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Issue 11

Issue XI: Editors’ Note

The past year saw COVID-19 and lockdowns as the only issues one extensively engaged with, both in their personal and professional lives. The question, “how has the pandemic been treating you?” slipped into every catch-up conversation with peers, friends, family and colleagues. With the current surge of cases in India once again, it is safe to say that even with the vaccine, the pandemic still continues to dominate a major part of our lives. We are constantly reminded of it every time we have to step outside our homes or log in to an online meeting or a Zoom birthday call. 

With this issue, we aim to provide our readers with a ‘pandemic-break’ and delve into stories that are equally important but may have been sidelined with constant COVID updates from newsrooms. 

To begin with, Madhulika Agarwal addresses an essential question revolving around what makes an event ‘newsworthy’ in the first place? And who has the authority on prioritising which news is worth the consumers’ attention? With Amazon’s Twitter antics having grabbed the attention of the media, Samyukta Prabhu and Rohan Pai use this opportunity to highlight the gig workers’ rights that have been sidelined by tech giants such as Amazon, specifically during the course of the pandemic. 

Akanksha Mishra covers the consequences of the Afghanistan peace deal on the country’s population, revealing a critical understanding of the negotiations between three stakeholders – the Taliban, the Afghan government and the United States. Speaking of the United States, Karantaj Singh analyses 100 days of Biden administration by critiquing as well as applauding his contribution towards restoring America’s identity in the global community. With New Zealand’s recently passed miscarriages bereavement leave law, Advaita Singh captures the reader’s attention by examining the relationship between workplaces, the economy and personal grief.

Closer to home, Saaransh Mishra confronts the structure of quasi-federalism in India and its exploitation by the ruling central government in implementing controversial laws such as the recent GNCTD Bill. Furthermore, Muskaan Kanodia explores the vote-bank anxieties behind the intense dedication of political parties towards temple beautification, which appears to complement the rise of religious politics in the country. Ridhima Manocha analyses the ruling government’s contradictory campaign attitudes towards CAA-NRC when contesting the current Assam Assembly elections. Meanwhile, Vaibhav Parik questions India’s Election Commission’s decision to hold the ongoing Assembly elections in multiple phases in the state of West Bengal.

Aarohi Sharma brings back the essential climate change debate and delves into why individuals continue to deny its existence and widespread impact. For our sports enthusiasts, Kavya Satish explores the possible reasons for the increasing loss of viewership and sponsorship in F1 and what it means for the future of the sport. 

To emphasise the immense strain that Coivd-19 has placed on our global healthcare systems, Saman Fatima explores how this has resulted in the marginalisation of treatments of other prevalent diseases among several populations. 

While other stories may continue to struggle to win the fight for our attention with the intensity of the pandemic, we hope our readers are able to take a step back and keep themselves updated with events beyond rising Covid-19 cases and vaccinations. 

-Ariba, Ashana Mathur, Harshita Bedi, Rujuta Singh

Picture Credits: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

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Issue 8

Headliner: A Chilling View of How Hate Sells

Headliner is an indie game developed by Jakub Kasztalski, where players are tasked with being the editor of a fictional magazine in a fictional town. Their responsibilities are primarily concerned with choosing which stories get reported in the next day’s news cycle. As the editor, players need to prioritize the news stories that they believe best contributes to the social cohesion of the town, while at the same time ensuring that their newspaper remains profitable. 

The game soon evolves into a test of character, as all the choices that players make directly affect their in-game family and society. Kasztalski effectively establishes conflicts that are hard to navigate – with players’ job security, familial interests and general social atmosphere often placed at odds with one another. Ranging from issues of sensationalism and hateful narratives, to personal biases and ambitions, the game provides its players with an understanding of the complexities within the operation of news media. In an ecosystem where stories that sell better outshine those more worthy of telling, Headliner proves to be an inexplicably valuable tool for highlighting the processes and dilemmas underlying contemporary reportage.

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Issue 7

Arnabgate, TRPs and What you need to know about the ‘Business’ of Journalism

Journalism, despite its claim to honesty, is not always about unbiased, neutral news coverage. What we see as news and the way it is presented and moulded into a narrative is often a product of a larger nexus of debates, deliberations, requests, and often political and social leanings. With sensational journalism and ideologically driven news becoming increasingly common, why the ‘business’ of news reporting needs to be understood today is more important than ever. Arnab Goswami and the Republic media’s TRP scandal is an important marker in understanding how this ‘business’ functions and affects news viewership, content and revenue from advertisements. 

Television Rating Point (TRP) is the primary mechanism that keeps track of the popularity of specific programmes and channels on the television. How the TRP works and the policies for survey and measurement of these points differ for each country. In India, however, BARC (Broadcasting Audience Rating Council) is responsible for installing 44,000 bar-o-meters to represent the program choices of over 2 lakh Indians. BARC thus, is supposed to be an independent, transparent body, vested with significant authority to understand television consumer behaviour within the country. However, despite the sample size of survey by these meters being too small for a country with over 2 crore television sets, another problem with the way the system is its ability to to manipulate these meters and their ratings by paying individuals or households to view particular channels or programmes. Several such instances would thus provide faulty samples and result in something that we see happening today with news agencies like the Republic. The question then arises,

Why do TRPs matter?

 Televised Rating Points, other than establishing what the Indian population watches, also decide who within the myriad of television channels is popular and worth investing by companies.Higher TRPs result in businesses and political parties advertising through these channels to get their product, ideology or achievements to the public. This, in turn, provides a platform for engagement between businesses, political organisations and viewers. This relationship between the three develops further as investments in these channels increases with higher increasing TRPs thus allowing for certain ideologies, products, and affiliations to thrive through advertisements and funding for the channel. 

 Why does the interaction/nexus/business matter?

When we as viewers watch these news channels, not only do we see specific advertisements for products, we also get a glimpse of promotional advertisements by political parties, the government as well as specific financial contributors to the channel, which in turn does affect our consumer behaviour and supply specific information about these products and organisations. Further, news channels may have ideological or political leanings, often stemming from the business aspect of it, or maybe projections of the organisation or editors’ opinions. These factors decide what ‘makes’ the news. Breaking news thus might be a result of deliberated pros and cons for the channel, its beliefs and is often reflected in the way news is presented on tv. What we get as news may thus reflect personal or organisational beliefs, ideologies or political leanings, owing to TRPs which increase the channel’s funding ,reach, narratives, and often holds power to affect public opinion. 

The business of news reporting is complicated and is often hard to understand. Sometimes, it might be difficult to differentiate between opinion, news and propaganda, owing to the fine line between the three. Thus, as consumers, what we can do is try to understand the industry as a business, separate and filter ideas of honesty and truth to further understand what constitutes news. 

While online media, Instagram channels and Twitter have become prominent spaces for debate, what still needs to be done is to understand and differentiate between news and organizational views we are surrounded by and subjected to every day.

Saman Fatima is an undergraduate History student who is an avid reader and poetry writer.

Picture Credits: “TV, Television and remote controller – stock photo” by espensorvik is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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 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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Uncategorized

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). 

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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).