Categories
Issue 12

Armed with Phones and Spreadsheets, How These Teenagers Took on the Second Wave

It’s 5 am and the DMs in Dasnoor Anand’s inbox are overflowing — requests for ICU beds in Pune, an enquiry about Remdesivir in Mumbai, search for oxygen cylinders in Lucknow, and many more such please for help. Anand tries her best to reply to everyone. She has only three hours to sleep before it’s time to wake up for online lectures.

This is what April and May 2021 looked like for several teenagers part of student organisation ‘Silence The Violence (STV)’.

With the second wave of COVID-19 slamming into India with an unexpected ferocity, the members of STV have been saving lives while simultaneously attending lectures and preparing for exams. The group consists of girls from all over India, ranging from those in Class 11 to those in first year of university.

In their bid to help out, STV (@stvorg) amplified the availability of resources like hospital beds, ventilators, oxygen, and even tiffin services on its Instagram account. The team gathered information through Twitter handles, personal contacts and other youth organisations, and grouped resources by city or state. They called each hospital and oxygen supplier personally to verify details before posting it. On a backup account (@stvorg_backup), a colour-coded list of resources was regularly updated – green for hospital beds, grey for ambulance services, yellow for food and blue for oxygen.

The motivation behind this venture? Nandini Nimodiya, 17, a member of the Crisis Team answered, “We are all students stuck at home. Social media is the only power we have.”

The team started with two-hour shifts but had to dial it up to five-eight hours due to the number of requests. Each day, STV got approximately 100 leads for different resources from all over the country. Out of these, half got exhausted by the time they called to verify. But of the remaining 50, STV was passing on 15-20 resources to people messaging for help.

“Even if we’re able to save one life at the end of the day, it makes everything worth it,” said Anand, 19, founder of STV, adding that they managed to help roughly 15 people daily.

The group made use of the latest ‘guide’ feature on Instagram, creating city-wise guides for all essential services. A guide is a collection of posts from various accounts that have information about a particular city’s resources. Followers of STV found this specific and timely. Shreya Joshi, 22, a resident of Pune says, “I wanted to find an oxygen concentrator for my father.  All the contacts I had were busy or switched off. That’s when I found  STV’s ‘Pune Guide’ on Instagram. It directed me to verified suppliers, and I got what I needed.”

STV started making city-wise guides when they realised that residents of small towns did not know whom to contact for resources. They started with major cities like Pune and Delhi but have compiled 12-city guides so far. They have even expanded to state level guides, with over 15 state guides in place, including Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand.

STV’s expansive list of resources has helped make it a fast-growing account on Instagram. Over the course of five days, the number of followers shot up from 1,200 to 10,000. Currently, they’re reaching 11,100 people via social media.

Since the number of SOS calls has decreased, STV is now devoting time to spreading awareness about COVID-19. This is a major part of its threefold mission statement ‘Action-Advocacy-Awareness’. The volunteers are making informative posts on topics like ‘Covid and pregnancy’ or ‘mental health in Covid’. STV held its first online mental health event ‘Horizon’, where it partnered with certified psychologists to provide three days of free counselling sessions, seminars and workshops. This was followed by an online concert where young artists came together to unwind.

The team consists of 45 members between the ages of 16 and 20. Of the 45, 20 members have been completely devoted to the Covid crisis. Fifty additional volunteers were also roped in to help. Most of the members are from Mumbai and Pune, followed by a few in Andhra Pradesh and the Northeast. Over the past few weeks, STV has also managed to recruit volunteers from Karnataka and Kerala too.

Around 85% of the team is made up of women, with an all-girls core team. A point of grievance for these young girls is that they are often misgendered by people who contact them. They are addressed as ‘sir’ or ‘bhaiyya’. “We tell them we are women led, and that they can call us ‘ma’am’ or ‘didi‘,” says Nimodiya.

Project S.A.F.E (@project_s.a.f.e) is another all-girls organisation that has been amplifying Covid resources, specifically in Pune. This team consists of five girls from the Pimpri-Chinchwad College of Engineering. The girls spent all day finding resources – except from 3 pm-5 pm, as that’s when they were writing their exams! These engineering students collaborated with their friends interning at medical colleges to provide people with accurate information about availability of beds and medicine.

With 20 requests daily, at least 15 patients were guided to the required resources. Devika Chopdar, 20, founder of Project S.A.F.E says, “I didn’t know social media could have such a huge impact. So far, my profile has only been about myself. Seeing people receive life-saving facilities through it is a new experience.”

These local Covid helpers received a request for a ventilator bed at 1 am one night. None of the hospitals were answering their phones. Project S.A.F.E then circulated the request on social media. Within the next one hour, the Pune online community procured a ventilator and passed this information on to the critical patient.

Student communities across the country stepped up to fight the second wave. Delhi University’s Miranda House created a Covid helpline to assist residents of Delhi with quick updates on resources. A group of 22 student artists and poets from all over India came together for a night of music and poetry titled, ‘In The Dark Times There Will be Singing’, and raised Rs 1,47,000. All funds were donated to communities hardest hit by the second wave of COVID-19. Generating finances, even from outside the country. US-based Princeton alumnus Shreyas Lakhtakia and Julu Beth Katticaran, offered career counselling sessions to raise money for Covid charities in India.

The Indian student community that aided the country in its hour of need is here to stay and is only growing stronger. Even the girls of STV are planning more posts, events, and community building in the months to come. All while preparing for the upcoming Class 12 board exams, of course!

Featured image credit: antiopabg/Pixabay; Editing: LiveWire

This article has been republished from LiveWire with permission of the author.

Aditi Dindorkar is a second-year student at Ashoka University. She is pursuing a major in English and Creative Writing, and a minor in Media Studies. This report is written as part of her course, Introduction to Newswriting and Reporting.

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 8

Digital Detox in Isolation

I used to joke with a friend: if you want to feel time slow down,  either be on a treadmill or lose your phone for a day. This is more true than ever in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic. From weddings, birthday parties and even funerals shifting online, there aren’t several options but to make peace with being relegated to a small square on Zoom. However, it’s not just Zoom that’s the culprit but also our escalating usage of social media that has increased our screen time. A study of 4500 individuals showed that the majority of respondents acknowledged that their social media consumption (72%) and posting (43%) has peaked during the pandemic. 

In the process of reflecting more critically on my relationship with technology, I started researching more about how social media affects us. A few hours later, I come across a purportedly ‘random’  advertisement asking me, no, almost accusing me of being a ‘social media addict’, “Are you a social media addict? Take this quiz to find out!” As much as I felt called-out by the advertisement, it was hard to avoid. The next thing I knew, I took the quiz. A few hours later, I was watching a rabbit video and had already stalked a friend’s boyfriend’s mother’s sister. How I landed there, I wasn’t sure of that myself either. However, by the end of the day, I knew I was a social media addict!

Social media addiction, according to Addiction Centre is defined as, “a behavioral addiction that is characterized as being overly concerned about social media, driven by an uncontrollable urge to log on to or use social media, and devoting so much time and effort to it such that it impairs other important life areas.” In the previous issue for OpenAxis, Rujuta Singh argued that “in many ways, the addictive nature of social media is a feature, not a design flaw.” Studies indicate that notifications from retweets, likes and shares trigger the release of dopamine within the brain — producing effects similar to that of consuming cocaine. 

A lot of people are increasingly becoming aware of how social media rewires the brain and affects our interaction, yet a few are willing to make a change. I would confess I am one of those who haven’t been willing to make a lasting change for long. Every now and then, I would delete Instagram after either getting bored, disgusted or both, however, my Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) would compel me to be back before the end of the day. This time though, I decided to try something new and radical — a digital detox in complete isolation. 

Digital Detox in Isolation

In 1654, the philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal wrote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” I didn’t quite imagine how tough it is to sit still when I made the decision to quit social media for a week in complete isolation.

Usually, I would wake up to be reminded of my FOMO through Instagram stories of my friends being out. However, the decision of giving up my social media gave me another kind of depressing FOMO. Will I be okay with missing out on posting a cute #couplegoal picture on Valentine’s Day? Are my friends sending me memes that I am not able to see? I didn’t just intensely desire those mundane interactions but craved them. I found myself thinking about whether my friends and family might just forget my presence.

This wasn’t what I imagined when I decided on a “digital detox.” I imagined a calmer, more composed and mindful person. I expected myself to be someone who would want to exercise, be more productive and spend time reading books and doing yoga. Isn’t this how they usually portray people who do a digital detox?  Instead, I found myself getting agitated, bored and just re-reading the same emails — basically utterly unproductive.

I didn’t have the urge to pick up a novel when I knew I couldn’t post a picture or I didn’t quite enjoy my isolation meals as much as I would have. Neither did it lead to a decluttering of my mind, the way I anticipated it would. In fact, being away from social media during complete isolation made me feel bored at best, and lonely and depressed at worst.  Why was I experiencing what I was experiencing, and is digital detox even possible and a worthwhile endeavour to undertake in today’s age? 

Impossibility of a Digital Detox 

“I don’t think digital detoxes are realistic anymore” writes Dr. Doreen Dodgen-Magee, author of Deviced!: Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World. She further writes “We can’t live a connected and informed life that we really need to now, without some form of tech.” At a time especially when one is isolating, alone or quarantined, is it really a wise decision to do a digital detox then? While some wellness experts and articles strongly suggest that digital detox is good for your wellbeing, I personally found that in my experience, it made me more agitated.

A study by  Lancaster University found that as previously postulated, there is no direct ‘proven’ correlation between poor mental health and social media. Even in studies that claim a connection between the two, fail to answer whether poor mental health leads to more social media usage or vice versa. In fact, the same study by Lancaster University posits that worrying about our smartphone use is likelier to cause more depression and anxiety than using the tech. 

It raises the question of whether our brains have adopted technology to the extent that social media has become indispensable and unavoidable? If so, will just accepting that lead to more mental peace? Dr Doreen certainly believes so. She compares our relationship with technology to that of an essential item like food, and in that light, a digital detox is an equivalent of extreme diet. What we could and should strive for then is a mindful, purposeful use of social media instead of a drastic step like a digital detox. This would not just help cultivate a more meaningful relationship with technology but also renegotiate the terms of technology to our terms.

Oh wait, brb, let me quickly share this idea on Facebook! See ya! 

Ridhima Manocha is a final year English and Media Studies student at Ashoka University and has authored the book, The Sun and Shadow.

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 8

Digital Detox in Isolation

I used to joke with a friend: if you want to feel time slow down,  either be on a treadmill or lose your phone for a day. This is more true than ever in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic. From weddings, birthday parties and even funerals shifting online, there aren’t several options but to make peace with being relegated to a small square on Zoom. However, it’s not just Zoom that’s the culprit but also our escalating usage of social media that has increased our screen time. A study of 4500 individuals showed that the majority of respondents acknowledged that their social media consumption (72%) and posting (43%) has peaked during the pandemic. 

In the process of reflecting more critically on my relationship with technology, I started researching more about how social media affects us. A few hours later, I come across a purportedly ‘random’  advertisement asking me, no, almost accusing me of being a ‘social media addict’, “Are you a social media addict? Take this quiz to find out!” As much as I felt called-out by the advertisement, it was hard to avoid. The next thing I knew, I took the quiz. A few hours later, I was watching a rabbit video and had already stalked a friend’s boyfriend’s mother’s sister. How I landed there, I wasn’t sure of that myself either. However, by the end of the day, I knew I was a social media addict!

Social media addiction, according to Addiction Centre is defined as, “a behavioral addiction that is characterized as being overly concerned about social media, driven by an uncontrollable urge to log on to or use social media, and devoting so much time and effort to it such that it impairs other important life areas.” In the previous issue for OpenAxis, Rujuta Singh argued that “in many ways, the addictive nature of social media is a feature, not a design flaw.” Studies indicate that notifications from retweets, likes and shares trigger the release of dopamine within the brain — producing effects similar to that of consuming cocaine. 

A lot of people are increasingly becoming aware of how social media rewires the brain and affects our interaction, yet a few are willing to make a change. I would confess I am one of those who haven’t been willing to make a lasting change for long. Every now and then, I would delete Instagram after either getting bored, disgusted or both, however, my Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) would compel me to be back before the end of the day. This time though, I decided to try something new and radical — a digital detox in complete isolation. 

Digital Detox in Isolation

In 1654, the philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal wrote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” I didn’t quite imagine how tough it is to sit still when I made the decision to quit social media for a week in complete isolation.

Usually, I would wake up to be reminded of my FOMO through Instagram stories of my friends being out. However, the decision of giving up my social media gave me another kind of depressing FOMO. Will I be okay with missing out on posting a cute #couplegoal picture on Valentine’s Day? Are my friends sending me memes that I am not able to see? I didn’t just intensely desire those mundane interactions but craved them. I found myself thinking about whether my friends and family might just forget my presence.

This wasn’t what I imagined when I decided on a “digital detox.” I imagined a calmer, more composed and mindful person. I expected myself to be someone who would want to exercise, be more productive and spend time reading books and doing yoga. Isn’t this how they usually portray people who do a digital detox?  Instead, I found myself getting agitated, bored and just re-reading the same emails — basically utterly unproductive.

I didn’t have the urge to pick up a novel when I knew I couldn’t post a picture or I didn’t quite enjoy my isolation meals as much as I would have. Neither did it lead to a decluttering of my mind, the way I anticipated it would. In fact, being away from social media during complete isolation made me feel bored at best, and lonely and depressed at worst.  Why was I experiencing what I was experiencing, and is digital detox even possible and a worthwhile endeavour to undertake in today’s age? 

Impossibility of a Digital Detox 

“I don’t think digital detoxes are realistic anymore” writes Dr. Doreen Dodgen-Magee, author of Deviced!: Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World. She further writes “We can’t live a connected and informed life that we really need to now, without some form of tech.” At a time especially when one is isolating, alone or quarantined, is it really a wise decision to do a digital detox then? While some wellness experts and articles strongly suggest that digital detox is good for your wellbeing, I personally found that in my experience, it made me more agitated.

A study by  Lancaster University found that as previously postulated, there is no direct ‘proven’ correlation between poor mental health and social media. Even in studies that claim a connection between the two, fail to answer whether poor mental health leads to more social media usage or vice versa. In fact, the same study by Lancaster University posits that worrying about our smartphone use is likelier to cause more depression and anxiety than using the tech. 

It raises the question of whether our brains have adopted technology to the extent that social media has become indispensable and unavoidable? If so, will just accepting that lead to more mental peace? Dr Doreen certainly believes so. She compares our relationship with technology to that of an essential item like food, and in that light, a digital detox is an equivalent of extreme diet. What we could and should strive for then is a mindful, purposeful use of social media instead of a drastic step like a digital detox. This would not just help cultivate a more meaningful relationship with technology but also renegotiate the terms of technology to our terms.

Oh wait, brb, let me quickly share this idea on Facebook! See ya! 

Ridhima Manocha is a final year English and Media Studies student at Ashoka University and has authored the book, The Sun and Shadow.

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 7

Creators, Creativity and Instagram: Are We Losing Ourselves to Social Media?

If you’re an active Instagram or Twitter user and under the age of forty, there’s a high chance you’ve thought about your personal “brand”. What image of yourself are you putting out there? How accurate, and more importantly, how popular, is that image? You might have even considered how with just a little work and some luck, you could be the next big thing.  

In 2018, Instagram introduced the Creator Account. While previously users could choose between personal and business accounts, the launch of creator accounts showed that Instagram recognized influencers as their own category, and an important category at that. These accounts weren’t restricted to established influencers- anyone could switch from a personal to a professional account, no high follower count or blue checkmark necessary. Instagram now has over 900 million users and a large influencer presence. The global influencer market is growing fast, going from 0.8 billion USD in 2017 to 2.3 billion USD in 2020. Naturally, anyone would want to tap into that market, especially since being an influencer seems to consist largely of recording yourself doing various enjoyable things.

 According to Instagram, the Creator Account helps you control your online presence, understand your growth and manage your messages. The ‘growth insights’ also show you how often a post is saved or shared, and map the changes in your follower count to your content. Over time you can collect a highly accurate understanding of what your audience likes, and what you should do more of. This makes sense for businesses whose aim is to attract customers and turn a profit, but what does it mean for so-called creators? The fact that likes, shares and follows are the only responses measured by Instagram insights tell us that any piece of content is only as valuable as the volume of audience engagement it produces. For full-time influencers, higher audience engagement leads directly to a higher income from sponsored posts. The internet boom and the level of connectivity in our lives have led to every waking hour being an hour where you could potentially be working, posting, and reaching an audience. Every waking hour can now return a profit. Add to this the fact that your entire career could revolve around your social media accounts, with no coordination or collaboration required, and the line between ‘work’ and ‘life’ starts to get very blurry indeed. 

Not everyone is looking to be an influencer, but passive consumers are just as addicted to their phones. In many ways, the addictive nature of social media is a feature, not a design flaw. Tristan Harris, an ex-design ethicist at Google, compared mobile phones to slot machines, since every time you pull the lever (in this case, check your phone) you stand to win exciting rewards- likes, followers or texts. He says this philosophy is embedded in many of the apps we use. The more content you create and the more engagement you receive, the higher the reward. Striving for influencer levels of fame is only a natural progression in the Instagram addiction cycle. 

 In his book After the Future, media activist Franco Berardi says that the idea that we should all be capitalists and risk-takers is what brought down labour movements of the eighties. He says, “The essential idea is that we should all consider life as an economic venture, as a race where there are winners and losers.” This idea seems just as popular, if not more popular today. Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram abound with inspirational content promising that if you just work hard enough you too could be a self-made billionaire, and those billions might be one post away. Social media now represents a lucrative career choice for children and young adults. A 2019 poll found that vlogger/YouTuber was the most popular career choice for children in the US and UK. 

Unlike the film, television and music industries, social media lets you create and post anything, at any time, from anywhere in the world, to a potentially infinite audience. This accessibility is part of what makes social media so tempting. The most popular media sharing platforms, like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and more recently, TikTok, are all free and available worldwide. This democratization of the media space is a good thing when it leads to the amplification of marginalized voices. But more often than not, social media rewards volume and quantity over meaningful exchange. In her book ‘How to do Nothing’, artist Jenny Odell talks about her experience of this phenomena in the aftermath of Trump’s election: “It is this financially incentivized proliferation of chatter, and the utter speed at which waves of hysteria now happen online, that has so deeply horrified me and offended my senses and cognition as a human who dwells in human, bodily time.” When the majority of our time is spent online, it becomes harder to feel connected to, and care about, the spaces we actually inhabit. Being constantly bombarded with news and information might make people aware of important issues that have long been ignored, but can also lead to burnout and exhaustion, which then negates their ability to do anything about those issues. 

In the past year as we were forced to stay inside, social media became so ubiquitous in our lives that it was difficult to separate the virtual from the real. However, it also allowed people to connect in a time of deep suffering and loneliness around the world. Social media has also changed the lives of millions of people around the world, be it through a fashion blog or a viral cover of a famous song on YouTube. Hearing these stories makes the idea of quitting social media even less appealing, because if it happened to them, then it could always happen to you. Is that chance worth the price we pay, sacrificing our time and attention? Only time will tell. 

Rujuta Singh is a student of political science, international relations and media studies at Ashoka University. Some of her other interests are fashion, music and writing. 

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 3

Tanishq: Victim of an uncontrollable beast

Image: screenshot from Advertisement

Much has been written about the controversy raised by the Tanishq ad that depicted an inter-faith marriage.

Since all of you would have seen the ad, I’ll refrain from wasting time and space describing the ad.

The big tragedy about the reams of editorial coverage in print and on news TV is that the focus is on the advertising industry and the debate has been reduced to a discussion on whether brands should ride on ‘political’ developments and ‘divisive’ subjects.

As far as I am concerned, the issue has little to do with advertising and all to do with the larger issue of the collapse of tolerance in society. Much of this erosion of tolerance is provoked by the need to follow the herd to be popular in social media.

Before we get to the crux of this article, which is ‘the interaction between social media and advertising in the Tanishq case’, let me give you a quick lesson in media.

For a moment, think of all news TV consumed as represented by a one-meter rule. All the viewership of ALL the news channels is represented by the one-meter rule. If you look at the share of ALL the English news channels, it will occupy perhaps ONE centimeter of this one-meter rule. “English news is very niche in India, and therefore accounts for only 1% share of News viewership at an All India level,” says BARC.

That’s it. That is the reach of English news channels. 

Yet, English news channels are not without influence – perhaps they enjoy unnatural and undue influence, thanks to the scale of India, the low allocation of funds to news-gathering in India – and social media.

So let me illustrate how this undue influence works.

Republic TV does a story, say, on match-fixing.

Republic’s social media handles all talk about this issue.

Republic’s social media team creates a flurry of hashtags connected to the story.

Republic’s social media team ‘buys’ reach (legally) on social media and cause the story and the hashtags to trend.

The underpaid and under-resourced journalists in small towns across India, with no budgets for travel or, indeed, for endless phone calls across the country, take the easy way out and follow ‘influencers’ on social media. In the current illustration, they’re following Republic’s handle and, of course, keeping an eye on trending topics.

So journalists across the country, thanks to this extraordinary, unchecked and unfettered ‘source’, viz social media, decide that the match-fixing story is VERY IMPORTANT.

And they write and file their own stories as well.

So much for what the media does.

The consumer, the citizen, does his or her own amplification, spurred by similar provocations.

The consumer, too, follows influencers and keeps track of hashtags and trends. In addition, the consumer keeps an eye on social media updates of friends and relatives and truly LOCAL infleuncers. 

And if the Republic match-fixing story pops up on these pages, up pops the Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO). In dealing with the fear, the consumer adds his or own bit of spice to the story, based on the echo chamber he or she lives in.

Now, let’s get back to the Tanishq ad.

Consider what has happened to a citizen of Jamshedpur who has no knowledge of Tanishq or the controversy, no problem with Hindus and Muslims marrying each other and has never seen the ad and has not seen the coverage on TV.

The story appears on Twitter because the citizen’s classmate RT’ed a tweet. In the RT, the citizen’s classmate denounced the ad, denounced Tanishq and denounced the Tata group.

Aware of FOMO, our hero, the citizen of Jamshedpur referred to earlier, RTs the RT.

And, as thousands of similar citizens do the same, a controversy is born, even if the ad has hardly been seen by the majority who protest about it.

Now it gets worse. Politicians of all hues, too, are on social media and follow the same trends.

And, very quickly, they find that they have the opportunity to ‘ride’ a trend. They can profit or lose by choosing one side of the controversy; in the Tanishq case, the ‘profitable’ side was to denounce inter-faith marriages and, consequently, denounce Tanishq.

So they ‘protest’ at Tanishq showrooms, confident in the knowledge that the protest will be covered by media.

And a new story will be born and aired by news channels.

And the new story will find its way into social media.

And the new story will come back to Jamshedpur.

And FOMO will make the new story trend….

It’s a new news cycle. Unchecked and without a sense of responsibility. More frighteningly, no one has control over this beast.

Tanishq was a victim of this uncontrolled and vicious beast.

The question is: Who is the next? And the next? And the next?

Anant Rangaswami is the editor of Storyboard, the advertising, media and marketing show on CNBC TV18. He is also senior editor at FirstPost.com, and has authored two books, ‘Watching from the Sidelines’ and ‘The Elephants in the Room: The future of advertising in India 2016.

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 3

Do Social Media Protests Amount To Anything In India?

“Twitter storm at 9 PM with #BringMigrantsHome”. “Please share #EndSARS”. Hundreds of thousands of hashtags like these are being used to protest on social media. The most recent of these is the hashtag #DalitLivesMatter in the wake of a brutal rape and murder of a Dalit girl in Uttar Pradesh. 

The past decade has seen an exponential increase in the number of social media users world over, with Facebook, Instagram and Twitter being the most popular few. A McKinsey report states that India had around 294 million social media users in 2018, with this figure only increasing. Anna Hazare’s Anti-corruption movement was one of the first to use social media as a tool for social movements and protests. With the COVID induced lockdown, physical protests are no longer possible and social media has become the primary protest medium. 

Protests earlier required careful planning and organisation with people sometimes having to go door to door to raise awareness. Social media has greatly accelerated this process. The December 2019 attack on JNU students saw immediate protests on the same night, mobilised through social media. More importantly, social media has helped movements reach wider, sometimes international audiences without having to depend on traditional media outlets. Hashtags are an important tool — the more they are used, the more popular they become. The #MeToo movement highlights the immense potential of online protests. Not only did women feel more empowered to come forward with their own stories, governments and companies world over instituted sexual harassment policies and began to take reports much more seriously. The story is a little different in India.

Multiple reports state that two years after the MeToo movement gained traction in India, little has changed. Most of the accused continue to live their lives unaffected by the movement. While the immediate movement saw an outpouring of anger, the storm died down quickly and things were back to normal. It had all but disappeared from the media and national conscience alike. The movement lasted for roughly 3 months since it took off in October 2018. Many companies created Internal Complaints Committees and sensitisation workshops, but it was mostly lip service. MeToo continues to exist in the online space, primarily due to its prominence in the western world.

The infamous “Bois Locker Room” group chats that surfaced in May 2020 met a similar fate. Screenshots of a private Instagram group chat consisted of teenage boys from National Capital Region schools sharing intimate images of teenage girls, sexualising and body-shaming them. These screenshots were widely shared on social media. The police soon caught wind of these and conducted an investigation. What followed was dubbed mini #MeToo movement with people coming out with similar stories of online harassment that they had faced. After the news of police action spread, social media users and a few newspapers and television channels were preoccupied with this case for two weeks, debating the causes and correctional measures before interest fizzled out.

Similar trajectories can be observed for movements like the anti-CAA protest, the attacks on JNU students, the new Environmental Impact Assessment 2020 and Indian occupation of Kashmir. People still share occasional reminders that things aren’t normal yet, but most information and activism remains confined to a few accounts.

The Dalit Lives Matter is the most recent iteration of this cycle. The usage of this hashtag peaked on the 3rd of October, a few days after news broke of the events, following which its use declined steadily. Physical protests were impossible during this time due to COVID-19 restrictions, so people improvised by posting pictures of themselves holding placards in their own homes, from Mumbai to NYC, Toronto and Berlin. Today, in the final week of the same month, the hashtag continues to experience spikes on days when new similar cases come to light but is otherwise rarely used.

So, what is responsible for this life cycle of social media protests in India? Can the same not be said of protests around the world since people generally have a limited attention span? The Hindu quotes a 2019 report by Kantar IMRB, a market research, survey and business consultancy firm, as stating that internet penetration in rural India is just 25%, compared to 66% in urban regions, even as it continues to grow rapidly. Caste and religion demographics further complicate this divide. A study by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) has found that Upper castes have the highest exposure to social media, followed by Muslims and then Dalits and tribal communities. Men were found to have more internet access than women. A primary issue is that of access. Many of these protests are for minorities, whether Dalits and Dalit Lives Matter or Muslims and the Anti-CAA protests. The people amplifying these voices online very often aren’t the stakeholders in these movements and can thus afford to lose interest or forget about them. An upper-caste male, however sympathetic to the cause of caste-based violence, will have the luxury to choose his battles. This is one reason for this cycle. 

The rhetoric of social protest online is complicated. The medium, more often than not, is English. According to a joint report published by KPMG India and Google, the total number of English language internet users in India in 2016 was just 175 million, compared to 234 million Indian language users. Online protests try to reach a wider audience across the country and the world, for which English is the most convenient medium. This further limits the reach of the posts. The issue of partisanship is worldwide, but people in other countries do not always have to cross language barriers in hundreds of languages. Thus, even when the other party may not agree with you, they can at least be exposed to your point of view.

Anti-CAA protests continued like the Black Lives Matter protests in the US continued long after media houses had stopped reporting on them. The reason the former fell out of online public consciousness and the latter did not was the levels of exposure they received. BLM was sustained by prominent figures like Hollywood celebrities. Artists like Zendaya Coleman and Shawn Mendes, who have a large young following would regularly hand over their online platforms to leaders of the BLM movement. Indian celebrities also have a large and diverse following, but most were unwilling to speak up on the issue. These movements thus lost out on harnessing the power of millions for their sustenance.

A woman in a Tamil Nadu village stated that most people around her dismissed MeToo as being associated with “trouble-making” feminism. The MeToo movement was dominated by upper-caste, upper-class women. There was little space for Dalit women, the maids and nannies that worked for these women. Many might not even know about this movement, which had an English name and rarely appeared in translation. While Dalit women disproportionately face caste-based sexual violence, they were left out. 

These movements do not fade away entirely. Long after news media and the public have moved onto the next sensational news, certain groups keep working. In addition to on-ground work, online accounts like “standwkashmir” and “fridaysforfuture” continue posting about issues. The final culprit is social media algorithms, which customise your newsfeeds to your tastes. Someone who has not expressed any interest in these causes will never be exposed to them and a large audience is lost. The #EIA2020 successfully got the deadline for the EIA pushed by a few months. MeToo did bring about limited positive change. This article isn’t to discredit social media protests. It is simply to examine why we haven’t harnessed their full potential

For the online world, power is in numbers. When a majority of the population is unaware of the existence of movements, movements cannot be sustained. When stakeholders themselves do not have a voice, little progress can be made. The limited life cycle of social movements in India is not a matter of a lack of interest but one of access. 

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). 

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Issue 2

Culture Wars: When Private Goes Public

India and China have been engaged in a military standoff in eastern Ladakh for over 150 days now, with the worst cross-border violence since the 1962 war between the two nations. There is a heightened sentiment of nationalism in the country, which has made its way into the digital lives of several students of Ashoka University. On 24th September, two right-wing social media accounts, one on Twitter and the other on Instagram, publicly shared screenshots from a closed Facebook group of Ashoka’s undergraduate students. The screenshots were of comments made by Ashokans on a months-old post in the private group. Some of the comments in the screenshots, which were not blurred to hide the names and profile pictures of the students, were critical of “Indian culture” and the “armed forces.” 

Those who posted the screenshots claim that these comments amount to cyberbullying and point to the “anti-national” and “vile mindset” of the “activist lobby and left-wing students” of Ashoka, who “celebrated the death of Indian Army.” The comments on these posts include the use of misogynistic slurs, a call for “public execution”, and even one threat of worse-than-Hitler treatment. As of now, the Facebook group has been disbanded by Ashoka’s Student Government out of fear of other students being doxxed for their older posts. Deliberations are underway as to what should be the way forward, bearing in mind the safety and privacy of all members of the student community. 

Since the accounts are public, and the posts continue to remain online, many of the students whose identities were revealed have had to temporarily, or in some cases permanently, deactivate their social media handles. There are credible accounts of some of these students being flooded with unknown friend requests and receiving threatening messages in their inbox. While such an incident may be a first in the history of the student body, many Ashokans have individually had prior encounters with such hate and vitriol online. 

There is a sense of deep division and distrust within the student community, as comments made in a closed group with the pretext of privacy have somehow been “leaked” and put on public display. This polarisation over social media is certainly not unique to Ashoka, and it has largely characterized political discourse on social media over the past few years. Several hot-button political issues have emerged in India in the recent past. This has sharply divided many Indians. 

While there are commercial antecedents to this phenomenon (i.e. confrontational posts on social media get more engagement and therefore increase ad revenue of these platforms), there is also a sociological angle. American sociologist James Davison Hunter provided the framework of “culture wars” in 1991, through which this polarisation can be analysed. While the phrase “culture wars” has mainly been used in the context of the US polity, it can resonate greatly in the Indian context. A culture war can be understood as a power struggle between social groups with competing ideological worldviews that clash over values, moral codes, and lifestyles. Although the conflict may be fundamentally underpinned by genuine disagreement over what is good for the public, instead of positive tactics of constructively reasoning about one’s ideology with others, a negative strategy of systematically discrediting one’s opponents increasingly becomes the go-to one. 

The addition of technology only serves to vitiate this concoction further. The advent of mass media like print and television, for example, in the context of culture wars, meant that public engagement amongst opposing groups over their political differences was increasingly antagonistic and asinine. Likewise, the frontier of social media is historically unique in this regard and much more conducive to the negative strategy, according to research by Samatha R. Holley on social media’s effect on the culture war. Echo chambers and disinformation campaigns cause one’s existing convictions to be reinforced, leading in some cases to cognitive dissonance when confronted with alternative viewpoints. The algorithms that run our social media feeds are meant to psychologically manipulate us into staying on these platforms. 

As the world’s second largest social media market with 35 crore users, India is undoubtedly affected by these phenomena. In attempting to draw a picture of the warring groups on Indian social media, one may reduce it to two sides: the religious/orthodox right-wing and the secular/progressive left-wing. The right would consist of the conservative and Hindutva ideologies and the left would consist of the liberal and socialist ideologies. However, it must be noted that this crude oversimplification of the political spectrum must not obfuscate the fact that the groups are in no way homogenous or equivalent. It would be simply dishonest to deny that the balance of power tilts in favor of the right-wing in India today, in terms of finances, institutions, and human resources.

Both the warring groups claim that their “way of life”, or in some cases, their very lives, are under attack from the other side. The negative tactics manifest themselves in the form of “trolling” on part of the right, and “cancel culture” on part of the left. Many diverse incidents tend to be smoothed over and bracketed under the umbrella term of cancel culture. It refers to vitriolic behavior that is just as harmful as trolling, but justified, not by traditional value systems in society, but by misplaced ideals of social justice and political correctness. The use of the term here is not intended to repudiate the democratising effect of social media, that has led to traditional elites like politicians, authors, and artists, being held accountable for their words and actions. 

The revolution of social media in culture wars has been likened to that of industrial weapons technology in conventional warfare. Some of the strategies deployed on these platforms are dangerously harmful, and in some cases, also fatal. On other occasions, such as the incident involving Ashokans, the boundaries between the public and the private are seriously impinged. These tactics are justified by inflating the political stakes to such an extent that no means seem morally unjustified. 

Granted, in the present political climate, the stakes for minority groups and marginalized folks are indeed unimaginably high. However, many of those indulging in trolling or cancelling are doing so with a sense of speaking and fighting on behalf of the subaltern. One is being naive if they believe that fighting such online battles alone leads to anything but momentary self-gratification. Grassroots change has not been achieved when the privileged abdicate this most basic social imperative by saying “I do not owe it to educate you”. It has been achieved when students and activists heed the Ambedkarite call to “educate, agitate, organize,” with emphasis on the first step.

Deep Vakil is a student of Political Science and Sociology 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 2

Sitting inside the black mirror and peeking at the world beyond

Social media is all around us. One can argue that the very way in which we communicate today and conceptualize interactions with the world at large, has been fundamentally altered by social media. Television shows such as Black Mirror or the Netflix Documentary Social Dilemma have drawn public attention to the ramifications of human-computer interactions.  While there is no denying that social media has made staying in touch with friends and family, no matter where they are a breeze, as well as aided technological progress, there is unfortunately, a flipside. The problem is twofold —  one, we often believe our social media feeds an accurate representation of reality. And second, we spend too much time on our devices, which makes problem one worse.

To understand why we keep spending increasing amounts of time with our smart devices is tied to how internet companies such as Google, Facebook, Instagram etc. make money while providing services for free.   

A company, by definition, exists to generate a profit. That holds true for internet companies as well. While we are not charged for Facebook, Instagram and the likes, they monetise through ad revenues. This, therefore, makes them depend on their algorithms to detect patterns in our browsing behaviour, so that they can match us to the best possible advertisers, and if we look at an ad long enough, we might be prompted to spend money.

Two corollaries further follow: 

First, better accuracy of the algorithm in predicting our patterns of behaviour on the internet allows the company to better tailor its content for our feed. 

Second, the longer time we spend on our screen, the more ads we see, the more money the company makes by charging the vendors. 

To achieve the first goal, one of the main strategies companies use is AI based smart algorithms. Machine learning means you give the algorithm a goal and then it’ll figure out how to achieve it by itself. AI is also only as good as the data that it’s trained it on. Companies like Google and Facebook have huge data sets at their disposal, because of the vast number of their users from different countries spending lots of time online. This amounts to an unfathomable quantity of data. Modern algorithms accurately tailor social media feeds based on these patterns. By showing content we like frequently, they ensure we stay on the devices longer. Knowing this is very important, because this prevents us from believing that our social media feed is an accurate representation of the world. Once the false belief system takes hold, it makes us more partisan — to the level we cannot even consider having a discussion with people harbouring contrarian viewpoints. The lack of will to engage rationally with the other side is dangerous for public discourse. This is at the centre of exclusion, discrimination, hate speech and hate crimes based on gender, class and caste, ethnic and religious minorities. 

Additionally, most of the social media apps are designed based on the psychology of persuasion and more dangerously, addiction. In the 1930s, B.F. Skinner showed what we describe today as “operant learning”- animals repeat behaviours and learn a task when given a reward.  They don’t do this when the reward is taken away. However, when Skinner started to change the schedule of reward delivery, he found something striking.  When reward delivery follows a varied ratio interval (food pellet delivered after an uncertain number of lever presses), i.e. when the animals expect without knowing when they will be rewarded, they learn to repeat the task behaviour fastest. More importantly, even if the rewards are stopped entirely, they keep on pushing the lever. It showed that this type of learned behaviour is extremely difficult to extinguish. This is exactly the principle on which gambling and slot machines work: they keep the gambler on tenterhooks of expecting a win and in the process, they keep them playing and continue betting.

Both the brain pathways and the neurotransmitters that underlie such addictive behavior have been characterized in detail over the years.  Deep in our midbrain and brain stem sits a group of neurons that release dopamine, the pleasure chemical. This area is the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA). VTA neurons talk to another set of neurons hidden under the cerebral cortex- the nucleus accumbens, which in turn talks to the frontal part of the brain, where most important executive controls and decision making reside. Any natural rewards, such as food, pleasurable sex, or satiety, result in dopamine release at the Nucleus Accumbens, which through the cortex, causes the sensation of pleasure and reward. This is why we like to repeat what makes us feel good. Addiction hijacks this pathway, whether it is a chemical addiction such as cocaine or a physical addiction like gambling. These behaviors cause a massive upsurge in dopamine, much larger than physiological dopamine release. In seasoned addicts, the anticipation of reward releases twice as much dopamine than the actual reward. This biological phenomenon makes it hard to successfully abstain from addiction. 

Image Courtesy: drugabuse.gov

This is the mechanism that has been targeted by most tech companies. As the time spent with the devices is directly proportional to the ad revenues the companies earn, it favours the companies’ interests to make social media usage addictive. Hence, most elements of app design now use endless notifications, personalizing our feeds better everyday, and building in features like the answering bubble with moving dots when someone is replying. Most apps did not have this before. This is a classic example where the dopamine upsurge of anticipation is utilized. If this is a person of romantic interest or a recruitment manager, the anticipation of the reward can be more addictive than the reward itself. 

The fact that you pick up your phone and 25 minutes whoosh past isn’t random; it isn’t you. The anticipation of receiving curated content is arguably similar to a dopamine rush a gambling addict would get.

If this sounds far-fetched, take a simple test. Go device free for 24-48 hours. Lock them away. Track your mood changes, craving and general wellbeing and distress in this time. How irritable or uneasy are you? How much do you fear you are missing out or crave your device? Once you are able to get your device back, chart how long you have used it every day (all smartphones/tablets can tell you how much screen time you have had in a day). Now compare the usage from the 48 hours after abstinence to your regular usage. The mood charting shows how bad your social media habits are. 

 We survived fine till 2007 when smartphones were introduced. While our brains have evolved little over the past millennia, our environment has exploded over the past decades, especially in the online space. Biological evolution cannot keep up with the exponential evolution of technology. Therefore, spending too long on your devices makes you vulnerable to a range of health problems: poor eyesight, postural pains, lack of exercise etc. Also, engaging constantly with deeply disturbing content, even if they are on social justice issues, will inevitably start affecting your mental health and wellbeing. The world around is brutal and unfair. It is rife with discrimination and atrocities. While we should be aware of such inequalities, engaging with news all day can lead to a sense of loss of control over your life. All of these are good reasons to give yourself a periodic detox from social media. 

Given how all-pervasive social media is, where and how do we draw the line? Here are a few tips:

  1. Know that this is a world of your own creation. 

If you subscribe to viewpoint A, the apps curate your feeds with everything that reinforce A and negate all other viewpoints. You gravitate towards atrocities committed by members of anyone who does not subscribe to A and you behave as if the only reality in the world is understood by those who subscribe to A, and all others cannot be debated or even conversed with. Ultimately this makes the society more polarized. Arguably, this world is far more polarized than the world 40 years ago. Falling prey to believing the version of reality on your screens as absolute reality, you open yourself up to be easily manipulated to now indulge in hate speech, insensitivity, and sometimes, physical violence towards people whose views contradict yours. Listen to the contrarian view-points. Don’t allow one ideology to wholly dictate what you trust.

  1. Give yourself a digital detox every now and then. 

 When you’re not busy with work, limit your screen time.  When you go out with your friends for a much sought-after coffee, engage in conversations. Mutually agree to restrict mobile usage to 3-5 photos for the entire duration of the meet. Write physically in a journal every day. Exchange letters. Indulge in hobbies and activities that do not involve screens.  When you are on vacation, switch off your phone entirely. Activate an automatic email reply with the dates when you will return to work and the name of an interim person who can be reached out to if urgent. 

  1. Resist the temptation to document each moment of your life on social media. 

Besides adding to your digital footprint, this leads to unhealthy comparisons. Most people put their best foot forward on social media. Everyone posts pictures where they are doing something fun. Very few people post unhappy pictures on Instagram or write when they have a bad day at work on Facebook, yet negative things happen to all humans, every day. If we believe everything we see on feeds to be a true reflection of their lives, we buy into this idea that everyone has a perfect life, except, well, ourselves. This is not true. No one has a perfect life, and what people project on social media is often different from their real lives. So do not compare yourself to anyone on social media. Live your life as you want, without telling everyone about every moment of it. The “likes” only activate those short dopamine loops that provide instant gratification and are addictive. No amount of likes determine self-worth. So actively stop tying notions of self-worth with the likes and followers on social media. 

  1. Be a conscious consumer and not a prey to the influencer phenomenon. 

Social media can be used constructively. Collaborations, products and partnerships have evolved to its credit. If you are curating your own feed, use this awareness and the powerful AI behind apps to curate a feed that is good for you —  pages and channels that deliver creative content, help amplify positive messaging, promote mindfulness and healthy living. 

In that same vein, be picky about who you choose to follow as their content will make your curated feed, and likely only add similar content. We live in a country where influencers with millions of followers routinely promote misogyny, crass, classist, casteist, and majoritarian views. When you decide to follow an account,  try to determine the veracity of their claims. Do they cite data? What is the source? If you look at the data, does their conclusion make any sense? Never amplify something you have not fact checked before. There is a tremendous amount of misinformation in the post truth era. 

  1. General principles of sensible social media use

 Research has shown that constant social media usage leads to an inability to focus and restlessness. These directly affect professional or educational performance. A slew of productivity-based apps using the pomodoro technique (20 minutes for work followed by a 5-minute break) and restricting social media usage are available on all platforms and can be used for structuring the work day. The break can be used to do any activity that does not involve phones or computers. Outside work hours, make some rules for social media usage and stick to them. Turn notifications off for most apps except your calendar or reminders.  

Another effective rule is the “no phone at dinner and beyond” rule. Do not reach for your phone before sleep and as you open your eyes the next morning. Try holding off at least until after breakfast. These simple rules go a long way to ensure our internet usage stays under control.

While social media can foster a sense of community, it can also take away from face to face interactions which eventually raises a lot of concerns over your physical and mental health. Being conscious of that is relevant, simply because we cannot avoid it.

Simantini Ghosh is an Assistant Professor and PhD Coordinator for the Department of Psychology 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.

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