ramifications of potential regulations to the model – both economically as well as ethically. 

As explained in a report by the United States’ Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the basic model of targeted advertising involves three players – consumers, websites and firms. Websites provide consumers with ‘free’ online services (news articles, search features) into which targeted ads are embedded. Firms pay the websites (through ad networks) for publishing their ads, and specify the attributes of their target audience. To target these ads, websites use consumers’ personal data (browsing habits, purchase history, demographic data, behavioural patterns) and provide analysed metrics to firms; this is used to improve the precision of future targeted ads. Firms are incentivised to improve targeting of their ads since they earn money when users buy the advertised products. This model improves over time, with increased user engagement, since the algorithms running the websites analyse collected data contemporaneously to optimise users’ news feeds. It thus follows that lax data privacy laws and user behavioural manipulation (to increase user engagement) greatly supplement the business model of targeted ads. Phenomena such as engaging with and spreading controversial content, as well as rewarding the highest paying ad firm with millions of users’ attention, are then some of the obvious consequences of such a business model.

Over recent years, a few governments and regulatory bodies have taken select measures to address some concerns stemming from the targeted ad model. However, there often seem to be gaps in these regulations that are easily exploitable. For instance, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a data protection and privacy law for the EU region, prohibits processing personal data of users without their consent, unless explicitly permitted by the law. However, loopholes in Member States’ laws, such as the Spanish law, for instance, allows political parties to obtain and analyse user data from publicly available sources. In 2016, a ProPublica report found that Facebook allowed advertisers to exclude people from viewing housing ads, based on factors such as race. Facebook’s response to remedy the situation was to limit targeting categories for advertisers offering housing, employment and credit opportunities, and barring advertisers from using metrics such as zip codes (proxy for race) as targeting filters. However, this is a temporary fix for a larger structural problem as there exist multiple proxies for race and gender that can be used for targeting. We thus see that despite efforts to target specific concerns (such as data processing, or algorithmic accountability) of online platforms, there exist legal loopholes that allow tech firms to override these regulations. Moreover, with rising billion-dollar revenues and tech innovations that far outpace legal reforms, there is increasing incentive for Big Tech firms to exploit targeted ad systems and maximise profits before the law finally catches up. 

As we can see, niche regulations to the targeted ad system are thus unlikely to adequately address the rising concerns of online platforms. That leads us to a seemingly radical alternative: abandoning the targeted ad system altogether, and exploring other models of online advertising. Such models would neutralise incentives for firms to collect and analyse user data since revenues would no longer be dependent on them. The FTC’s report suggests two such models: first, an “ad-supported business model without targeted ads” – similar to the advertising model in newspapers. Websites would use macro-level indicators to target broad audiences, but would not collect user data for micro-targeting or behavioural manipulation. Second, a “payment-supported business model without ads” – similar to Netflix, which charges the user with a subscription fee. Some platforms (such as Spotify) currently work on a mixture of the two models – free to use with generic ads, or subscription-based without ads. The potential economic shortcomings for such a model include “increased search cost” for firms to find potential buyers of their product, and “decreased match quality” for consumers who might see unwanted generic ads. However, this model has been successful for several music streaming and OTT platforms (including Spotify, Netflix) and ensures useful, customised services without the associated perils of targeted advertising. 

There exist a few other measures that continue to work within the purview of the targeted ad system, but use established regulatory frameworks to skew incentives of data collection and processing. One such measure that gained traction since Lina Khan’s seminal essay in 2017, Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox, is for anti-monopoly regulations as well as public utility regulations to be applied to Big Tech firms. Since these platforms effectively capture the majority of the market share for their respective products, they could be subject to anti-monopoly regulations including breaking up of the firm and separation of subsequent divisions, to prevent data collection and processing across platforms (for instance, separating Facebook from its acquired platforms Instagram and WhatsApp.) A more direct measure to limit data collection is to subject tech firms to data taxes. Another measure, that of public utility regulations, has been in play throughout history to limit the harms of private control over shared public infrastructure, including electricity and water. They stipulate “fair treatment, common carriage, and non-discrimination as well as limits on extractive pricing and constraints on utility business models.” Since the internet (and its ‘synonymous’ platforms like Google and Facebook) is an essential resource in the 21st century, being a principal source of information for the public, it can be argued that it is a public utility, thus requiring it to be subject to the appropriate regulations. With the current state of the internet requiring user surveillance and behavioural manipulation, it easily violates the fundamental public utility regulation of “fair treatment”. Making a case for these online platforms to be public utilities ensures that they do not exploit the technological shortcomings of the law, and ensures fairer access for its users. 

In today’s world, where the internet is intertwined with most parts of one’s life, including politics, entertainment, education and work, it is of utmost importance that its online platforms be recognised as a public resource for all, rather than a quid pro quo for surveillance and behavioural manipulation. An essential part of achieving this recognition is to adequately address the harms of the targeted ad system, in an ethical and economically efficient manner.

Samyukta is a student of Economics, Finance and Media Studies at Ashoka University. In her free time, she enjoys discovering interesting long-form reads and exploring new board games.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 


My Son’s Inheritance: India’s Invisible Violence

By Aparna Vaidik

Published by Association for Asian Studies on Thursday, August 27 2020.

Mahatma Gandhi and the philosophy of non-violence are facets of Indian history that have inspired generations of world leaders from Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King Jr. Also perpetuating this image of India as a land of non-violence and tolerance are some other facets of India’s history such as the conversion of the ancient Emperor Ashoka Maurya to Buddhism; his adoption of non-violence as a state policy in 3rd century B.C.; and the existence of a composite culture known as the “Ganga-Jamni sanskriti” (the comingling of waters of rivers Ganga and Yamuna), a referent to the peaceful Hindu and Muslim cultural intermixing in the Subcontinent. Indian public intellectuals from Amartya Sen to Shashi Tharoor have invoked these elements of India’s historical past to debunk majoritarianism, to decry communal conflict, and to critique right-wing political agendas.

Violence, if at all examined, is primarily done through the Weberian lens by studying state actions such as battles, wars, or political retribution. Other than that, it is the episodes of communitarian riots, gender violence, and subaltern resistance that are scrutinized. Seeing violence as episodic phenomenon, on the one hand, pathologizes it as an aberration or turns it into an exception in need of an explanation; and, on the other, reinforces the presumption that Indian society is fundamentally peaceful, non-violent, and tolerant. My Son’s Inheritance: A Secret History of Lynching and Blood Justice in India challenges this munificent image of India to show that the ubiquity of violence has rendered it banal and thereby historically invisible. It asks, how is the violence not visible? Why is it invisibilised? How does it turn into a secret? What allows the unconscious denial of the existence of violence? Who are the recipients and witnesses of this violence? Finally, what is this violence?

My Son’s Inheritance traverses several centuries and explores the history of Vaishnavism and warrior cults in northern India; the history of Arya Samaj, a nineteenth-century reformist organization; the role of a violent cow-protection movement in forging the Hindu majoritarian identity; and the myths of Hinduism that invisibilised the oppression of the lower castes in the Subcontinent. It uses pamphlets, popular publications, prints, poetry, and myths, as well as my own family history, to offer a cultural reading of violence. The book demonstrates how violence is secretly embedded in our myths, folklore, poetry, literature, and language, and is therefore invisible. Framing my narrative as a message to my son, I acquaint him with his ancestors—those who abet and carry out lynching as well as those who are lynched. In this way, the “son,” a metaphor, embodies both the violator and the violated, much like the country in which he will come of age. The book lays bare the heritage of violence bequeathed from generation to generation and disabuses us of the myth that holds nonviolence and tolerance as being the essence of Indian culture.

The book argues that perpetrators of this violence have not always been the state, the rulers, the police, or the army, but the ordinary Indian who thinks of India and Hinduism, the majoritarian religion of the Subcontinent, as tolerant, spiritual, and non-violent. This person is often the silent witness or a bystander to whom the violence in Indian society remains invisible. In doing so, the book addresses the “banality of evil,” a phrase coined by philosopher Hannah Arendt. She argues it was not just the big generals and the Nazi party officers who were responsible for the Jewish holocaust, or Shoah, but also the normal, ordinary, everyday people who went about their everyday lives, did their jobs and obeyed the laws. It is easier to understand the mind of thinkers and ideologues but, as Arendt shows, it is immensely hard to fathom the mind of an ordinary person. Carlo Ginzberg has attempted this in The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, which seeks to understand an ordinary miller’s notions of how the cosmos came into being. In a similar vein, My Son’s Inheritance examines an ordinary law-abiding Indian’s mentality that either denies the existence of violence or sees it as something that foreigners or wrongdoers indulge in.

The inheritance of this violence, the book demonstrates, comes to us in a form of a secret, a secret that is hidden in plain sight. It is visible and yet we don’t see it. Once the secret is unveiled the question of atonement or redemption comes up: How do we redeem ourselves? How do we atone? According to My Son’s Inheritance, atonement lies in Indians owning up to their history of violence. The choice is to either hide one’s shame and generate even more violence, or to own up to one’s historical shame and break the silence around violence. For it is our silence borne out of privilege that perpetuates violence.

This is a crossover book written as creative non-fiction. A nagging worry as I embarked on this project regarded crafting the narrative. After writing years of staid academic prose, I felt unsure about transitioning into a more conversational narrative style. Surprisingly, it was much easier than I had imagined. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Nadine Gordimer’s My Son’s Story, W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, and James Baldwin’s A Letter to My Nephew served as narrative inspiration. Choosing a creative narrative strategy also required me to make “travel-style” field trips, first to my hometown, Indore in Central India and, second, to the ancestral shrine in the small town in Rajasthan. The histories of both places are woven into the book’s narrative. I was now seeing them with the eyes of a writer.

As I started conceptualizing this project, the question for me was how do I tell stories of violence? How do I narrate stories of conflict in a non-conflictual manner? How do I not fill the hearts of the audience with hate in talking about hate? How do I persuade people to pause and examine their own complicity in perpetuating structures of violence? These questions were also arising from the loss of my belief in the persuasive power of the historical mode of narration. For a while I had felt that we needed to tell historical narratives differently, ones that were more accessible to the public. This book is an acknowledgement of the fact that we as social scientists and humanists are accountable to not only one’s peers and the institutions we serve but also to the society and the times we live in.

This article was first written for The author has commissioned it for use by OpenAxis.

Aparna Vaidik is a decorated academic and an Assistant Professor of History at Ashoka University (India). Here she writes about her new book My Son’s Inheritance: A Secret History of Lynching and Blood Justice in India (Aleph, 2020).

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).