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Issue 10

University Spaces: Where the ‘Personal’ Becomes the ‘Political’

Politics in India often termed as ‘unreasonable’ and ‘non-educational,’ restricts our perception of a successful education to that of studying science. These professional fields of study encourage students’ engagement with science and development, more than social and political advancements. Moreover, they are not primarily concerned with ensuring social justice or equality. Indian psychologist and social theorist Ashis Nandy refers to science and development as the two new reasons of state besides national security, that have emerged since WWII. Indian elites have treated science “as a sphere of knowledge which should be free from the constraints of day-to-day politics.” As Pratap Bhanu Mehta puts it, confined to mere economic growth and transactional language of goods and service, the term ‘development’ leaves out the ideas of freedom, and democracy. Universities catering to these ideas of freedom and democracy act as influential spaces for student resistance movements, and motivates them to participate in national politics by upholding their liberal stances. 

Science Says, “Politics, You Stay Away”

Politics involves the establishment of an egalitarian society and requires a developing relationship with technology to ensure each other’s survival as well as their contribution towards resolving societal ills. However, the Indian middle-class have come to view technology as a “source of legitimacy for science” and as a way of tackling all complicated social and political problems. This perception of technology operating in a political vacuum is termed as technicism, according to Schuurman. It maintains the political domination of the apolitical, technocratic, modern elite upon decision-making processes. This notion of science and technology results in their promotion by Indian elites as apolitical, according to Nandy. At the same time, it marginalizes available social and political solutions, by extremizing their excesses, as well as associating credible politicians, academics, journalists, activists, and students as anti-nationals. Science and technology, therefore, serves as a sole “escape from the dirtiness of politics” for most Indian elites. 

Although science and technology are perceived in isolation from politics, the question arises –  isn’t politics everywhere – in our personal spaces as well as educational institutions? Educational spaces, especially university campuses in India have allowed for the most expressive manifestation of politics in the past as well as the present. This engagement with leadership within universities encourages students to actively participate in national politics and pursue it as a career. There have been various student leader-turned politicians in India – Arun Jaitley, Prakash Javadekar, Shashi Tharoor and Nupur Sharma, to name a few. Alongside Kanhaiya Kumar who contested the 2019 Lok Sabha elections from Bihar’s Begusarai, Aishe Ghosh, the incumbent President of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union stands as a Left-Congress alliance’s candidate in the West Bengal Assembly Elections. She says, “it is a big responsibility, but my politics will remain the same. The issues we fight for in JNU are an extension of what is happening across the country … I will carry these issues that I fought for in JNU to the people of West Bengal.” These narratives of students participating in national politics make one wonder, what is it about university campuses that produce eminent politicians in a country where most families are obsessed with wanting their child to pursue professional careers in science?

Technical Institutions in India: Technology and Social Empowerment?

The debates preceding India’s Independence, between political and scientific players entailed an establishment of a desirable relationship between politics and technology, however, their legacy appears to have been forgotten with time. The establishment of four IITs by the American team in India considered social patterns, political and cultural traditions as mere obstacles in their way, accompanied by the lack of imagination of the era to highlight the intersections of the two fields. Even though Humanities and Social Sciences were integrated into their curriculum, their scope remained limited thus, preventing intellectual culture, and the possibility of links between technology and social empowerment. 

The perceived free-of-politics atmosphere of the sciences is not to claim that technical institutions have never participated in national protests. Protests by students of IITs caste-based and religious discrimination is not unheard of. However, the constant monitoring of these spaces by state authorities seems to act as an impediment to their action towards other national issues. The existence of this vacuum is exemplified through a recent example, where a circular released by the IIT-Bombay administration warned its hostel residents against participating in “anti-national … activities.” The director called the Institute that “of eminence, with the primary purpose of producing high-quality engineering graduates and research that could be of help to the society at large.” 

It is crucial to note that these notifications arrived when students were protesting against the controversial CAA-NRC and the violence that occurred on university campuses like JNU, AMU and Jamia Millia Islamia. Concerned about its ‘scientific temper’ coming under scrutiny, the director further asked “its staff and employees to refrain from making statements that could ‘embarrass the relations’ of the institute with the central government.” Moreover, the desperate attempt of the government to control these institutions is evidenced by the news of the HRD Ministry issuing orders to technical institutions to keep a tab on their students’ social media accounts. The point here is not to focus on the legitimacy of this notice, instead, the possibility of its occurrence in the near future, with the most recent lateral surveillance and cyber volunteer programs. This incident marks the reduction of the intellectual agenda of the IITs to that of “suppliers” to the demands of the market economy to suit the goals of development, defined in technicist terms of industry, market and state. 

University Spaces As Challenging Hegemonic Structures

Universities either promoting a culture of politics or dismissing them is a consequence of the field of study and the cause that they stand for. Central universities such as Jamia Millia Islamia, JNU, DU, AMU, HCU, Osmania and many more are often under attack for their anti-governmental stances. This attack is not confined to the students alone but is an intimidation process to label them as violent. However, their rigorous curriculum on arts, humanities along with sciences, allows for critical thinking and acts as a space for imagination enables students to engage with social and political subjects perhaps more than what one witnesses in technical institutions. It is these imaginations that lead to knowledge-production, that challenge hegemonic structures and present alternate narratives beyond the binaries produced by the status quo. Universities offering engagement with political science and related branches of study as a part of their curricula cannot survive without the collective aspirations of their students. Students function as enablers of resistance movements and engage with politics beyond socially constructed ideas of the term, furthering research possibilities within academia. 

“University works as a form of mediation between theory and practice,” claims sociologist Gaurav Pathania. Additionally, the space of the university acts as an equalizer. That is, it provides equal access to tools of resistance such as technology, digital media, and brings students from diverse backgrounds together within a common physical and social space for registering protests, which also fosters empathy amongst students. Apart from classrooms acting as a formal space for expressing opinions, it is the informal spaces within university campuses where “social education happens.” Hostels, dining halls, chai/dhaba spots, and libraries allow space for both interpersonal as well as ideological conversations. The expression of collective stances through art installations in these areas encourages others to contribute towards the cause at hand. 

Pathania claims them to be spaces where “private lives of people come together as public.” That is, where the personal becomes the political. These resistance movements, therefore, necessitate academic freedom in universities. Without the freedom to read and express ideas that do not adhere to the status quo, it is nearly impossible to extend these conversations to the realm of national politics. Understanding the intersectionalities of technology, society and politics, along with interdisciplinarity within academia is crucial to resisting the dominant socio-political structures in one’s daily life. The liberating space of a university complements major global movements, adding to their students’ ability to bring significant change through their political leadership. Instances of students becoming future leaders enhances the credibility of political academia, thus, erasing the notion of commonly associated “dirt.”  

Picture Credits: PTI

Ariba is a student of 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 10

The Scramble For Mars: Why Are We So Obsessed With the Red Planet?

The mysterious disappearance of Mars’ ocean witnessed a major breakthrough in the past week – it might have never been lost at all. A recent NASA-backed study found that between 30 to 99 percent of the planet’s water is likely held within its crust in the form of hydrated minerals. While the extraction of water from these minerals may not be an easy feat, the study has gathered substantial traction at a time when humanity is looking to Mars like never before. Why are human beings obsessed with colonizing Mars – and what does this obsession represent?

The desire to explore Mars initially stemmed from a curiosity to enhance knowledge about the conditions that lead to life on a planet. It is also studied to understand how critical shifts in climate fundamentally alter planets. Recently, though, the paramount motivation to explore the planet is rooted in the objective of establishing an interplanetary human civilization – as a crucial safeguard against mass-extinction.  

The obsession with colonizing Mars is a product of several factors. One argument holds that only a space-faring human civilization faces the best odds of survival. This perspective is closely linked to the fear of death and the desire for “immortality” which motivates sending humans to other worlds. Moreover, a “biological motive(s)” with respect to the innate human desire for migration has been repeatedly suggested to substantiate extra-terrestrial prospects for the human race. Additionally, the romanticization of establishing an interplanetary existence for human beings also arises from optimistic perspectives of establishing a “utopia”. Setting up a space-faring civilization is expected to unify humanity and positively impact perspectives on socio-political and economic systems to finally create an “ideal” society. 

As alluring as these reasons may be, they are not grounded in reality – especially given the glaring gaps in scientific knowledge about how to establish self-sustaining human life on Mars. The argument that only colonizing Mars, and other planets will significantly improve the chance of human survival can be countered by arguing that sending humans to other worlds may not prove to be safer beyond a probability analysis. Attempting to address crises on Earth – such as the climate emergency – may increase the probability of human survival as well. The prospect of reaching Mars can disrupt efforts to find possible solutions to problems on Earth.  

Secondly, it is important to acknowledge that the idea of human progression is one that is culturally propagated. Just as human beings have historically shown tendencies to migrate, they have also displayed the desire to settle down. Justifying colonization of other planets on this basis ignores the fetishization of space travel, that equates space exploration with technological advancement and national power. 

 Thirdly, notions of a utopian human existence on faraway planets are naïve. The connotations of the usage of the word “colonization” elicits references to intergenerational torture unleashed at the cost of building “moral” and “civilized” societies. The modern interaction between “colonization” of planets and the advent of large-scale capitalism is bound to have similar consequences. Though human activities in space are governed by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which posits that international law applies in outer space, the moon and other celestial bodies, the ambiguities in its laws allows corporate entities to circumvent its clauses.

This came to life in the case of SpaceX, a private company based in the United States that designs and manufactures rockets and spacecrafts. The company has declared that the services of one of its products will not fall under the jurisdiction of any Earth-based government; in addition, Earth-based governments will also agree to recognize Mars as a free planet. This position becomes more dubious when analyzing SpaceX’s CEO, Elon Musk’s, claim that “loans” and “jobs” will be made available for those unable to pay for the exorbitant trip across space to sustain their life on Mars; essentially representing an interplanetary repackaging of indentured servitude. Hence, given the current state of space legislation, it will not be anytime soon that economic and social equality will be ensured for a space-faring civilization – completely shattering any possibility of “utopia” on Mars. 

The colonization of Mars, consequently, also raises important moral questions – particularly about how a Martian society would operate. A new approach suggests that once human beings arrive at Mars, they should disconnect from their Earthly relatives. This “liberation” perspective implies that once permanent human settlers arrive at Mars, they should relinquish their planetary citizenship for Earth – instead adopting Martian citizenship. From that point on, the Martians should be left to their own devices. Any entities – governmental, non-governmental – must not engage with the economics, politics, or culture of this society. While scientific exploration by Earth’s citizens can continue on Mars, sharing research and information should only take place to achieve medical or educational goals. Most importantly, the citizens of Earth must not make any demands for Martian resources. 

The idea behind this position is simple – in order to develop a Martian extension of human civilization, it must be allowed to freely determine its fate, just as human beings did on Earth. Often the mission to establish human existence on Mars is projected as a “moral” position by governments and businessmen, in which case the liberation approach is the most principled execution of this goal. The reason why this idea doesn’t sit well with human society – and probably never will – is because colonizing Mars is, inherently, a selfish, human fantasy. This fantasy emerges from the desire to possess and profit – either in the form of capital or nationalist feats, or both. It is impossible to isolate the race to establish human settlements on different planets from geopolitical, social and economic processes existing on Earth; the maniacal pursuit of Mars is about scientific triumph as much as it is about a show of power.

The obsession to populate Mars, hence, represents the manifestation of the worst in humanity – never-ending curiosity coupled with little regard for ethical, sociopolitical, or economic consequences of the same. Instead of addressing the glaring issues that currently exist on Earth, there are strong desires to “advance” to the perceived next stage of human existence. While it can be debated whether occupying other planets will objectively be beneficial, the only thing that becomes painfully clear is that humanity is preparing to leap from one ill-fated land to the next – with little awareness or regard for the problems it will inevitably carry to the new worlds it explores. 

Aarohi Sharma is a Psychology student at Ashoka University. Her academic interests primarily focus on the intersection of politics and psychology in society.

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 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).

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Issue 6

Technology will change, but what about ethics?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture Credit: Elena Lacey; Getty Images

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

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

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Issue 4

The 5G Conundrum: Can we achieve carbon neutrality?

On 13th October 2020, Apple unveiled its new lineup of iPhone 12 phones in its virtual Special Event. Like other Apple release events, this too garnered great attention. But this time, fans were divided over Apple’s decision to not include the charging brick and earphones from further on. 

Apple’s website claims that the company’s decision to revamp its packaging and not include the charging block and earphone is one step among many towards their goal of making all products carbon neutral by 2030. But the introduction of 5G into its devices raises an important question. Is the company really contributing to offset carbon emissions, even beyond its sale to the consumer?

These new iPhones will be the first smartphones from Apple that feature 5G connectivity. Samsung released its first all-5G smartphone in March this year. Companies like Google and Nokia followed suit. As technology continues to rapidly progress, in the next few years or maybe even sooner, mid-range and low-end smartphones from other companies will surely include 5G.  Like Apple, these companies will also advertise their phones’ 5G feature. Assuming that the use of 5G will be widespread, it is pivotal that we look at how sustainable it is.

According to an International Telecommunication Union (ITU) report, 53.6% of the global population or more than 4 billion people use the internet. From sending emails to searching, all of our actions on the internet result in carbon emissions. To allow data transmission on such a large scale, enormous amounts of energy is required to operate servers, cloud services and run data centers. The carbon footprint of this, along with what results from the usage of our devices, results in colossal units of greenhouse gas emissions. BBC reports this amount to be almost 1.7 billion tonnes every year. 

Conversations around carbon emissions rarely examine the effects of internet data centres. According to a 2019 Greenpeace report, the internet conglomerate, Amazon, backtracked from its commitment to using 100% clean energy to operate its data centres as it expanded. It was found that Amazon’s data centres in Virginia were powered by only 12% of renewable energy. When WIRED reached out to Amazon for comments, it received no reply from the web service giant. 

Events like these create anxieties for a world that has been ravaged by several disasters due to global warming which has been a direct consequence of exorbitant levels of carbon emissions. 

The dilemma posed by the need to have more technologies is concerning not just for big companies and environmental organizations but also to the average person. In June 2018, CBS reported that wireless companies in the US would have to install 300,000 new transmission antennas for the rollout of 5G connectivity. The reason for this is because the higher frequency requires antennas to be closer for optimum usage. This was alarming to some residents in Maryland, as they were concerned that increasing the number of transmission towers would drive down the property values in their neighborhoods. While this was the prime concern, residents were reluctant to have these towers installed in front of their homes also because of possible health risks these towers posed due to radiation, although most studies found no correlation. 

It would not be pragmatic for us to look at only one end of the internet consumption chain. Much of the onus to create a sustainable internet also falls on the consumer. 

Our addiction to social media, video streaming, tending to notifications and other habits online necessitate faster connections. For instance, in the last decade, online video streaming has shifted from a standard 480p quality format to much higher resolutions. These require considerable bandwidth. A study found out that online video altogether spawns 60% of the world’s data flow and emits more than 300 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. 

Important stakeholders in terms of video streaming are Over-the-top (OTT) media services like Netflix. Such streaming platforms have revolutionized the way we have been consuming media. The releasing of television shows at one go allows for people to binge-view content. Much like social media, it is incredibly easy to get addicted to Netflix. 

Such consumption has impacts on the politics of everyday life. Cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken’s research on the nature of spoilers of TV shows suggests that spoiling shows by revealing plots has shifted from being a faux pas to giving one social power. It can be deduced from this that people would not want to miss out on popular TV shows because of the cultural capital it allows one to have, and also, they would want to consume it as soon as possible so that they have the upper hand when it comes to spoilers. 

Since OTT platforms have supplanted itself as a prominent cultural fixture in these past few years, it is not surprising that 5G connectivity will provide greater convenience for the consumer to access a multitude of shows anytime, in high resolutions, across several kinds of devices including Apple’s new 5G iPhones. The demand will be fueled by more popular content and people will want to get in on it. The ramifications will include a much greater carbon footprint. 

Along with our subsequent shift to virtual reality, the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated our internet habits. The carbon emissions from our internet use have skyrocketed due to this. It would be incredibly ignorant to overlook the implications of our internet use on the environment. The consumer is responsible to cultivate green internet habits and reduce their carbon footprint as much as possible. With companies like Apple pledging to be carbon neutral, governments and environmental organizations need to check whether they are actually achieving these agendas. As the 5G technology expands its reach, all stakeholders must assess whether it would really make a difference before signing up for new subscriptions. While Apple’s new packaging might be a step in the right decision, the company, along with other manufacturers, still have work to do in order to reduce carbon emissions. 

Nirvik Thapa is a student of Sociology/Anthropology, Media Studies and International Relations at Ashoka University. Some of his other interests include music, pop culture and urbanism.

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 3

Forget the Rhetoric: India cannot be the next China!

Image credits:  bmnnetwork

You have to be living under a rock if you haven’t noticed the global backlash against China.

China holds a position of producing a majority of the world’s products and probably will continue to do so in the near future. The industrial giant grew in a rapid and very unsustainable manner over the last few decades becoming a hub for outsourced manufacturing – from making toys and clothes to medical equipment and electronics. China’s aggressive economic growth and unfair trade practices coupled with diplomatic tensions (surrounding the pandemic and border disputes) have given life to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – a multilateral group comprising India, Japan and USA and Australia. The four nations resumed dialogue after November 2017 in an attempt to temper Chinese dominance in the Indo-pacific region. The dialogue has raised many questions, the most crucial being – who will now take the role of the ‘world factory’?  

Can India be the next China?

No. At least not in the near future…

While we have heard rhetoric that  often revolves around  how India has a young workforce while China has an ageing population or how the aggressive attributes of China are going to lead to its downfall and create room for new hubs of manufacturing . I beg you to open your mind past the rhetoric and consider some evident issues that won’t allow India to ‘replace’ China in the global market. 

All it takes to break down this rhetoric is a look at employment and GDP statistics through the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors.

I’m not saying that demographic figures aren’t  important, of course they are. But simply basing the fact that India can become the next manufacturing hub simply because of a younger population  is simply absurd. Let’s look at the Indian agricultural industry for example – while over  42% of the country’s man power is employed in the primary sector, it only contributes to approximately 17% of the GDP, making it the most populated and least efficient wing of the Indian economy. So if demographics and economic output was proportional, the Indian primary sector would be the pillar of our economy. 

Unlike most economic giants, India skipped industrialisation trying to build an economy that was driven by the tertiary sector, heavily reliant on a digital infrastructure and not a physical one. It’s hard to deny that the focus on the tertiary sector was a success looking at how it has formed the backbone of the Indian economy. While it only employs 32% of the country’s population it contributes to over 54% of the GDP. But a country that has a literacy rate of less than 78% and an inefficient primary sector, cannot simply rely on one wing of the economy. India needs to increase investment in manufacturing.

What can India do now?

Increasing investment and innovation would be an ideal first step…

Dynamic efficiency, a term any high school Economics student would know (and a concept China mastered) holds the key to India’s reign over global manufacturing. The term in this context would translate to high investment in innovation and technology in the short run that would allow industries to manufacture products at an efficient and economical manner in the long run. Chinese growth was and continues to be driven by some of the world’s highest investment rates, which has allowed the creation of the manufacturing muscle China proudly owns. While India only invests about 30% of its GDP into infrastructure, China has consistently invested 50%. 

China is continuing to innovate and invest, increasing the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in manufacturing. The Chinese State Council introduced an Artificial Intelligence Development Plan aiming to build a $150 billion national AI industry in the near future. Part of this plan involves  integrating AI technology in China’s factories . The application of AI in Chinese factories aims to target production R&D as well as the production process including: manufacturing, product development, logistics, monitoring and environmental safety. Companies like Shanghai STEP have created industrial robots along with control systems and software for industries that have effectively transformed welding, packaging, construction, and machining. Even logistics technologies are being powered by AI, to bring productive efficiency in Chinese factories to a whole new level. The use of  AI in Chinese factors holds great potential, taking away the threat posed by the country’s ageing population. While the Indian economy is still taking baby steps towards an industrial economy, the Chinese manufacturing sector is already evolving to suit the needs of the future. It is peremptory that India dedicate their efforts to increasing infrastructure if they are to compete in the global manufacturing market. 

What role do politics play?

An important one for sure…

While the Indian democratic system has its many positives, it also has its own limitations, especially when it comes to economic reform. When working on infrastructural projects such as construction of power plants, the Chinese government can simply acquire land and compensate the affected people. Taking on similar projects in India would have several barriers because of the limitations of central control on states, political procedure and legal disputes. For example if a decision to contract a high speed railway line passes in the Lok Sabha, the process maybe delayed and blocked by the Rajya Sabha. Let’s assume that the project is approved in both houses, issues such as raising government revenue or displacement of minorities more often than not hinders the process. The Indian democracy hence has to fight many battles (one at a time) as part of this infrastructure politics.

‘It is impossible to make one generation better off without making any other generation worse off.’

This is a basic rule for an economy that needs to achieve dynamic efficiency. It is going to take a lot of planning, spending and sacrifice if India is going to even be a contender for becoming the world’s factory. While political and economic reform of such extent is too much to ask for, it is the need of the hour. The country has abundant raw material and a mammoth working population, but falls short on investments and planning. India will have to completely shift its economic structure, which will have repercussions that the Indian society and economy may not be prepared to handle.

Karantaj Singh finished his undergraduate in History and International Relations. He is now pursuing a minor in Media Studies and Politics during his time at the Ashoka Scholars Programme. He enjoys gaming and comics in his free time.

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

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

By Samyukta Prabhu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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