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Issue 7

Pets of the Pandemic

Human beings, as one knows, are social beings; be it with a fellow human or an animal. This inherent quality along with the advancement of technology and media has facilitated the sociality of a person. In the era of the internet, we are up to date and in touch with more friends, family and acquaintances than ever before. However, the year 2020 took such a turn and brutally limited this inherent sociality to being social in a room and connected through a screen. One was not only isolated but in-person social interaction also meant putting oneself and the people around at risk.

With almost completing a year amidst the pandemic, conversations around mental health concerns have seen a significant rise that has a correlational if not causal relationship with the pandemic. It is not uncommon that the pandemic, quarantine and the lockdown harboured a lot of feelings of uncertainty, isolation and loneliness. While a person to person interaction might have been risky, a number of people turned to the companionship of a pet. 

Historically, humans have always been a part of a culture of integrating animals within their lifestyle as both parties have been present in close physical proximity. Traditionally, animals such as horses, cows, dogs, etc. were domesticated to acquire goods such as dairy, meat, security etc; thus, they had a use-value. While these animals were resourceful, over time, this culture of domestication branched out into what a layperson would see as keeping a ‘pet’ in present times. One could see the emergence of keeping pets for companionship, comfort and support. A variety of research sheds light on the human-animal interaction, and one such research explores this bond through the Pet Effect. This effect addresses the impact of the symbiotic relationship of love, affection that the pet and owner share, that significantly contributes to each parties’ physical, emotional and mental well-being. A survey was conducted in 2016, which reported that 74% of the 2000 pet owners, felt that there was a significant improvement in their mental and social well-being once they acquired a pet.

Hence, to seek comfort in these unprecedented times, various individuals who could afford to, adopted a pet. If one would’ve stepped into a park in May, one would have noticed a good deal of what are called the ‘Pets of the Pandemic’. With the lockdown pushing work culture from in-office to a work from home format, not only did a pet provide companionship but also a positive and meaningful presence within the home environment. Owners could now fully distract themselves from the uncertainty and invest in attending to their pet and also indulging in physical exercise by taking them out for walks.

While pets may have been the solution to our loneliness, many have chosen to ignore the  impact of the pandemic on our four-legged companions? Research suggests that for newly born and adopted pets, socialisation is crucial within their first three months. The environment that a pet spends time in plays an essential role in their development. However, due to the pandemic, various pets like dogs and cats have spent a large portion of their initial months indoors. This leads to exposing pets to two pertinent issues: difficulty in adjusting to new environments and socialising and developing separation anxiety. 

Gradual exposure to society and socialization is an important part of taking care of and training pets, especially for a puppy. This training ensures that the puppy grows to be a dog that is comfortable with other people, animals and new environments and does not develop unnecessary fears and phobias. 

Furthermore, stemming from the same environment is the issue of separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is often noticed in dogs and is described as the dog displaying distressed behaviour when its’ guardian is about to leave the house. Distressed behaviour could look different for each dog, however, some common indicators are agitation, being upset, uneasy or restless and seeming depressed. Dogs suffering from separation anxiety bark and howl when they are left alone or cause destruction in the house, often causing self-injury and in some cases, make an attempt to escape. 

When we are experiencing distressed, often restoring to a pet for comfort is extremely normal. With owners spending 24×7 time with their pets, the latter have become a coping mechanism for many. The line between this mutually beneficial relationship and co-dependency has blurred during the pandemic. So the most important question to raise is what happens once the guardians move back to their 9-5 in-office lifestyle? How does the pet respond to getting all the constant attention for almost 11 months to transitioning back to the time when they were not? How does the owner resort to separating themselves from their pet, and find other mechanisms to cope with stress?

These are questions that one is yet to answer. 

Vanishree is currently pursuing Psychology and Sociology at Ashoka University. Vani enjoys cooking in her free time. 

Picture Credits: Sunehra Bhatura

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).

Categories
Issue 5

Is COVID over? – Why we have stopped talking about COVID-19

“This second and third wave is strong like a tsunami,” said Uddav Thackrey, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, in his address to the state on Sunday. He also expressed his disappointment at the people of the state, urging them to stop flouting restrictions post-Diwali, as COVID-19 threatens to surge once more. The picture above was taken in his own state on the night of his address, in a KFC outlet in a mall in Aurangabad. Only a handful of people were wearing masks and still fewer maintaining social distancing protocols as the restaurant was running at full capacity without any sanitisation protocols being followed barring in the kitchen. Restaurants, hotels and gyms have been found to carry the highest superspreader risk for the virus. Yet we see an exponential increase in people starting to go to restaurants, on vacations and getting back to their gym routines. Much of Europe and parts of Asia are seeing another wave of lockdowns, and the US is seeing its biggest surge in the number of cases yet. As the holiday season approaches, there are increasing fears of superspreader events in family gatherings. With second and third waves of infection occurring around the world, COVID shows no signs of ending. Why then, has it all but disappeared from our conversations?

Prime Minister Modi initially claimed that even stepping outside your house could kill you. This was in April. Slowly, as signs of massive economic downfall became apparent, it was clear the nation could no longer remain in a state of lockdown and thus began a multi-step reopening. The country is currently at the last stage of reopening with Goa, Andhra Pradesh, Assam and some other states set to open schools and colleges. The government’s rhetoric drastically changed from “leaving home will kill you” to “you are safe if you wear a mask and maintain social distance. In fact, an advertisement featuring actor Akshay Kumar encouraged people to go back to work by saying “if doctors can do their part, so should we.” The conversation at the national level and especially from the PM has been one of reviving the economy. Studies have shown that in spite of one’s logical convictions, one is always susceptible to the words of one’s favourite leaders. Thus, even if one believes the virus to be a threat, they will ultimately believe the messages being propagated by the leaders they trust, which in this case prioritise economic revival and trivialise the virus. Since our leaders have stopped talking about the virus, so have we.

In a similar vein is the idea of ‘cognitive dissonance’. Staunch supporters of Modi and his government believe that all steps are being taken to minimise and eliminate the virus. Statistics clearly show otherwise. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort one feels when belief and behaviour contradict each other. To reduce this discomfort, one will have to change either their behaviour or beliefs. For instance, when a smoker knows that “Smoking causes cancer”, she will either have to quit smoking or convince herself she hasn’t smoked enough to suffer from its effect. 

Currently, people either have to reconcile with the fact that the virus is still raging or justify their belief in the government’s handling of the disease by living life pre-COVID style, even at the expense of exposing themselves to it. Many people seem to have chosen the latter option. They also seek out news that confirms their belief. Because people want to believe COVID is over, the conversation around it is fast dying out as well.

An article on VICE talks about the hazards of Optimism Bias. It is the belief that around 80% of people have, where we think positively about the future and overestimate the potential of life. The downside to this is underestimating risks or believing that “It won’t happen to me.” It promotes risky behaviours, in this case, exposing oneself to the virus to continue one’s normal life. Additionally, we have been shown statistics of mortality rates which generally seem to be within a 1-2% mark. Recovery rates in India are being declared as the highest in the world, at around 86%. While these statistics paint a positive picture at first glance, we fail to take into account that even 1% of India’s population is roughly 13 million people. Also, being the best in the world doesn’t have an effect on how one recovers personally. But these statistics, in combination with a tendency for optimism bias spells disaster for virus management. Since people do not feel endangered by the virus, it has stopped being a major talking point.

A study conducted in the US points out that the media is still giving the virus much attention — as it did when cases spiked over the summer. But audience engagement is the lowest it has ever been. In India, the media is rather divided on political lines, and a majority of pro-government channels run COVID news that is favourable to the government. Thus, news about rising numbers and dangers of the virus is limited, since it portrays the government in an unfavourable light. Additionally, as the above-mentioned study finds, people are experiencing an information overload and consequently, fatigue. This fatigue leads people to reduce their news consumption, especially upsetting news. Thus while media coverage might be high, people actively avoid interacting with this information to protect themselves.

Media trends have historically shown how crises leave the news cycle. Wars and pandemics and disaster management and mitigation, in general, are threatening events for a standing government. If they fail at handling these properly, they face the threat of being replaced. In order to avoid this, governments have pressured journalists and media groups historically, to run propaganda they see fit. An article on The Nation mentions how the Irish government forced and threatened newspapers to stop running news about the polio epidemic in the 1950s, even when it was at its highest. They instead claimed false victories and undermined the scale of the virus to save face and calm justified public panic. While this had the unintended consequence of increased unrest and disbelief of the government, this strategy continues to date. Donald Trump recently used conservative American media to propagate his victories of having controlled the virus and ended the crises, even when evidence overwhelmingly suggests otherwise. Thus, the media is unfortunately highly susceptible to government control. In COVID times, we have seen leaders from Modi to Trump claiming falsehoods and wrongful victories. Most news publications either voluntarily or by force run this propaganda. Thus, we have seen a rapid decrease in discussions around this virus.

Lastly, this year has been a never-ending downward spiral. One outlet says of the 2020 news cycle, ‘We’re drinking out of a fire hose every night.’ There hasn’t been a slow night, with some days having multiple headline stories simultaneously. Even when COVID has dominated our lives, there hasn’t been a dearth of other major events, like the Anti-CAA protests, riots in North Delhi, Bihar elections, US elections, Bollywood drug busts to name a few. Many of these, like the now-debunked drug scandal, have been used by the media to divert our attention from COVID. And even when they weren’t actively used for these purposes, many of these events were worthy of our attention. COVID coverage got lost in this tsunami of news, and we were too busy trying not to drown to stop and filter out what was important.

Isha is a student of Psychology, English and 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). 

Categories
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.

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COVID or Not, The Campaign Must Go On

By Neelanjan Sircar

The upcoming polls, in Assam, Bihar, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, pose unprecedented challenges in election management. Even in the best of times, regulating the behaviour of political actors during elections is nearly impossible. Anecdotally, candidates regularly spend over the farcically low spending limits for candidates (although the official data show otherwise) and all manner of distribution of alcohol and cash occur in the days leading up to the polls. But this year has brought forth even more challenges. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, parties will be heavily restricted in hosting rallies or other large public events that are so crucial to a standard political campaign.

But the campaign must go on. I imagine that two campaign activities will be used as substitutes for the traditional campaign. First, in the absence of large public gatherings convened by high profile politicians, parties will have to rely much more on “within village” activities like door-to-door canvassing. Second, outreach to voters — especially from the party elite — will be far more dependent upon social media and other digital media. 

This will likely generate advantages for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), by far the most well-funded party that has invested the most in its social media campaign strategies. For instance, data from the fiscal year 2017-2018 provided from Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) shows that the BJP received 210 crores out of the total of 222 crores from the controversial “electoral bond scheme” ushered in by the BJP, a staggering 95% of all electoral financing through the electoral bond method. This infusion of money has been crucial to maintaining electoral machinery that swells to impressive proportions during election time. For instance, in the 2019 national election, the BJP fielded an army of panna pramukhs (literally page chiefs), who were assigned to keep track of 30-60 voters each. While panna pramukhs were not fielded everywhere, the very fact that they can be fielded over a large swathe of the country indicates both the scale of funding available to the BJP and its commitment to building dense ground-level machinery during election time.

The existing investment in ground-level campaigning will be a huge asset for the BJP. In a time when movement is restricted due to the COVID pandemic, the ability of ground-level workers to mobilize and bring people to the polls is likely to have a greater impact. Furthermore, these same restrictions will make bureaucratic monitoring of elections and campaign behaviour more difficult, perhaps emboldening ground-level actors to use quasi-legal means to mobilize voters.

The BJP also has consistently demonstrated its proficiency in reaching voters through social media. The BJP of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah may not have been unique in their political appeals with respect to religion and caste, but it has been an innovator in campaign methods. Outside of the Congress, the (regional) parties that grew out of the 1990s built their campaigns in a particular manner that was labour-intensive and dependent upon the control of ground-level leaders that often had caste credentials. The BJP realized that if it had to spread beyond its traditional bases of support, it would have to develop a method of directly reaching the voter in places where it did not carry favours with local elites. The development of a strong social media campaign has created a direct channel between the central leadership, and Prime Minister Modi in particular, with the voter. This was a strategy that was effective, for instance, in the 2019 national elections in West Bengal.

Google search data provides a suggestive data point for BJP’s dominance in social media campaigning. While it is true that users of Google are likely to be younger, wealthier, and more educated than the general population, the recent spread of cheap smartphones in the countryside has significantly broadened access to the platform across India. In Google searches about politicians over the 2019 election period, an extraordinary 75% of searches were about Narendra Modi, compared to just 12% about Rahul Gandhi. Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg. The BJP purportedly has extraordinary advantages in most social media and peer-to-peer campaigning through platforms like Whatsapp. 

Here too, the challenges of monitoring and auditing party behaviour are likely to be significant. During the elections, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has significant policing powers, regulating the content of campaigns and policy promises. As communication with the voter decidedly shifts towards social and digital media, where the content is less visible to third parties, the ECI is compromised in being able to regulate campaigns.

The 2019 national election exposed concerns about the impartiality of the ECI. A number of observers felt that, in the process of regulating content, the ECI showed biases towards the ruling BJP. This was in stark contrast to the narrative of the ECI that had started in the 1990s under TN Seshan and continued by subsequent heads of the ECI — which was seen as aggressively maintaining a level playing field for candidates and parties. The consequence of a level playing field was the democratization of the electoral space with new parties and new kinds of electoral appeals entering the system. 

The real threat to democratic norms today is not a momentary shift in campaign tactics due to the COVID pandemic. Rather, it is the fear that new forms of campaigning that are effective in skirting regulatory norms will get locked in, particularly when the ECI has shown little interest in innovating to meet these challenges. For all of its pathologies, the Indian electoral system showed that simply allowing parties to compete on equal footing generating high turnover in ruling parties at both the state and national levels.

Today, as the very basis of equal political competition is being challenged, we must wonder if brute force and money are all that is required to win elections.

Neelanjan Sircar is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and Assistant Professor at Ashoka University. His research interests include Indian political economy and comparative political behavior .

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). 

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When should I stop watching the news?

By Siddhartha Dubey

The simple answer to that question is now. Like, right now, today. 

There will be two immediate advantages. One, you will save money and two you will be better informed. 

TV News is rubbish. Right from the fake news and opinion infested Republic to the boring and increasingly shallow NDTV. You will be better off reading broadsheets and consuming your news online. I don’t need to tell you what’s online and the great multimedia content that is created every day by teams at the Wall Street Journal, Vice and so many others.

There is so much online, to the point that there is TOO much. Hundreds and thousands of dollars are being spent on digital newsrooms around the world. New hires must be able to report, edit, shoot, produce and naturally write.  

Photo Credits: Mike Licht

My basic issue with television news (in India) is that it has (largely) become a platform for lies, half-truths, reactionary and dangerous opinions and a place where the government and its militant supporters are able to get their views across without being questioned.  

The quest to curry favor with the rulers of the nation and Dalal Street means ‘whatever you tell us, we will air.’ This translates into advertising rupees, government favors and protection. 

The race for television ratings or TRPs is a discussion for another day. 

So, what we have is a system geared to do anything but inform you, and analysis or even sensible commentary. 

So NO, Times Now did not have its hands on a “secret tape” given to the channel by “security agencies” of two prominent political activists criticising the Popular Front of India.

The recently aired recording was from a publicly available Facebook Live. 

And NO, the banknotes which were printed after 500- and 1,000-Rupee notes were made illegal in early November 2016, did not have microchips embedded in them so as to ‘track’ their whereabouts at any given time. 

Yet television news teams and program hosts spent days vilifying the social activists and comparing them to terrorists out to destroy India. Or in the case of demonetization, championing the government’s “masterstroke” against corruption and undeclared cash.

There is a monstrous amount of fake news swirling around the airwaves and invading your homes. And a large part of it comes from bonafide TV channels which employ suave, well-spoken anchors and reporters. 

Given the commissioning editor of this piece gave me few instructions on how she wanted this article written, I am taking the liberty of writing it in first person. 

I don’t own a TV because I hate the news. I get angry really easily. Calm to ballistic happens in seconds and the trigger more than often are clips posted on social media of Arnab Goswami from Republic TV, or Navika Kumar and her male clone Rahul Shivshankar of Times Now. 

My friend Karen Rebello at the fact-checking website Boom News says “fake news follows the news cycle.”

Rebello says the COVID pandemic has given rise to an unprecedented amount of lies and half-truths. 

We see so many media houses just falling for fake news. Some of it is basic digital literacy.” 

Rebello says very few news desks, editors and anchors who play a strong role in deciding what goes on-air question the source of a video, quote or image.

And then there are lies and bias such as Times Now’s “secret tapes” or supposed black magic skills of actress Rhea Chakraborty. The story around the unfortunate suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput is a veritable festival of un-corroborated information released by (largely male) news editors and personalities committed to destroying the character of Ms. Chakraborty. 

I am not on Twitter. 

I used to be. 

But took myself off it as I became so angry that I become stupid. 

So, I don’t know what hashtags are trending right now. 

Guessing there are some which link drugs and Bollywood, Muslims and COVID and Muslims with the recent deadly communal riots in Delhi. Oh yes, I am sure there is a happy birthday prime minister hashtag popping up like an orange in a bucket of liquid. 

Hashtags are sticky, ubiquitous and designed for a reason. Often, they act like an online lynch mob; a calling to arms around a particular cause or issue. And often they are not such as the simple #PUBGBAN.

What a hashtag does is put a spotlight on a particular issue and that issue alone. 

So, when a hashtag linking Ms. Chakraborty with illegal drugs is moving rapidly around the Internet and TV news channels, people quickly forget that quarterly economic growth in India is negative 24 percent, or new data shows over six and a half million white-collar jobs have been lost in recent months. 

Get it? Check my new lambo out, but ignore the fact that I mortgaged everything I own to buy it. 

Thanks for reading this and for your sake, don’t watch the news!

Ends.

Featured Image Credit: SKetch (Instagram: @sketchbysk)

Siddhartha Dubey is a former television journalist who has worked with in newsrooms across the world. He is currently a Professor of Journalism 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). 

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Here’s the Truth: We Believe Misinformation Because We Want To

By Pravish Agnihotri

On September 14, Buzzfeed News published a leaked memo from a former data scientist at Facebook Sophie Zhang revealing Facebook’s deep and muddy entanglement in manipulating public opinion for political ends. “I have personally made decisions that affected national presidents without oversight, and taken action to enforce against so many prominent politicians globally that I’ve lost count”, Zhang said. 

This memo follows a piece by the WSJ, where Facebook was blamed for inaction in removing inflammatory posts by leaders of the ruling party BJP, fanning the flames of a deadly riot targeted against Muslims in Delhi. As the upcoming Bihar election campaign goes online, social media platforms and their ability to moderate hate speech and misinformation would come under further scrutiny. A look at past events does not bode too well. 

In March, videos of Muslims licking currency, fruits, and utensils were circulated online blaming the Muslim community in India for the coronavirus outbreak. Health misinformation also abounds on social media where a variety of unfounded treatments like cow urine and mustard oil are being claimed as possible cures of the coronavirus. Along with the rise in misinformation, we are also seeing a rise in a parallel, albeit much smaller group of fake news debunking news organisations. Misinformation, however, remains rampant. 

Why does misinformation spread, even in the face of hard evidence? Interactions between our socio-historical context, our psychology, and business models of social media companies might hold the answer. 

The Context

The dissemination of information was once a monopoly of states and a few elite media organisations. Information flowed from a top-down hierarchy with the state at the apex. Naturally, the media reflected elite interests. Information was scarce and its sources limited, thus it was trustworthy. This changed with the arrival of the TV and completely revolutionised with the arrival of the internet. Waves of information explosions not only changed how it was distributed but also how much information was trusted. In his book, The Revolt of the Public, Gurri argues, “once the monopoly on information is lost, so is our trust”. The shift from mere consumers of scarce media to hybrid creator-consumers of exponentially abundant information meant that every piece of information in the public domain became an object of scrutiny. In a world where everything could be false, anything could be the truth. It is in this context that we begin to understand misinformation. 

Historian Carolyn Biltoft terms this new context the dematerialisation of life. Under this context, beliefs are no longer formed on the basis of individual experience, but are constantly challenged by heavily circulated new information. Additionally, believing new information calls for larger leaps of faith, especially when related to science, technology, or the suffering of a distant community. Spiritual beliefs, beliefs in the superiority of a race, gender, or a form of family, all of which were strong sources of belongingness are now under question. 

The Individual

Individuals increasingly find themselves unable to explain the world around them, unsure of their identity, and unable to look at themselves and their social group in a positive light. It is precisely this condition which makes these individuals vulnerable to misinformation. Various studies have found that people are more likely to believe in conspiracies when faced with epistemic, existential, and social dilemmas. Misinformation allows them to preserve existing beliefs, remain in control of their environment, and defend their social groups. 

One might expect that once presented with evidence, a reasonable individual would cease to believe in misinformation. Psychologists Kahneman and Haidt argue that the role of reason in the formation of beliefs might be overstated to begin with. Individuals rely on their intuition, and not their reason, to make ethical decisions. Reason is later employed to explain the decision already taken through intuitive moral shorthands. 

How are these intuitions formed? Through social interaction with other individuals. Individuals do not and cannot evaluate all possible interpretations and arguments about any topic. They depend on the wisdom of those around them. Individuals who share beliefs trust each other more. Formation of beliefs, hence, is not an individual activity, but a social one based on trust. 

The ability of one’s social networks to influence their beliefs has remained constant. The advent of social media, however, now provides us with the ability to carefully curate our social networks based on our beliefs. This creates a cycle of reinforcement where existing beliefs, informed or misinformed, get solidified. 

Even in homogeneous societies, one is bound to encounter those who disagree with their belief. Although these disagreements can be expected to prevent misinformation, studies have found that they can actually have the opposite impact. Olsson finds that social networks who agree with each other increase the intensity of their belief over time, and in the process lose trust in those who disagree with them. A study also finds that correction of misinformation can actually backfire, leading people to believe misinformation even more than before. Our instinct to learn from those we trust, and mistrust those we disagree with creates a wedge between groups. Engagement becomes an unlikely solution to misinformation. 

Our socio-historical context predisposes us to misinformation, its social nature strengthens our belief in it, and makes us immune to correction. Social media then, acts as a trigger, to the already loaded gun of misinformation. 

The Platform

The misinformation epidemic cannot be attributed to human biases alone. Social media companies, and their monetisation models are part of the problem. Despite coronavirus slashing ad revenues, and an ad-boycott by over 200 companies over its handling of hate speech, Facebook clocked in $18.7 billion in revenue in the second quarter of 2020. Twitter managed to rake in $686 million. Advertising revenues constitute the largest part of these astronomical earnings. 

The business model for all social media companies aims to maximise two things: the amount of time users spend on their platform, and their engagement with other individuals, pages and posts. All this while, these companies collect a host of information about their users which can include demographics, preferences, even political beliefs to create extremely accurate personality profiles.

A recent study found that computers outperform humans when it comes to making personality judgements using an individual’s digital footprint. According to the study, the computer models require data on 10, 70, 150 and 300 of an individual’s likes to outperform their work colleagues, friends, family members, and spouses respectively. These models are sometimes better than the individual themselves in predicting patterns of substance abuse, health, and political attitudes. This data is then used for customising content and advertisements for every individual, creating echo chambers. In another study, Claire Wardle finds that humans regularly employ repetition and familiarity in order to gauge the trustworthiness of new information. If an individual’s beliefs are misinformed to begin with, these algorithms can further strengthen them through sheer repetition. These models can also predict what an individual finds most persuasive, and then ‘microtarget’ them with content, legitimising misinformation in the consumer’s eyes. 

As Facebook’s revenue shows, public opinion can be an extremely valuable commodity. It determines what you buy, what precautions you take (or don’t) in a global pandemic, even who you vote for. By arming those with vested interests in public opinion with accurate and effective tools of persuasion, the business models of social media companies end up facilitating the spread of misinformation. 

The truth is often nuanced, resists simplification and — if it disagrees with your beliefs — off-putting. This doesn’t necessarily make the truth worthy of going viral. Misinformation, on the other hand, tends to be reductive, sensational and perhaps most dangerously, easier to understand. It also relies on emotion to make the reader believe in it. This makes misinformation more likely to spread throughout the internet. A study conducted by MIT corroborates this claim. Falsehoods on Twitter were found to be 6 times faster in reaching users than truths. 

The ultimate goal for social media algorithms is to maximize engagement. As engagement with a post with misinformation increases, algorithms can expand its reach due to its likely popularity. Further, microtargeting ensures that such posts are shared with individuals who are more likely to agree with the information, and share it themselves. When controversial content leads to higher engagement, misinformation becomes profitable. Economic reasoning alone can lead social media companies to condone, and in worse cases, actively promote its dissemination. 

Our unique context, our instincts and biases, and the business models of social media platforms interact endlessly to create layers upon layers of reinforcing mechanisms that spread misinformation and make us believe in it. Artificial Intelligence is now being called on to fight and weed out misinformation from social media platforms. However, for any solution to be effective, it would need to address the interactions between the three. 

Pravish is a student of Political Science, International Relations, Economics and 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). 

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What do stock market fluctuations in 2020 tell us about human behaviour?

By Srijita Ghosh

If I ask you what’s common between choosing the wrong major and not being able to lose the last 5 kgs that you thought you’d lose by summer, most of you would think there isn’t one. But if I ask you the same question for the stock market behaviour during the dot com bubble (most of you were probably not even born by then) and the same stock market behaviour during the recent pandemic, you can probably name a few. However, the common thread amongst all of them is that they are all driven by incorrect beliefs about future events. 

You were so sure that economics was the right major for you, but at the end of the second year, you realize you have gravely underestimated the technical skills required to finish it and now you wish you had chosen something else. It is natural and quite common to have a wrong belief or estimate about a future event since future events are fundamentally uncertain. 

Economists have been aware of incorrect beliefs and their impact on decision making but modelling them formally has started fairly recently. Taking motivation from psychology and neuroscience, economists have started modelling decision-making under the assumption that the agents are cognitively constrained. They can make mistakes while predicting some uncertain events about the future which can have severe consequences on their life and living. 

It’s the same cognitive constraints that drive the seemingly irrational behaviour in the stock market. But the mistakes that people make in the stock market or most economic context are not random. By studying the patterns of mistakes, we can design effective policies to improve welfare. 

In the context of the stock market, recent studies by Bordalo et al (2020) have found that people overreact to good news and overvalue them in the long run. If we overestimate the long-run valuation of stocks, then eventually we will be disappointed since our predicted value will not be materialized. This can lead to perverse behaviour in the market.

For example, during the current pandemic, the stock market remained more optimistic than what would be expected from the condition of the economy per se. It might be driven by the overestimation of the long-run fundamentals of the stock market. The problem, however, is that the pandemic initiates a “regime change”, which means we cannot be sure where the fundamentals of the stocks would lie in the post-pandemic period.

Another cognitive function that severely affects our belief is that of memory. Various puzzles in the stock market can be related to the nature of memory. There are different features of the memory that affect what we believe. The most obvious one would be the temporal nature of memory; we remember things with more clarity that have happened in the recent past than a distant past. This implies that while forming belief we put more weight on the recent phenomenon that is the underlying trend. This can lead to having an overreaction to bad news. 

The other, more complex feature of memory is representativeness, which implies that different cues about the same underlying object can lead to very different beliefs depending on what comes to mind. In a recent study by Wachter and Kahana (2020) has shown that we often associate two events that are temporally related. If one of these events repeats again we remember both the events, as they are contextually related events. This can lead to further distortion in belief and some examples of such behaviour would be under or over-reaction to news, fear being a leading motivator of financial decision-making, and so on. 

However, we should note that this literature is fairly young and researchers all over the world are trying to understand the impact of cognitive functions on beliefs and subsequently on decision-making. So we should proceed with caution when interpreting the results from the early experiments. Just like any other scientific discipline, we can only conclusively make remarks after several studies have reproduced similar results. 

One major problem here is that human behaviour is complex and when combined with the stock market framework the scope of non-standard (from a neoclassical economics perspective) is large. This makes analyzing and predicting behaviour in the stock market particularly difficult. But one way forward would be to understand how humans form beliefs generally and extend that to the stock market scenario. This will also help us become better decision-makers and be more consistent with our own world-view. 

Srijita Ghosh is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Ashoka University and has done her Ph.D at New York University.

Sources:

Expectations of Fundamentals and Stock Market Puzzles by Pedro Bordalo, Nicola Gennaioli, Rafael La Porta, and Andrei Shleifer (2020)

Memory and Representativeness by Bordalo, Pedro, Katherine Coffman, Nicola Gennaioli, Frederik Schwerter, and Andrei Shleifer. 2020

 A Retrieved-Context Theory of Financial Decisions by Jessica A. Wachter and Michael J. Kahana

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). 

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Online Work and No Play: Implications of Online Education on Young Children

By Aradhya Sharma

Young children have been stuck within the walls of their homes for almost six months now. Even now, these children will not be able to meet their friends, go outside to play or attend their preschools for a couple more months. This is likely to hinder their cognitive development and impact their social growth. 

Most children have been used to spending time outdoors, whether they were busy coming up with their own games or just strolling around. While recent years have seen a decline in the number of children taking part in outdoor activities, 2020 has only made it worse with the introduction of online schooling. Children are left with very little play and very little agency. This is going to be the first generation that will be growing up in an environment so vastly different from previous generations. Thus, it is important that we explore the consequences this could have on them. 

Play is a critical part of a child’s healthy development, making it an integral part of all early childhood education curriculums. Why is play important? Play catalyzes the cognitive, social, and emotional learnings of a child. It helps a child learn how to share, negotiate, regulate emotions, practice decision-making skills, and provides children with a means to understand the world around them. Simultaneously, it also builds language, memory, and other cognitive abilities such as fine motor skills. When a child pretends to be a mother by taking care of her barbie doll, this requires children to carefully observe their mothers, understand the norms and rules of family-functioning, and replicate it. Similarly, when a group of children decide to build a fort together, they learn to work together, negotiate and make decisions while working on their fine motor skills simultaneously. 

Now that our children are unable to attend any kind of early education centres, their cognitive and social development could be severely delayed and can even impact other parts of their personality. According to a study in Karnataka, the cognitive development of children attending preschools showed a 0.82 standard deviation. This study showed that cognitive skills such as memory, reasoning and creativity, were almost doubled after attending preschools compared to children who did not attend. The impact that play-deprivation has on social and emotional learning is much more detrimental. Without enough peer interaction, young children may have trouble fostering a sense of self, especially in relation to others. In later stages of childhood, these children may have more explosive reactions to circumstances and behave in asocial or antisocial manners. They may also have more difficulty feeling comfortable with new kinds of people and experiences as they grow up. Studies have found a correlation between play deprivation and poor early childhood development suggesting that it leads to issues such as isolation, depression, reduced self-control, and poor resilience. This is because the rumble and tumble, inclusion and exclusion of complex play provide nuanced social learning to children, and those without these experiences will lack ambiguity, openness, and empathy in their way of socializing. 

Even if you are lucky and your child’s preschool has managed to conduct online classes, they won’t be very useful. Online education could be helpful in teaching numbers, alphabets, and a few other educational purposes, however, it cannot replicate play. Social interaction, motor skills, and pretend play will probably be difficult to replicate during online classes. This is an important point to note for parents. Educational TV shows, games, or videos are not the same as play. It’s common for parents to be inclined to keep their kids busy by turning on educational digital content, especially now as most parents are trying to navigate work from home. This, after a certain level, is useless and may even be harmful. Digital educational resources cannot spur the same kind of imagination, creativity, or action that ends up being the means of social and cognitive development. Furthermore, with children being dependent on parents on controlling the device, online classes take away one of the most important requirements of play – autonomy. Being in control is one of the main features of young children’s spontaneous play. They are supposed to be able to self-initiate and self-regulate their play sessions. With adults controlling devices, this autonomy is taken away. In fact, according to Josh Golin, the executive director of a children’s non-profit organization, “It just goes against everything we know about child development and what’s best for children. Children at this age learn best when they’re engaging all of their senses, when they’re using their hands, when they’re in social situations with peers and teachers, none of that can happen when a young child is on a computer.”

The situation at hand is serious, but there is one silver lining to all of this. Even though the world has turned upside down, it is also the first time in years that parents have had the opportunity to spend so much time with their children. Instead of resorting to TV or iPads to keep children engaged as parents work from home, parents can spend time with their children. This time together will hopefully not only strengthen their relationship but also help prevent or lessen the impact of play-deprivation on children.

Aradhya is a psychology major at Ashoka University. In her free time you’ll find her reading books, drinking chai and cycling at odd hours.

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).