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Issue 7

Bridgerton: A Regency Tale of Surveillance and Information Control

In February 2021, the Netflix show, Bridgerton, (based on the books by Julia Quinn) became the most streamed show on their platform after being viewed by 83 million households. But while we were busy fawning over the lavish balls and romantic storylines, did we happen to overlook a critical theme about the nexus of the media and mass surveillance? What is this nexus, what are its implications, and how has Republic TV emerged as India’s very own Lady Whistledown?

Bridgerton revolves around the lives of the influential families in 1813, Regency London. The show is rife with scandals and secrecy, all promised to be revealed by Lady Whistledown, the anonymous author of the town’s latest gossip column or scandal sheet.

The show begins by Lady Whistledown declaring that she knows everyone who is reading her paper, a way of subtly signalling that they are all being closely observed. She derives her information from a combination of surveillance or observation and leaked information through various networks (for example, gossiping maids who hear everything about the lives of their employers). 

As Whistledown starts revealing secrets and exposing the scandals of the high-society families, it becomes evident that through her society papers she can not only influence and manipulate the public opinion but also bring dishonour to certain families and impact the existing social hierarchies. 

Soon people start factoring in her presence in their social behaviour. Knowing that she’s lurking around, waiting to expose their secrets, the people of the town start to self-censor themselves. This is a common behavioural phenomenon which occurs when people know that they are under surveillance, and it serves as an excellent tool to exercise control over a population. In London during the 1800s, there existed a myriad of social rules and norms that were imposed on the people by society. For example, if a woman were to be seen alone with a man, then it would be assumed that her honour had been compromised. The society also frowned upon the free expression of one’s sexuality and enforced very strict gender roles. Any divergence from such norms would have potentially led to a scandal. 

Whistledown’s society papers display how if one person had a combined monopoly over surveillance and the media then they could significantly shape the society and make it conform to certain standards that they deemed fit. This kind of control could also be harnessed and exploited by those in power for their personal gains.

What’s even more alarming is that Whistledown’s readers accept whatever she writes with the utmost trust. Her word is seen to be “as good as gospel”. This is because news about influential people or celebrities automatically becomes sensational and thus even a small, probably fake rumour can also spread rapidly, with little attention paid to the credibility of the source. Unfortunately, this practice of ‘sensationalizing’ the news has found its way into the world of TV Journalism as well, an area where credibility should ideally matter the most. 

This is because as people’s attention spans decrease, they feel the need to be constantly entertained. Thus, news channels have begun to employ various theatrical elements to supplement their reports. This is because unlike Lady Whistledown, news channels are faced with immense competition and they must resort to these theatrics in order to increase their TRPs. 

A survey conducted in 2020 by CVoter with a sample size of 4500 people across the country found that 73.9 per cent of the people surveyed feel that news channels in India “are more of entertainment than real news”. And 76.7 per cent said that TV News channels and TV serials both “sensationalise and scandalise everything”. This only goes to show that the credibility of TV journalism has declined. Now that they are functioning primarily for entertainment, these channels aren’t that different from Lady Whistledown’s society papers, as they are both used for societal control. 

Consider the Republic TV. After observing 1779 prime-time debates the Caravan found that Republic TV was consistently biased towards the Modi government, it’s policies and ideology. In addition to this, the channel is also said to have focused less on pressing issues such as the state of the economy, education or health and more on drawing attention away from these issues. Their analysis also revealed that the channel has consistently attacked those to oppose the ruling government. 

Caravan’s analysis also revealed that Republic TV has consistently attacked those to oppose the ruling government. News channels have the power to shape public opinion and it’s obvious that this space can be exploited to put forward certain political agendas.

In addition to this, the government of India has amped up its mass surveillance on its citizens in recent years. And has specially cracked-down on various social media platforms. By surveying our social media activity, the government has been able to silence countless journalists, artists, etc. In addition to this, the Uttarakhand police recently declared that the police can now deny a citizen the clearance required for obtaining a passport if they post ‘anti-national’ posts on social media. By creating such laws and going after individuals who question the current regime, the government has set the precedent for what counts as acceptable behaviour on these online platforms. All this stands to be the government’s not-so-subtle cue for the public to begin self-censoring themselves on social media. 

But so far this has not worked. Protests and political dissent transitioned to social media platforms in the wake of the lockdown. And now these virtual spaces have evolved to be conducive to political dissent. And as for Lady Whistledown, she may be in control of the society at the moment, but any day now, the people of the town could discover better things (provided by unbiased and more credible information sources) to dwell on and her scandal sheets will become irrelevant.

Ashana Mathur is a student of Economics, International Relations 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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Issue 6

Technology will change, but what about ethics?

In a physically distanced world, through the power of technology the American media mogul Oprah Winfrey pulled-off a successful “in-person” interview with Barack Obama, a former President of the USA. Although Oprah was in Santa Barbara, California and Obama in Washington, D.C., the green screen technology used for the interview made it appear as though the pair were comfortably sitting across each other, by Oprah’s fireplace in her Montecito mansion. 

After the interview aired on Oprah’s Apple TV show, The Oprah Conversation, most people were stunned by what the technology used was able to do. The interview took place seamlessly and the two appeared to be in the same room throughout. The film industry, especially the Marvel franchise, extensively makes use of green screen technology. Technology like this has existed in the fictional space for a while now. But should the use of such technology enter the media space? 

We live in a world where misinformation is consistently proliferating. False representations tend to dominate the media landscape because they are being generated at a much faster pace compared to our ability to detect them. Advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) continue to blur our perceptive abilities. We have reached a stage where we find it difficult to distinguish between real and fake digital representations. Thus, among the existing sea of misinformation, do we want technology, like the one Oprah used, to be pursued for journalistic endeavours?  

Deepfakes (created through the use of AI, are audio and video representations of people saying and doing things that didn’t actually) first surfaced on the internet in 2017. For the first time, it gave creators the power to lip-sync audio or make other digital manipulations in a highly realistic way. The famous Obama deepfake is an example of how realistic they can get. Once the technology became cheaper and its application easier, deepfakes quickly started exploding on the internet. While the entertainment value of such technology is high, there is an uncomfortable amount of rising malicious content. 

The technology has acquired political value and is often used as a tool to amplify propaganda. Misrepresentations of political leaders and other public figures are frequently distributed to the masses. Possessing the power to undermine the credibility of journalism, manipulate elections and reduce trust in institutions, the use of this technology has been mainly sinister. According to a study, 96% of deepfakes on the internet are pornographic, with most being non-consensual. Apart from damaging the reputation of individuals, the deepfake AI has also raised broader ethical implications. Most technologies have positive as well as negative outcomes, but the discourse on deepfake technology has been more critical than appreciative.  

While it is essential to use technology ethically, maybe we need to take a step back, and ask: Is it morally right or wrong to use it in the first place? Even though Oprah publicly acknowledged the technology she was using, was mere disclosure enough? There is no doubt that technology holds power. Many of the ethical dilemmas we face today are an outcome of technology. Thus, when trying to deliberate upon whether or not it is okay to deploy certain technology in the space of journalism, thinking through ethical implications becomes important. 

Different ethical principles result in differing approaches to such issues. Let us assume that Oprah is still in the process of deciding whether it is ethical to use the green screen technology for her interview. For Consequentialist Oprah, the decision of using the technology would be governed by the outcomes of using it. She would have to deliberate whether the benefits of using the technology would overweigh the costs. Kantian Oprah would follow a deontological approach. Rather than looking at the consequences of her choice, her decision-making process would be based on the idea of performing moral duties grounded with rationality. Virtue ethicist Oprah’s decision would rely on deciding whether her act itself is virtuous. This decision would neither be based on duty nor based on the consequences of the outcome. 

When approaching whether or not to use technology, it is important to look at things through these different ethical lenses and perspectives because they provide insight into the types of moral conundrums that a situation may cause. While the guidance from these theories often conflicts with the other, it lays down different choices and options. The decision-making process used to arrive at a conclusion, thus, gets governed by a moral fabric. 

Digital technologies have spawned new opportunities as well as challenges with the way we communicate today. A global shift to digital media has changed the way information is being disseminated. Through the internet, every individual has the ability to discharge information to the masses. In an idealistic world, we would expect all individuals to practice basic ethical standards. Since the world we live in is far from ideal, it is especially important for media professionals to be careful about the form and application of technology they are deploying as it sets a precedent for others to follow. But even if journalistic codes are practised, some questions remain. Since technology keeps changing, which principles should be incorporated while making decisions? In case of ethical pitfalls, how can accountability be held? Should we be guided by a regulatory framework? Who should make these decisions?

Picture Credit: Elena Lacey; Getty Images

Shrishti is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In her free time, you’ll find her cooking, dancing or photographing.

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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Issue 6

Politics of Viewership : What can Patriotic Films Tell Us?

While some films and shows have explicit propaganda and political alignments that they aim to put forward, there is content that handles the ideological waves shifting around us in much more subtle ways. With the global far right and Populist Waves gaining momentum, as observed in the administrations all around the world (recently disrupted by the fall of Trump’s administration in the US), is there a shift in storytelling on screen and how viewers converse with the content they are consuming? 

In the Indian context, we’ve had films like Uri (2019) being highly celebrated for portraying the valor of the soldiers for the surgical strikes in our neighboring country of Pakistan. The general conversations that the film provokes are not completely new, Pakistan has been in the cinematic realm since the 1947 Partition and has been villainized more so post the Bangladesh war in 1975 and Kargil war in 1999 – like in Border (1997) which is based on the Bangladesh Liberation  War of 1971. Films like this bank on the invocation of patriotism from the viewers, India wins at the end and the audience is rooting for the Indian soldiers to survive the war. But Border was released 26 years after the war that it was based on; by virtue of the distance of time it ended up making an appeal against war and the trauma it causes to soldiers and their families on both sides. Thus, the shift from Border to Uri lies in the fact that the latter’s audience was prompted to make a connection between the success of the mission and the upcoming elections, and the eventual re-formation of the BJP led government. 

Also, in light of the 2019 general elections – The Accidental Prime Minister (January 2019) and PM Narendra Modi (May 2019) are important to note. The former looks at India’s former PM Manmohan Singh and his term and the latter at the rise of Modi; the timing and the titles are enough to indicate the propagandist nature of the releases. 

The above-mentioned films were a little too on the nose about their affiliations and ideological leanings. But let’s look at other Indian films and how the patterns of invoking patriotism seem to be shifting. 

In the early days of our country’s independence movement, filmmakers were making films that would be against the empire, songs and stories based on the concept of swaraj. Nationalist agendas and patriotism were achieved in these through rebellion and attacking the ones with power. The British administration would fight back by trying to censor any inflammatory songs or messages, although language was an obstacle they had to get by first. Post-independence, films critiqued the conditions of the 1947 partition and the violence that had happened, and would continue to point out the corruption, unemployment and other vices that the government needs to deal with, while also celebrating the newly formed democracy. 

More recently, the quantity of sports biographical films, based on real life incidents and successes where Team India won and made its citizens proud has increased. Chak De India (2007) was a fictional narrative about the Indian women  hockey team winning the World Cup. But in the next decade, prompted by the success of Bhaag Mikha Bhaag in 2013, we had lieu of real-life sports victories – Dangal (2016), Saala Khadoos (2016), MS Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016) and Mary Kom (2014). Though Chak De India had an additional victory in the acceptance of Shah Rukh Khan as a Muslim coach – the patriotism had widened from being just a sports win to a reinstatement of India’s status as a multi-cultural, secular country. 

Fictionalized true life events make it easier for connections to be made between real and reel life politics, like with Uri. The conflation may or may not be co-incidental, the inspirational incidents may be old and the films new – but the rise in the top-grossing films that invoke patriotism only through real life wins indicates that the space for losses, for the state’s vulnerabilities being explored and exposed, has reduced. Dangal does mention the ill conditions of the country’s sports facilities, but such critiques are too far and too few. 

The biographical patriotic films aren’t limited thematically to just sports. Films like Mission Mangal (2019) celebrate the success of India’s space triumphs. And Pad Man (2018) pats the country’s back in terms of social awareness movements. Also, Parmanu:The Story of Pokhran (2018), based on the Indian army’s nuclear test bomb explosions in 1998. These are a stark contrast from films being made in the previous decade – films like Rang De Basanti (2006) and A Wednesday (2008) or even Nayak (2001) which implore patriotism through protest and rebellion. 

The branding of what it means to be patriotic has itself shifted for Indian cinema. 

The influence of populist waves, films seem to be choosing safer narratives, to only talk about the successes of India instead of critiquing the state and invoking the administration as an accountable figure in the context of nation making. The shift can also possibly be marked down to the lack of funding support or production feasibility of rebellious films and stories. Considering the losses that film productions can bear when they run into trouble with certain right-wing Nationalist groups (self-appointed protectors of the administration that is being critiqued) maybe playing it safe is the future for cinema.

Jaskiran is an English and Media Studies graduate from Ashoka University. She is now working on her capstone project on representations of terrorism and nationalism in cinema as a student of Ashoka’s Scholars Programme.

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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Issue 4

OTT Platforms: What controls the content we watch?

You sit in your bed, scrolling through the internet, looking for the next series to binge-watch. You switch tabs from Netflix to Amazon Prime Video to Disney+ then to Hotstar. You’re probably still confused about what you want to watch. The entire time, however, your choices feel seemingly limitless. You acknowledge tacitly that this was not the case a couple of years back. 

Over-the-top (OTT) platforms have expanded over the past 8 years. From only two platforms in 2012, India now has over 30 streaming service providers. Increasingly, television broadcast service providers have started giving customers the option to watch live TV online. A 2018 report by The Boston Consulting Group based its analysis off a consumer survey and predicted the Indian OTT market to reach $5 billion by 2023.

The reach of such platforms has been exacerbated by the pandemic as movies that would have otherwise released in theatres have now debuted on online platforms. An instance of the same is the somewhat controversial film Laxmii which is set to release on Hotstar later this month. While this doesn’t mean that theatres will shut for good, with different states opening up film theatres as early as November 2020, this does speak of the trend that the biggest platforms are racing to create libraries of content. This is indicative of an imagination where the OTT isn’t an adversary to film, rather a much-needed ally.

In this vast plethora of content, some questions remain. Do you choose what you are going to watch? Can someone influence your content choices? Netflix confirmed that it was testing a ‘shuffle play’ option for its users where the platform can suggest a title for you to watch based on your viewing preferences. One can, in light of this, think of online content as a basket of goods. While your screen time and interests may determine the exact good you choose from the basket, the entire basket differs from country to country. You’re provided with the content that will sell in your specific context as companies curate the content that you are likely to watch. 

Although companies are curating content for you, these are in themselves diverse. The bottom line is this– the singular power has gone out of the hands of big film studios’ now. At the box office, timings and screens are dependent on financial capacity. This problem shrinks in the online space. Filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, in an interview with the Hindu, spoke of his experience of not being strapped for money and concerns of audience reaction to the work he was doing. At the same time, the online space, like everything, isn’t free of problems. 

Even though the power to determine content isn’t concentrated in a few hands, the potency of the question stands, perhaps more as a ‘what’ question– what determines the content you consume? The answer is binge-worthiness which in part, determines the type of content that is created by production houses. That is why crime and horror are popular genres. Entire seasons are released in a single go contributing to the binge-watching trend. The goal for these platforms seems to be achieving the ‘endless scroll’, a constant updating of content. Coupled with the endless scroll, it is also important to acknowledge that the goal of binge-worthiness can go hand in hand with increased freedom to the creator.

This is true not just for the multinational names like Netflix, Amazon’s and Disney. Indian platforms like ALTBalaji, Voot and ZEE5 operate according to the same logic where the quest is to find content that appeals to the largest possible audience. These are also more pocket-friendly for different demographics. For instance, the Basic subscription for Netflix for a month is Rs. 499 as compared to ALTBalaji which costs Rs. 300 for a year.

Whatever be the cost, OTTs are often seen as competitors or add ons to film and television. There is a distinction in the entertainment content they provide. This difference or rather diversity of perspectives is perhaps seen most vividly in the comparison between one subsidiary of a TV company and the network itself– Balaji Telefilms. The ALT or alternative seems to have become a recourse from the regurgitated material we see on TV. A prime (pun intended) example of this is Balaji and ALTBalaji. While the former, meant for TV reproduces stereotypes; the latter, a mobile app and website sets out to challenge them. It pushes boundaries in showing queer romance, and central woman characters among others. While it does have its limitations, this content is far from Indian TV soaps, as mentioned by the Chief Marketing Officer himself.

A factor contributing to the success of ALTBalaji is its employment of erotic content. OTTs are free from the Central Board of Film Certification and hence several censorship rules. However, the formation of an adjudicatory body, the Digital Content Complaint Council (DCCC) was announced in February this year. This is coupled with a push for self-regulation. This is a salient distinction as it comes hand in hand with the individuation of the viewer experience. Some scholars see censorship as the adoption of a patronising attitude by the state. Online viewing is highly individualised with its focus on the smartphone and hence the assumption is of maturity on the part of the viewer, provided that details around appropriateness are provided. So the effect doesn’t start and end at erotic content but in general more freedom to the creator, as mentioned earlier. According to Kashyap, the topics “that matter to me: sexuality, religion and politics. These are the three big nos for the cinema experience. But Netflix doesn’t shy away from that.”

It would seem that the OTT platform provides more space for experimentation–both to the content creator and the receiver. That being said, it might not be the time to junk the TV completely, or at least junk it with the understanding that consumption of online content comes, at least in the Indian subcontinent, with a class dimension. While the idea of ‘selling content’ may work for entertainment channels, it is somewhat tricky territory when considering another category of content such as news which in itself is a public good. The question to ask then is who has the resources to invest in what essential are additional sources of entertainment? While data is a cheap commodity, with companies like Jio entering the market with highly affordable plans, viewing online content comes with the ability to pay for a subscription as well as pay for an uninterrupted internet experience. 

Sanya Chandra is a student of History, International Relations, and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

Image Credit: Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

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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Uncategorized

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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Uncategorized

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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Phones and Guns to Phones with Guns: Am I a Soldier?

By Sanya Chandra

Do you ever think how many ways the state is in your home, or on your phone, quite literally hugging your person? Do you think your means of entertainment are detached from diplomatic posturing? If the answer is yes, you are wrong.

A writer and producer of a videogame company was invited to join a panel advising on the future of modern war. This is Dave Anthony, a creator of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 whose expertise the Pentagon evidently thought could benefit US conceptions of real warfare.

The video game, part of the larger Call of Duty series, features Europe dependent on American forces for liberation after having been invaded by the Russians. How and why did a game developer have enough currency to advise on matters of international warfare? Purely because modern war videogames deal in authenticity. To create his product, manufactured and sold to you, Anthony engaged in conversations with war veterans to give it a life-like character.

Making the game gave Anthony the skills to comprehend, create, and also think of possible solutions to complex real-life problems. Playing them does the same to you, as you’re dealing with situations veterans have partly provided. This is just one example of how politics shapes popular culture and is in turn shaped by it. The fact is, that this is not the only example out there.

Indians today would have noticed the announcement of the videogame FAU-G (Fearless and United– Guards) on 4th September, a couple of days after the game PUBG Mobile was banned. FAU-G is Fauji Hindi, meaning soldier. Released by a prominent actor, Akshay Kumar, it is a prime example of what is generally termed as the Military-Entertainment Complex.

The idea goes to show that actions of private companies and the domain of diplomacy overlap. While no state will go as far as to produce its own games or movies, political events create the context under which are accepted,  thereby motivating their production.

Akshay Kumar’s tweet announced FAU-G, specifically in support of the Indian government’s AtmaNirbhar Bharat Abhiyan. It is a movement to make India self-reliant, in terms of economy and infrastructure, among others. 20% of FAU-G revenues will be donated to BharatKeVeer, a trust set up by the Office of the Home Minister. Donations to this trust are also exempt under the Income Tax Act. The ‘Atma Nirbhar’ scheme came in the wake of global disruptions in Chinese led manufacturing supply chains because of lockdowns and travel restrictions caused by the Coronavirus Pandemic; and exacerbated by military tensions between India and China in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley, provoked by Chinese attempts to claim the territory as its own. As troops are eyeball to eyeball, India’s response has been to boycott over 118 Chinese apps including PUBG’s mobile version. The tweet ends with “Trust #FAUG”, a sentiment often echoed in the Prime Minister’s addresses.

The entire episode reflects a symbiotic relationship between the military and popular industries. Military videogames, by that logic, establish both your national identity and the context itself. They see you as the crusader for justice and they posit the context that a hostile environment is threatening you. You become Rambo, a soldier who fights enemies to protect his country’s interests. While this may not be overt or even intentional, it creates the scene in which warfare becomes palatable for the general audience.

In addition, videogames are set in a military warfare setting. They rule out the possibility for negotiation to ‘fix’ the hostile situation. Negotiation is a key part of most exchanges between two nations; when games and movies tell stories they seek to entertain. Situations where threats have existed and a successful response has been military are precisely that– entertaining.

Drawing back on the Call of Duty example, another edition of the game imagines a second cold war set in the year 2025. Hence, while some games draw on the past and attempt lessons from history, others cultivate preparedness for war in the future.

The same logic flows through movies as well. We are now seeing Chinese assertiveness widely called ‘Wolf Warrior diplomacy’ after a 2015 nationalist film and its 2017 sequel of the same name. This phrase is used both by Chinese and international media. The cinematic Wolf Warriors are soldiers in the People’s Liberation Army.

China is actively constructed as a nation under attack. Seeing itself as uniquely vulnerable, the tagline begins to make sense– “Even though a 1000 miles away, anyone who affronts China will pay.” This is linguistically evident, especially in the case of the Twitter allegations by Chinese diplomat Zhao Lijan. The tweets were a response to international criticism of Chinese ill-treatment of Muslim minority group, Uighurs, in Xinjiang province. Lijan’s response– a criticism of racial segregation in the United States capital.

This aggressive stance comes with the LAC clash and importantly, the enactment of China’s new security policy towards Hong Kong which depicts the willingness of Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping to openly assert and consolidate its power. The pandemic of course looms like an ever-present threat which first originated in Wuhan. According to career diplomat Shyam Saran, the pandemic question has caused a sense of “deep insecurity” to Chinese leaders.

Insecurity is dangerous, popular culture tries to replace self-doubt in your country with a degree of surety. You are after all Rambo, Fauji, Warrior. This perfectly complements national leadership’s pleas to support unequivocally the actions of the armed forces. In addition, popular culture feeds the attempt to justify actions as you, the citizens, have carried out the same actions, albeit virtually, from your phones. Your actions, games, and movies have no direct consequences, but they serve as testing grounds for belligerence.

We have seen two tangible instances of the link from popular culture to war and diplomacy– the USA and China. The link is mediated between theoretical reflection and the lived dramas of everyday life . With the coming of a new videogame, will India follow suit?

Sanya is a student of History, International Relations, 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).