Tag Archives: Facebook

Why Facebook Doesn’t Stop Eyeballs On Hate !

White supremacy groups are proliferating, targeting people of all races while social media organizations, like Facebook and Twitter, have been accused of shielding racist posts. In times of COVID when the pandemic has redefined our lives and heightened our exposure to digital content, the danger of online hate is real.

Racist posts are couched in clever ways. Chris Gray, who left Facebook in 2018, said to the New Yorker, that racist or violence engendering posts were “constantly getting reported, but the posts that ended up in my queue never quite went over the line to where I could delete them. The wording would always be just vague enough.”

Additionally, social media companies are reluctant to take action unless forced to by a public media backlash. Content with sizable follower counts, or with significant cultural or political clout – content whose removal might interrupt a meaningful flow of revenue, have been left to multiply.  Former employees say that only public media storms have forced social media organizations to take action. Fear of political repercussions or loss of revenue makes their response to racist posts sluggish.

At the core of the problem is the monetization of attention. Algorithms are trained on augmenting posts that generate eyeballs. The content-moderation priorities won’t change until its algorithms stop amplifying whatever content is most enthralling or emotionally manipulative. This might require a new business model, perhaps even a less profitable one, which is why objectors aren’t hopeful that it will happen voluntarily, the New Yorker reported.

At an Ethnic Media Services briefing on, October 9th, Neil Ruiz, associate director of Global Migration and Demography Research at the Pew Research Center, shared the findings from his new report: “Many Black and Asian Americans Say They Have Experienced Discrimination Amid the COVID-19 Outbreak” 

Panellists discussed how hate is contagious, much like a virus, and that President’s social media posts are not helping. His use of terms words like ‘China virus’ feed the fear of a ‘yellow peril’ stereotype, and incites violence against Asian Americans. And yet the social media companies do nothing.

Donald Trump’s Facebook post in December 2015 calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” insinuated that Muslims – all 1.8 billion of them, presumably – “have no sense of reason or respect for human life.” 

According to the Times, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO was personally “appalled” by Trump’s post. Still, his top officials held a series of meetings to decide, given Trump’s prominence, whether an exception ought to be made. In order to avoid incurring the wrath of Trump and his supporters,Trump’s post stayed up.

Going into the elections, violence against races increases, said Mike German, at the briefing.  German, who served as an FBI agent for 16 years and infiltrated violent white nationalist organizations, spoke of the government’s failure to include racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and xenophobic violence committed by white nationalists within its counterterrorism mandate. The government does not track white supremacist violence, he said. 

“Only 12.6 percent of law enforcement agencies actually acknowledge hate crimes occur within their jurisdiction,” he said. On the other hand victim-reported hate crimes are as high as 230,000 this year.

John Yang, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC) said the rise in hate against the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, AAPI community, was fueled by the President’s racially-divisive rhetoric. Stop AAPI Hate, has recorded 2,583 incidents of hate crimes and discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Many people of color say they have experienced hate-motivated crime and discrimination amid the COVID pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests. 

This year in particular has seen a tectonic shift in the way communities across the world integrate digital and social networks into their daily lives, says ADL’s annual Online Hate and Harassment Report: The American Experience 2020.

“As our world continues to be redefined through digital services and online discourse, the American public has become increasingly aware of and exposed to online hate and harassment. The Asian, Jewish, Muslim, and immigrant communities in particular are experiencing an onslaught of targeted hate, fueled by antisemitic conspiracy theories, anti-Asian bigotry, and Islamophobia surrounding the novel coronavirus. The pandemic has heightened exposure to toxic content and provided new opportunities for exploitation by those seeking to harm others using digital services and tools”, the report said.

We are being invaded by this hatred. It’s everywhere. It’s silent. It’s as deadly as this disease. 

Fear of political backlash or loss of revenue is not a good reason for a sluggish response to racist posts. Social media giants must fight hate speech.

“The white supremacist violence is not going away. The backlash against Arab/ Muslim/Sikh community after 9/11 has lasted over 10 years,” said Manju Kulkarni, executive director of AP3CON.”We are at the 210,000 fatality mark.”


Ritu Marwah is a long term resident of Silicon Valley and has seen the Sun Microsystems campus turn into Facebook HQ.

Images: RituMarwah

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents

 

A Tale of Two Valleys

Whew.

For the next year, my ability to Google will be ensured by the fact that roughly 200,000 people across 50 countries are working from home.

And, I can like your Facebook posts for, well, forever, because Mark Zuckerberg “guesses as much as 50 percent of the company’s 45,000-person workforce could be working entirely remotely in the next five to 10 years.”

These may be private sector decisions. But they impact the public’s understanding of immigrants and immigration. And that leads policymakers to value the Googler much more than the farmworker.

Look, as COVID-19 cases keep growing across California, the state’s tech industry and its nearly 1.8 million workers in 2018 — with over 805,000 of those jobs in San Francisco and San Jose — is doing fine. Their companies are growing, their bottom lines look great.

And, with the exception of those on the sector’s retail or gig front line, most are working from home.

The breathless media coverage leads us to think that this is the new reality for most workers. It is not.

Among U.S. workers, 11 percent are employed in the agricultural and food sectors — almost twice as many as those who work in tech. Of the approximately 22 million full- and part-time jobs in the ag and food sector, about 2.6 million are direct on-farm jobs, and nearly 13 million are jobs in food service, eating and drinking places.

These workers are not earning six-figure salaries. And they definitely are not working from home. (If they are working at all.)

In fact, go about two hours east of the work-from-home Silicon Valley and you find yourself in the hot fields of the Central Valley where more than 250 different crops, with an estimated value of $17 billion per year, are grown. In total, the Valley supplies 8% of U.S. agricultural output (by value) and produces a quarter of the nation’s food, including 40% of our fruits, nuts, and other table foods.

Over 675,000 people work in the agricultural industry up and down the Central Valley.

In California, like across the country, these are the jobs that require workers to go to the “office.” But, for these workers, the office is a field, a farm, or a ranch where something needs to be planted or picked, cared for, or caught.

Everything surrounding these jobs puts people at risk. Sharing a ride to work, close quarters at the workplace, homes that do not afford any modicum of social distancing. As a result, the rate of positive coronavirus tests in the Central Valley could be as high as 17.7% — more than double the 7.8% statewide average over the last seven days.

While California works to get financial and medical resources directly to these agricultural communities, the federal government turns a blind eye. Under the CARES Act, both parents must have Social Security numbers for the family to receive relief. This makes entire families, including U.S. citizen children and spouses, ineligible for much-needed COVID-19 economic assistance.

This is a dynamic playing out in communities across the country. Immigrant families, even those with U.S. citizens among them, are going without any sort of relief.

These are trying times that require all of us to sacrifice. For some, the sacrifice is social distancing and working from home, while raising a family. For others, it is losing your job altogether.

And, for others, it is doing a job that is essential to the health of the country — but detrimental to your own health.

As we approach six months of this national crisis, it is easy to lose perspective and think that our own reality is the reality of others, to believe that our protection from COVID-19 is the same protection others have.

We begin to think COVID-19 is a disease “they” get. “They” did something to put themselves at risk. “They” were not healthy enough to fight off the disease. “They” live somewhere else, do something else.

Well, more than we probably realize, “they” are putting food on our table. And, “they” are most likely to be people of color and/or immigrants.

This lack of perspective leads the nation down a slippery path where economic and social divisions widen, where moral leadership is replaced by transactional leadership, where the bottom line is more important than people.

It’s a dangerous path that leaves the least among us without support — left to fend for themselves without health care or financial relief.

There is still time for the country to get off this path, and for Congress to ensure that all of us can access the relief and support we need.

The fact is that the skilled farmworker, documented or not, putting food on our table is just as, if not more, important to our lives and livelihood as the skilled engineer putting Google on our screens.


Ali Noorani is President and CEO of National Immigration Forum, author of There Goes the Neighborhood, host of Only in America. And, terrible golfer.

Featured Image by Coolcaesar and licence here.

Original article can be found here.

On Tech, Was India Naive?

The Chinese government banned Facebook in 2009. And even Mark Zuckerberg — despite having a wife of Chinese origin; learning Mandarin; and doing public relations stunts such as jogging in the smog-filled streets of Beijing to say how much he loved China — was not able to have it change its policy. Zuckerberg even went to the extent of creating new tools to censor and suppress content — to please the communists.

But the Chinese were smarter than he was. They saw no advantages in letting a foreign company dominate their technology industry. China also blocked Google, Twitter, and Netflix, and tripped up companies such as Uber. Chinese technology companies are now among the most valuable few in the world. Facebook’s Chinese competitor, Tencent, eclipsed it in market capitalization in November 2017, passing the $500-billion mark. Its social media platform, WeChat, enables bill payment, ordering taxis, and booking hotels while chatting with friends. It is so far ahead in innovation that Facebook is desperately trying to copy its features in the payment system it added to WhatsApp. Other Chinese companies such as Alibaba, Baidu, and DJI, have also raced ahead. Huawei has become a global threat with its 5G technologies and deep government links.

The protectionism that economists have long decried — which favors domestic supplies of physical goods and services — supposedly limits competition, creates monopolies, raises costs, and stifles competitiveness and productivity. But that is not a problem in the technology world. Over the Internet, knowledge, and ideas spread instantaneously. Entrepreneurs in one country can easily learn about the innovations and business models of another country and duplicate them. Technologies are advancing on exponential curves and becoming faster and cheaper, making them affordable to every country. Technology companies that don’t innovate risk going out of business because local start-ups are constantly emerging to challenge them.

Chinese technology protectionism created a fertile ground for local start-ups by eliminating the threat of foreign predators. The government selected what companies it could best control and gave them the advantage.

China actually learned some of its tactics from Silicon Valley, which doesn’t believe in free markets either. The Valley’s moguls openly tout the need to build monopolies and gain an unfair competitive advantage by dumping capital. They take pride in their position in a global economy in which money is the ultimate weapon and winners take all. If tech companies cannot copy a technology, they buy the competitor.

And then there is data, the most valuable of all technical resources. Data analysis enables everything from micro-targeting of advertisements to voter suppression and population control. Mobile applications are the greatest spying devices ever invented, monitoring not only their users’ interests but also their locations, purchasing habits, connections, political opinions, and health.

That is why the top technology companies from both East and West, the monopolists and predators, see India as the juiciest of all spoils. It has a massive market ripe for the picking, and data gold mines. India has also been naïve in its data protection policies and support for domestic innovation; it bought the old propaganda about the need for open markets.

There are some big differences, though, between the Chinese and American companies that are vying for the Indian markets. The Chinese government largely controls the actions of its companies, feeds them resources and technologies it has stolen from the West. It gives them every unfair advantage so that it can steal more and subvert democracies. Silicon Valley companies want more data so that they can sell more products. They may show bad judgment and cross ethical lines, but they aren’t playing geopolitics or endangering the sovereignty of free nations.

This is why the Indian government’s decision to ban TikTok and other Chinese companies makes sense. What was long holding Indian entrepreneurs back was the lack of Internet connectivity and mobile phones. When these became pervasive, the foreign companies stepped in. Eliminating some of that competition will give Indian entrepreneurs a chance to build world-changing technologies. These will benefit not only India but also the rest of the world, which is desperately looking for an alternative to Chinese influence and domination.

This is not to say that, without broad data and privacy protection policies, Indian technology companies won’t abuse the data that they gather. Such policies are needed as well. But the day politicians talk of breaking up companies such as Inmobi or Jio because they have become global monopolies and gained too much power will be the day of recognition that India has taken strides forward. Right now, what the country has to worry about is the dire threat from the East.

Vivek Wadhwa is a distinguished fellow at the Labor and Worklife Program of Harvard Law School and the author of The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future.

This article was republished with permission from the author and can be originally found here.

Should Social Media Censor Hate Speech In A Free Society?

Twitter’s censuring, if not censoring, President Trump’s controversial tweet threatening to use force to quell riots protesting the death of George Floyd, and  Facebook, refusing to follow the lead of its rival social network,  has reignited the controversy  leading many Facebook employees to stage a walk out and some to even quit their coveted jobs in protest.

But can social media companies censor hate speech while also providing an unbiased platform for free speech that they claim to provide?

Some conservatives argue social networking companies support free speech only when the speech aligns with the political views of the company.

Richard Hania, found that of the 22 notable accounts suspended by Twitter, 21 accounts had supported President Trump and only one of those accounts had supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 elections.

Candace Owens, a journalist, retweeted the racist tweets of Sarah Jeong, an editor at theNew York Times,  but substituted the word “white” for “black” and “Jews”. Owens had her account suspended, while Jeong wasn’t even reprimanded, suggesting that different social groups have different standards for hate speech.

Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, at a meeting with lawmakers admitted that his company’s censoring a video of Live Action, a pro life advocacy group, was biased, but argued that there was no widespread bias in moderating content.  Jack Dorsey, the Twitter CEO also argued that although the company’s employees are very left leaning, it has no influence on content moderation.

A couple of studies, including an internal audit conducted by Facebook, concur with the CEOs and have found no signs of systemic bias against conservatives.

 Whether or not hate speech censorship is biased,  it would be imprudent to be oblivious that the subjectivity of what constitutes hate speech leaves open the possibility of viewpoint discrimination and arbitrary censorship.

If a group claiming itself to be  a religious cult engages in organized,  indisputably repugnant behavior like child abuse, should the group be more  protected from criticism — as criticism of religion is typically considered hate speech —  than any other group which engages in a similar behavior but has no religious affiliation?

Did  Erika Christakis, a lecturer at Yale University who was forced to resign for speaking out against censoring Halloween costumes cross the line cross the line between free speech and hate speech?

I don’t condone the harms of hate speech.   Hate speech has no place in a civilized society, and social media companies are certainly noble in their intentions to provide every netizen a dignified cyberlife.

It is imperative that we reflect as a society on the causes of hate speech and how to address its root cause.

But attempting to censor hate speech is a slippery slope that could eventually make social media forums that have come to be hotspots of free speech and debate, into echo chambers fueled by the hegemony of popular views.

Ashwin Murthy is a software engineer at LinkedIn and a and a software engineer at a social networking company.


Image Credit: John Tyson, Unsplash

Photo by Bermix Studio on Unsplash

Reckless Facebook Comments to Facing Trial

Megha Majumdar’s novel, A Burning, released on June 2 is a highly anticipated debut by an Indian American writer this year. Majumdar grew up in Kolkata, India, and then attended Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University where she pursued graduate studies in sociology. She is currently an editor with the online magazine Catapult.

I approached Majumdar’s novel with a bit of trepidation. Advance praise from acclaimed authors like Amitav Ghosh and Tommy Orange made me feel that perhaps my expectations had been primed to an unreasonable high which the experience of reading the book would not be able to fulfill.

However, this novel actually captured me from its opening pages and kept me in its spell till the end. Its appeal stems from its taut narrative structure resembling the plot of detective fiction or courtroom drama, albeit without the typical resolution of such popular genres. This novel’s purpose is not so much to uncover who committed a heinous act of terrorism but to expose the ways in which the Indian state has failed its most marginalized communities.

The novel unfolds through the point of view of its three major characters: Jivan a young Muslim woman who finds herself accused of terrorism on the basis of a thoughtless comment she writes on Facebook; Lovely, a member of the transgender Hijra community who takes English lessons from Jivan and aspires to become a film star; and PT Sir, a physical education teacher who was once a mentor for Jivan but who, in his quest for political power, quickly abandons any moral compunctions.

The two female characters’ narratives are offered in first person while PT Sir’s sections of the novel are rendered in the third person. This parallels the greater intimacy that readers are invited to forge with the two female characters.

In the very first chapter, we are informed through Jivan’s voice that a train has been torched at a station near her house. She sees the burning train but just rushes home to safety. In the shanty home that she occupies with her parents, she follows a Facebook thread on the train burning incident and writes the reckless comment accusing the police and the government of inaction towards the victims and equating them with terrorists. Her comment goes viral and soon she is accused of being friends with a well-known terrorist recruiter. She is arrested and becomes an inmate of a women’s prison. 

In the sections which follow in her voice, we hear of her family’s history of eviction from lands considered to be rich in minerals, the brutalization of her father by the police, the tenuous efforts to start a new life in Kolabagan driven by her searing ambition to step into the middle-class and rescue her parents from destitution. 

Like Jivan, Lovely, too, is struggling to enter middle-class, overcoming the obstacles of poverty and the ostracism she faces as a member of the transgender/intersex Hijra community.

While we have seen representations of Hijras in Indian fiction, Anjum in Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness being a notable example, Majumdar offers a fully developed and complex emotional life of Lovely. She faces constant humiliation but never loses faith in her ability as an actress. Yet, traditional expectations of patriarchal society prompt her to push away Azad, the love of her life, and drive him to a traditional marriage that will give him children, even though he had resisted the idea before.

PT Sir is already a member of the middle class, unlike the two other protagonists. But he aspires for more power and more of a sense of importance beyond the humble borders of a teacher’s life. His ambitions lead him to seek refuge in the culture of political sycophancy, paying obeisance to the nationalist party leader, carrying out petty acts of subterfuge, and gradually dispensing with the last vestiges of moral conscience.  

In depicting contemporary India under a neoliberal regime that on the one hand ushers in a consumerist urban culture, Majumdar is fearless in exposing its underbelly with its total disregard for the lives of the poor and the destitute, and the myriad ways in which the nation betrays them. To this, she adds an astute understanding of the role of social media platforms in exacerbating the dangers of disenfranchised citizens.

Everyone, including Jivan, can have a cellphone and a Facebook account, these platforms make her more vulnerable to becoming a target of social media outrage and scapegoating. Her impulsive comment on Facebook exposes her to being branded as a terrorist in the court of public opinion well before her actual trial. While social media provides Lovely the opportunity to disseminate her acting video and finally command the attention of a serious producer, it covertly censors her from expressing support for her friend Jivan, as the culture of fandom is fickle and aspiring stars have to carefully calibrate their personal and political comments to retain popularity. 

Social media is depicted as a source of power and currency, all other institutions of a democratic society seem to be crumbling. The media, the police, the justice system are all shown to be mired in corruption. In an era of beef lynchings, attacks on journalists, police brutality on students in various universities, and scapegoating of individuals as anti-national, there is an uncanny correspondence between the fictional and the real events.

Currently, mass protests against police brutality on minorities in the U.S instigate a fight for global criminal justice reform and support for Black Lives; this novel and its concerns resonate with dreams of justice by oppressed people across continents.

Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.


A Burning: by Megha Majumdar. Knopf, June, 2020.

A Faster, Cheaper Way to Send Money to India

Stanford Federal Credit Union, located in Northern California, offers a faster, cheaper way to send money abroad. Through a new partnership with TransferWise, customers can send money directly through Stanford FCU’s online or mobile banking. This simple process means the funds can arrive as soon as the same day. 

Stanford FCU’s international funds transfer process is also cheaper—there is a low transparent fee, and the real exchange rate is used with no mark up. All of this means more money gets to your loved ones.

You must be a member of Stanford FCU in order to use this international funds transfer, and new members can get up to $500 in bonuses just by opening a checking account with direct deposit and additional accounts. Stanford FCU is a $3 billion financial institution serving 73,000 members. 

There is no cost to become a member, and you can join online. You must have a U.S. address and picture ID.

Stanford FCU is a full-service financial institution serving employees of Stanford University, Google, Facebook, Visa, Amazon, SAP, Tesla, and 100 other innovative companies. Members enjoy low fees, low-rate auto and home loans, high-rate deposit accounts, and low-fee rewards credit cards. Deposits are federally insured by NCUA, Equal Housing Lender, NMLS #729643.

Learn more and join online at sfcu.org/love or call 888.723.7328.

 

The Facebook Group That Your Kids Love To Be Part Of

If you haven’t heard of Subtle Curry Traits by now, either a) your kids aren’t on Facebook or b) they don’t want you to be on it. If your answer is the latter, please click next and ignore this article – I’ll be in big trouble otherwise.

Subtle Curry Traits (SCT), a Facebook meme group founded in October of 2018, serves as a platform for youth from the Indian diaspora worldwide to share humorous content. The page, which receives over one thousand submissions a day, strives to bring people together on topics such as identity, heritage, and family. The group’s official mission is to “Be the voice for the unspoken to eliminating cultural boundaries that distance us from our potential.”

Noel Aruliah, an Australian student and founder of the page, recounts its genesis. “One day I was in my room looking through other popular meme pages, and I realized there was a gap in the market for South Asian content.” He started a Facebook group, intended for his close friends, and saw its membership skyrocket to over 10,000 people in just a few days. Aruliah was shocked. “I had second to no experience with content creation. I just like to crack some jokes.” Today, over 365,000 people worldwide enjoy the online community he has created.

 

The page is a virtual platform to reconcile the challenges of being a part of two cultures. The South Asian diasporic identity spans several countries and continents, but the undercurrent experience is the same. Aruliah says, “Humor is good because there are a lot of things that subcontinental descendants relate to- we are the same, we have similar sorts of struggles.” Subtle Curry Traits often illustrates the good, the bad, and the quirky of South Asian heritage. From reconciling the expectations of the older generation to handling the way the Western world perceives us, South Asians have a unique struggle. Forming community around this experience is a way to show that no one is truly alone.

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Comedy, however, is not without its own slew of challenges. For a page dedicated to an ethnic identity, it becomes difficult to toe the line against “problematic” humor.

Example of meme that was removed

While the moderators have an internal compass that dictates what can and cannot be posted, it is not always easy to predict how people will perceive the content. Aruliah says that they “aim to post wholesome content,” and “try to steer clear of offensive memes. As much as possible, we try to keep it a family-friendly environment to broaden our reach.” However, subliminal racist, colorist, and caste-ist jokes often find their way onto the platform. While the admins are committed to taking such posts off the page, this points to a larger question about the role of internalized prejudice in our culture, which starts within India and is carried over into the diaspora. 

While Subtle Curry Traits exemplifies the good and the bad within the diasporic community, it serves as a technological bridge for the new generation. Ironically, it fills the very role that it often makes fun of. Prime comedic targets of the page are first-generation parents, whose sense of humor and congregation are often laughable to their children. Maybe Subtle Curry Traits is nothing but a glorified WhatsApp group of its own, complete with a worldwide network.

Subtle Curry Traits has developed its own subculture uniquely identifiable by its members. As humorous content evolves within the page, it has become more specific to itself. Memes often build off of each other, and the content’s format develops in a way that only existing members would understand. In other words, the group has become a massive inside joke. This has allowed for people within the site to feel a stronger sense of community with each other. While this subculture has an online presence, it has moved offscreen as well. In Melbourne, the moderators of Subtle Curry Traits organized an in-person meet up, which was very well received. The group continues to build spaces for its members and the diasporic community as a whole.

`Noel Aruliah is thrilled by how far the page has come. “One of the most rewarding experiences was when Hassan Minhaj wanted to host an ‘Ask Me Anything’ session through the page. That’s when I knew that we had made it big.” Aruliah has also been surprised by how many offshoot pages have stemmed from his original creation. Subtle Curry Dating is a page tailored towards helping young desis find romantic partners, while pages like Subtle Tamil Traits and Subtle Telugu Traits have built even more specific communities. The demand for such offshoots shows how SCT has paved the way.

Content from Subtle Tamil Traits

As for the future of Subtle Curry Traits, Noel believes there is a lot of potential. The group has made a commitment to help remove the stigma surrounding mental illness within our culture. They have partnered with renowned acapella group Penn Masala to produce a video “focused on mental wellness in the South Asian community.” Aruliah would like to keep engaging in such content creation and build a stronger, more supportive group. He sees more in-person meetups and maybe a merchandise line in the near future for SCT.

“Subtle Curry Traits is going to be for the people.” 

Swathi Ramprasad is a rising junior at Duke University studying Public Policy and Computer Science. She hopes to continue to learn through the lens of her Indian-American heritage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My Virtual Encounters

And then the Internet took us by storm, and life became a giant goldfish bowl, where jealously guarded information was made breezily transparent. “It turns out inconvenience was a really important part of our lives, and we didn’t realize it,” says Siva Vaidyanathan, author of The Googlization of Everything. “While most of your embarrassing baggage was already available to the public, it was effectively off-limits to everyone but the professionally intrepid or supremely nosy. Now, in states where court records have gone online, and thanks to the one-click ease of Google, you can read all the sordid details of your neighbor’s divorce with no more effort than it takes to check your e-mail.”  Websites such as Zillow allowed us to see a dollar value to any house. Whether this was crass or not was not the point. The point was that it could be done.

Facebook has exaggerated this fear about the invasion of privacy. I worried about identity theft, and I worried about what my professional colleagues would think about my Farmville accomplishments. The heavy Facebook reader, researchers have found, tends to score higher on measures of narcissism. Would people think I was narcissistic if I posted too much? Aloof if I posted too little? As unwashed dishes and ungraded student papers began to pile up, I worried about all that time I spent on Facebook.

And then, quite unexpectedly, when I was convinced that there was no way I could sustain my fascination with the web, I found Amitabh Bachchan’s blog on Facebook.

The Bollywood of my childhood had cast a larger-than-life shadow on my psyche. And Amitabh Bachchan was surely a towering presence. Amitabh Bachchan, who plays an angry young man in Deewar, in Sholay, in Muqaddar ka Sikandar, and a sensitive poet in Kabhie Kabhie. Amitabh Bachchan, who has lived much of his adult life in front of the adulating gaze of the camera, and whose substantial celebrity can be directly attributable to his telegenic bravado. Amitabh Bachchan, who has had his share of business setbacks, and whose company ABCL suffered financial setbacks in the 1990s.

In the information age, he has a blog. I began to follow his blog with starry-eyed devotion.

Big B’s Adda   

The website, before it migrated to Facebook and then Tumblr, was called Big B’s adda, the Hindi slang for lair or, with less sinister overtones, hangout. The “Big B” for Bachchan was a self-conscious acknowledgement of Bachchan’s giant presence on Indian silver screens for over three decades. Big B was a global forum, reflecting not only Indians who live in India, but those representing the Indian diaspora from the United States and the U.K. and other parts of the world. The home page of the blog had the image of Bachchan wearing spectacles of the thick-framed variety. The look was a weighty and intellectual one, not the aging playboy persona he adopted in several films, such as Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, where he plays a boozing womanizer, or Cheeni Kum, where he is paired with a much younger Tabu and is literally old enough to be her father. The verses of Bachchan’s father, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, occupy pride of place on the website, lending gravitas and artistic respectability to the Bachchan brand that is now in its third generation, and has recently “acquired,”  through the Rai-Bachchan merger, the Aishwariya Rai brand power. A small startup, little Aaradhya Bachchan has been successfully launched.

The weblog, or blog can be an outpouring of one’s innermost thoughts, and for a fan, it is a particularly intense form of interaction with a revered personality. I make the assumption here that Amitabh Bachchan had in fact written the blog, or at least closely collaborated with the ghost writer so that the opinions did, in fact, reflect Big B’s worldview. At any rate, I couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Henry Jenkins, author of Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture, has focused on the participatory nature of virtual fandom, and the homage to a celebrity’s website can enhance the sense of a shared space. No more writing lovelorn letters to celebrities and never hearing back. This was two-way communication at its most participatory best.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one besotted.

Fan Ashwini fawned: “Can’t stop looking at your photo with that cutest smile, sho shweet… mwah! Love you heaps, Amitji” (Ashwini, Jan 14. http://bigb.bigadda.com)

Then, apparently unable to stay away, fan Ashwini returned for some more outpouring of admiration: “Mwah! Thanks for your photo with that sweet smile. Love you sweetness. Shoo cute and shoo shweet. Mwah again. So adorable. Mwah again and again.” (Ashwini, Jan 14. http://bigb.bigadda.com)
Forgive me if I thought such gushing was just too fatuous.

Though I did like the idea of referring to Amitabh Bachchan as Amitji.

Admitedly, I had been a bit star-struck in my younger years, but now, I argued strenuously to myself, I was far more interested in Amitji’s opinion, both of world affairs and of other cultural work. I recalled that there had been some controversy where Amitabh Bachchan, sorry, Amitji had criticized the film Slumdog Millionaire some years ago.  It did not take much time to find the relevant entry.

“If SM [Slumdog Millionaire] projects India as [a] third-world, dirty, underbelly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots, let it be known that a murky underbelly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations.” He adds that an Indian director might not have achieved such global acclaim. “It’s just that the Slumdog Millionaire idea, authored by an Indian and conceived and cinematically put together by a westerner, gets creative globe recognition. The other would perhaps not.”

REMEMBER SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE?

A little bit about Slumdog Millionaire.

At its heart, Slumdog Millionaire was a love story, but it was also a Cinderella story, and provided a vignette into living amidst the most wretched conditions in the world. The love story was set in the backdrop of a rapidly changing India, whose glittering entry into global consumer capitalism was in evidence as skyscrapers pushed their way up in Indian skies, the labor for this phenomenon provided by slumdwellers like Jamal Malik, whose childhood in Dharavi, the world’s largest slum, was captured in this film with a sensibility that is uniquely Danny Boyle. There is an ironic reference to the Bachchan celebrity, which serves to underline the sharp inequality between the superstar and the slumdog.

The Indian media system adapted Who Wants to be a Millionaire? (WWTBAM) into its own version: Kaun Banega Crorepati. For the film, Anil Kapoor played the role of game host Amitabh Bachchan, while Dev Patel is contestant Jamal Malik, one correct answer away from the 20 million rupees prize that would get him out of the slums. If we agree that both global media entertainment as well as the immense slums of third world capitals coexist uneasily, but equally, as products of globalization, in the film, we witness a product of the slums, Jamal, seeking a permanent “escape” by a product of global media entertainment, the game show.

The slums are emblematic of several decades of failed socialist policies to reverse colonial exploitation and eradicate poverty (“Garibi Hatao” was the slogan of the Congress party of the Gandhis and Nehrus, which came into power when erstwhile British colonial powers were ousted.) The game show, a format that has been commoditized and successfully exported to other parts of the global media system, is an example of the ceaseless impulse of TV screens over the world to look depressingly similar.

Was Slumdog Millionaire an example of “poverty porn” or “slum voyeurism” as some have alleged? While watching the film, I was reminded of other depictions of slumdwellers, such as Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! in 1988 or City of God, a 2002 film set in Brazil’s favelas. Born into Brothels, a 2004 film about the children of prostitutes of Calcutta’s Red Light district also came to mind. Allegations of slum voyeurism were flying fast and furious, then too.

The criticism of Slumdog Millionaire as somehow exploitative of the urban squalor that it depicts has resonance. Cross-cultural communications is never easy, but cultural values are genuinely at odds here, unable to transcend political chasms. Bachchan wishes to spare “nationalists” the pain of the intrusive camera reaching beyond the “privacy please” sign. The determination of Westerners to focus on the shameful, the wretchedness and the squalor of slum existence is likely to exacerbate the wounds of injured pride.

One of Hindi poet Munshi  PremChand’s famous works is called “Taat ka Parda” (jute curtain). The story is of the deteriorating economic condition of a family that has come to rely on a disintegrating jute cloth to conceal this reality. There is not even enough money for the women of the family to wear anything but rags. When the symbolic jute curtain is stripped away, the last remnant of self-pride disintegrates for this family, and there is nothing left to cover the shame of the half-clad women who shrink from the intrusive gaze of the onlooker. Joshua Meyrowitz, author of the book No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior has written about the cruel capability of the cameras to bring to the “frontstage” sights that are meant to be hidden away backstage—away from the public eye.

Had Slumdog Millionaire crossed the line?

I decided that it was time to discuss this matter with Shanti (not her real name), a film-maker friend from Mumbai, to get her perspective.

MY FACEBOOK CHAT WITH SHANTI

Me: @Shanti: Hmm… those who use the expression “poverty porn” appear to be chastising filmmakers (such as Danny Boyle of Slumdog Millionaire) who are “titillating” audiences by gritty filmic representations of poverty, thereby exploiting that poverty. But isn’t an  imperative of art to jolt, shock and possibly bring change?

Shanti: @Geetika :… I don’t think poverty porn is used to allude to ALL films located in poor contexts. Just to those which use the extreme conditions of poverty to talk about that poverty, and create images which present the poor in terms of that degradation, as porn depicts not sex, but often a degraded version of sex that condenses all that might be exploitative without including that which might be liberated, mutually pleasurable etc. These are complicated categories of course, and like the line between porn and erotica, the line between poverty porn and humanistic depictions of poverty may possibly be a hard one to define without a lot of substantiation.

And with that, I had to be content. Thank you, Shanti!

I felt closer to Amitji than I could believe possible, and I had found answers to so many vexing questions on the Internet.

In the film The Social Network, Sean Parker, one of the co-founders of Facebook, made a remark to the effect that after Facebook, all of us would live our lives online.
That day has come, Amitji.

Geetika Pathania Jain lives in the Bay Area. Like her, you can read Amitji’s blog on http://srbachchan.tumblr.com/

This article was originally published on Aug 10, 2012. Some details have been updated.

Artificial Intelligence: Beyond the hype

To gauge by the news headlines, it would be easy to believe that artificial intelligence (AI) is about to take over the world. Kai-Fu Lee, a Chinese venture capitalist, says that AI will soon create tens of trillions of dollars of wealth and claims China and the U.S. are the two AI superpowers.

There is no doubt that AI has incredible potential. But the technology is still in its infancy; there are no AI superpowers. The race to implement AI has hardly begun, particularly in business. As well, the most advanced AI tools are open source, which means that everyone has access to them.

Tech companies are generating hype with cool demonstrations of AI, such as Google’s AlphaGo Zero, which learned one of the world’s most difficult board games in three days and could easily defeat its top-ranked players. Several companies are claiming breakthroughs with self-driving vehicles. But don’t be fooled: The games are just special cases, and the self-driving cars are still on their training wheels.

AlphaGo, the original iteration of AlphaGo Zero, developed its intelligence through use of generative adversarial networks, a technology that pits two AI systems against each another to allow them to learn from each other. The trick was that before the networks battled each other, they received a lot of coaching. And, more importantly, their problems and outcomes were well defined.

Unlike board games and arcade games, business systems don’t have defined outcomes and rules. They work with very limited datasets, often disjointed and messy. The computers also don’t do critical business analysis; it’s the job of humans to comprehend information that the systems gather and to decide what to do with it. Humans can deal with uncertainty and doubt; AI cannot. Google’s Waymo self-driving cars have collectively driven over 9 million miles, yet are nowhere near ready for release. Tesla’s Autopilot, after gathering 1.5 billion miles’ worth of data, won’t even stop at traffic lights.

Today’s AI systems do their best to reproduce the functioning of the human brain’s neural networks, but their emulations are very limited. They use a technique called deep learning: After you tell an AI exactly what you want it to learn and provide it with clearly labeled examples, it analyzes the patterns in those data and stores them for future application. The accuracy of its patterns depends on completeness of data, so the more examples you give it, the more useful it becomes.

Herein lies a problem, though: An AI is only as good as the data it receives, and is able to interpret them only within the narrow confines of the supplied context. It doesn’t “understand” what it has analyzed, so it is unable to apply its analysis to scenarios in other contexts. And it can’t distinguish causation from correlation.

The larger issue with this form of AI is that what it has learned remains a mystery: a set of indefinable responses to data. Once a neural network has been trained, not even its designer knows exactly how it is doing what it does. They call this the black box of AI.

Businesses can’t afford to have their systems making unexplained decisions, as they have regulatory requirements and reputational concerns and must be able to understand, explain, and prove the logic behind every decision that they make.

Then there is the issue of reliability. Airlines are installing AI-based facial-recognition systems and China is basing its national surveillance systems on such systems. AI is being used for marketing and credit analysis and to control cars, drones, and robots. It is being trained to perform medical data analysis and assist or replace human doctors. The problem is that, in all such uses, AI can be fooled.

Google published a paper last December that showed that it could trick AI systems into recognizing a banana as a toaster. Researchers at the Indian Institute of Science have just demonstrated that they could confuse almost any AI system without even using, as Google did, knowledge of what the system has used as a basis for learning. With AI, security and privacy are an afterthought, just as they were early in the development of computers and the Internet.

Leading AI companies have handed over the keys to their kingdoms by making their tools open source. Software used to be considered a trade secret, but developers realized that having others look at and build on their code could lead to great improvements in it. Microsoft, Google, and Facebook have released their AI code to the public for free to explore, adapt, and improve. China’s Baidu has also made its self-driving software, Apollo, available as open source.

Software’s real value lies in its implementation: what you do with it. Just as China built its tech companies and India created a $160 billion IT services industry on top of tools created by Silicon Valley, anyone can use openly available AI tools to build sophisticated applications. Innovation has now globalized, creating a level playing field—especially in AI.


Vivek Wadhwa is a distinguished fellow at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering. He is the co-author of Your Happiness Was Hacked: Why Tech Is Winning the Battle to Control Your Brain—and How to Fight Back.

This article first appeared in Fortune magazine.

 

Instagram Gives Facebook Investors 3 Fresh Reasons to Worry

The departure of Instagram’s founders marks a pivotal and potentially perilous moment for Facebook. It has long been rumored that Kevin Systrom, who maintained an iron grip as chief product officer of the Facebook subsidiary, aggressively defended his fast-growing and youthful fanbase from desires to include more ads on the platform. The departure of Systrom and Mike Krieger, the other co-founder, follows on the heels of the founders of WhatsApp, who also left Facebook with concerns that the company was not behaving in a manner that put the interests of its users first.

Whenever a visionary founder leaves a company, it is a moment of great risk. For Facebook investors, the risk is even greater because Instagram has become the growth engine of the company, as the legacy Facebook product has stagnated and lost users in key markets.

Instagram is Facebook’s future, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s biggest test. Here are three things Facebook investors should watch closely for — and fear:

1. Changes to features that allow for more aggressive marketing customers

Instagram users hate ads that are not relevant to them. Systrom did a masterful job of ensuring his customers get exceptionally relevant content the majority of the time. Facebook has often erred on the side of clickbaity content and ads that are dubious in value and more like run-of-house remnants that pick up pennies off the floor.

Allowing those types of adds onto Instagram will signal to its finicky users that Facebook wants pennies off the floor more than it wants to maintain an intimate user experience.

2. Additional executive departures from Instagram

An obvious sign that cultural change is uncomfortable is executive departures. Systrom built a loyal team that bought into his world view. This removes the few checks and balances that remained against Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s obsessions with gathering data and monetizing it.

Should a revolving door start to spin at Instagram near the top, it’s a likely sign that changes by the new regime do not sit well with the early crew that made Instagram the rock star it is.

3. Surging negative dialogue on the platform

Part of what has made Instagram so awesome is that it lacks all the toxic discourse of Facebook and Twitter. That’s by design. The community has low tolerance for negativity and they are often turned off by the constant mudslinging and barrage of negativity on other social media.

However, angry, unhappy people always follow the users because they want a loud voice. The current feature set on Instagram makes it difficult but not impossible to create the types of negative content we saw take over Facebook and Twitter and gain real purchase. Should we see signs that Instagram is becoming a less happy place, that’s a real flashing red light for investors.

Instagram is the future of Facebook. How the company handles its crown jewel after the departure of its founding team will be a litmus test for its long-term ability to stay relevant and grow quickly. Surely Zuckerberg knows all this, and in the upcoming months we’ll see how he plays his new hand.

Vivek Wadhwa is a Distinguished Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University at Silicon Valley and author of The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future.

This article first appeared on Marketwatch.com and is published with permission from the author.

Euphoric Delights: Virtual hangout for foodie buddies

Cooking is a life skill. You have to do it whether you like it or not. But, if you are a member of the popular Facebook Group Euphoric Delights, you are probably clicking pictures of your freshly cooked meal to post it. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Even a regular Daal chawal has a place in here. Not only are you flooded with compliments and requests for recipes, but you begin to stir up new friendships. The warmth of a companionship across the glass screens of your computers /phones breezes into your life like the aroma of ghee when you prepare your favorite Indian dessert. It feels like these unknown faces suddenly have a place in your life.

This virtual group discusses everyday cooking, and becomes a wonderful resource to receive tips specially if you have moved out of your home country and are looking for how to make rotis on a glass top stove or how to ferment idli /dosa batter when you live in a place with freezing temperatures. You can also see the work of immensely talented home chefs who post pictures and recipes of beautifully decorated cakes, dishes for parties and a whole lot more.

Started in June 29, 2011 geared to attract those with a love to cook and love to eat, Euphoric Delights is now a virtual home away from home for members. Members not only share meal ideas and kitchen tips but also feel a sense of belonging.

To learn more about the evolution of this Facebook group, join me in conversation with Shalini Ramachandran, founder of Euphoric Delights.

Q) What inspired you to start Euphoric delights?

I am an unabashed foodie! I love to cook, and I love to eat. But you get bored with your own food very soon. The desire to connect over food, make new friends and mingle over food was the reason that prompted me to start the group.

Q) What’s been the best part of starting this group?

The best part has been connecting with people. Moreover, when I moved to the United States in the year 2001, Facebook was non-existent. It was not this easy to connect virtually. It was hard to make friends in a new country. Facebook opened this window for me and I welcomed it with open arms. Now the group has grown tremendously in size and my husband Mahesh Venugopala is also an admin as I need help managing it.

Q) Do you have formal culinary training?

No, I do not have any formal training. I have been trained by life. I am like a mad scientist in the kitchen. I would’ve never made it to culinary school.

Q) What are the challenges you have faced as the moderator/admin of this group?

This group is now huge, and it is an effort to maintain it. My husband is closely involved in monitoring the group and the content posted in it. However, there are many challenges that we face on a regular basis. The biggest challenge is that if a member’s post gets deleted, they take it personally. But I am a part of the power admin groups on Facebook where we discuss problems /glitches and work on solutions to deal with them. Another challenge relates to keeping the content of the group clean. For instance, I need to maintain resources that I can tap into and have volunteers who work in all earnest to regulate/block the members who post inappropriate /profane content.

Q) Tell us a little about ED Anonymous.

We have a special section in our group where abused women share their grievances. Sometimes it is just that they need someone to talk to. Sometimes their issues are serious. The identities of troubled women are kept anonymous and their posts are deleted soon to protect their identity. However, we do not offer any legal /medical advice. We only offer emotional support and reassurance.

Q) The engagement on your page has been excellent. What do you feel about it? Does it overwhelm you sometimes?

Absolutely! I had no idea that it would grow this big. But I believe that the engagement on the page is because the community wants it. People want to help each other out with cooking tips, easy methods of cooking a seemingly difficult recipe and so on. I owe the popularity of this group to the members, and the volunteers in the admin. team who are always working hard to keep this a clean, safe group.

Q) When you try a new recipe and it does not turn out well, what do you do?

Not every recipe is perfect. If a recipe fails, I will try something different next time.

Q) Do you plan to do something new/different in the group? For example, going live or asking the members to go live?

No, I am happy with the way things are going now. I am happy that I have been able to build a strong community through Facebook, a venture I started in order to connect with other foodies like me.

You do not necessarily have to be as talented as someone on the TV show –  to be a part of this group. Euphoric Delights is the perfect place to be if you are looking for a quick fix recipe, a question on how to organize your fridge, where to buy a specific Indian vegetable or just about anything else that concerns cooking good food. Even if you do not want to post anything, there is always something that you can learn by just being a part of it. So, if you use Facebook, take a peep into this group and you’ll always be surprised to see what’s cooking!

Euphoric delights

Surabhi Kaushik is an Indian writer, based in Charlotte North Carolina.
Her works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and parenting essays have been published in various websites such as yourstoryclub, halfbakedbeans, writer’scafe, perfection pending, herviewfromhome and India Currents. She is part of various writing groups and is closely associated with “Write Like You Mean It”, a writer’s group in Main library, Charlotte. She also leads a monthly Fiction Writing workshop and conducts writing workshops at various libraries across Charlotte, North Carolina. 

 

 

 

 

We Did Not Agree to Sell Our Souls to Facebook and Google

“Cars will soon have the Internet on the dashboard. I worry that this will distract me from my texting,” joked the satirist Andy Borowitz in a biting takedown of humankind being overrun by technology. Technology entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa talks to Chidanand Rajghatta about his latest book Your Happiness Was Hacked and the problem of too much tech

You were among the early proponents of deleting apps such as WhatsApp from phones over privacy issues. Is it fair to identify it as a culprit in spreading social disharmony in India? After all, even phones and emails can spread rumours.

In India, in particular, WhatsApp is a threat not only to privacy and happiness, but to democracy itself. With the introduction of the groups feature, WhatsApp made its technology the most effective way of spreading misinformation and hatred. If anyone makes a public speech that stirs communal disharmony, they would be held criminally liable. Yet, on WhatsApp, they are protected by the so-called end-to-end encryption. This is not a misuse of technology, it works exactly as designed. All that WhatsApp’s owner, Facebook, cares about is getting information about its users and selling ads. It has no conscience and will do anything it can to keep its users addicted to its technology. The end-to-end encryption doesn’t protect WhatsApp users from being spied on by Facebook, by the way.

How did you go from technology evangelist to technology sceptic?

In my last book, Driver in the Driverless Car, I posited that we finally have the ability to solve the grand challenges of humanity, everything from shortages of food and energy to education and health. Yet if we make the wrong choices and don’t share the technology in an equitable way or become too dependent on technology, we could end up destroying humanity itself. When writing this, I thought that the dangers were at least a decade or two away. I never imagined that social media would so rapidly facilitate genocide in Myanmar, the rise of demagogues in the US and Europe, and cause depression and suicide in the US. Yet, these are the things that my friends in Silicon Valley have enabled.

Is bailing out/unplugging/disconnecting even for a few hours (except during sleep) even feasible?

The answer is different for every one of us. As Leo Tolstoy wrote in the novel Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But everyone should answer these questions: Does it make you happier or sadder? Do you need to use it as part of your life or work? Does it warp your sense of time and place in unhealthy ways? Does it change your behaviour? Is your use of it hurting those around you? If you stopped using it, would you really miss it?

Are there good, peer-reviewed and peer-accepted studies to show that technology makes us sadder?

For the book, we reviewed hundreds of studies done by academics all over the world. There are conflicting findings, particularly in studies that companies such as Facebook have funded. We tried to present a balanced picture and share our own experiences.

Are those who feel that technology has enriched and enhanced their lives fooling themselves?

No, technology has enriched and enhanced our lives. Imagine what life was like before we could instantly communicate with each other and share photographs with family members. It becomes a problem when you have too much of it. It becomes like an addiction to alcohol or tobacco — moderate usage will not do much harm, but when you go overboard, it will kill you. In the US, for example, children are generally addicted to technology from an early age. If you look at the data, you see that teenage suicide rates are up and depression has become an epidemic. This is the problem — too much of a good thing.

The last thing I am suggesting is turning our backs to technology. I would have a hard time living without it. Yet, I have learned the damage that it is doing to me and have to work hard on living a balanced life. It is all about doing things sensibly, we can’t run from technology or switch it off for too long! It is the addiction and overdose that is doing the harm. It is tearing families and societies apart now because of the way it is being used.

Didn’t we give up privacy the moment we signed up for a cellphone with a signal and an internet connection with an IP address?

No, we did not agree to sell our souls to Facebook and Google and to let them know our innermost thoughts. These companies have gone much too far. I would choose to pay a small fee to both companies every month if they stopped spying on me and compromising my privacy. I don’t want them knowing what I say to my children or my wife.

This article is reprinted here with the author’s written permission.