Tag Archives: social media

Fake News, Aziz Ansari & The Vote

In the run up to the 2016 presidential election, a tweet featuring popular Indian American actor Aziz Ansari urged voters to cast their vote from home. The photoshopped image showed Ansari, star of Master of None and Parks & Recreation, holding a sign that said “Save Time. Avoid the Line. Vote from Home.”

It’s illegal to vote from home or online in an US election, but that of course, did not deter Russian hackers behind the ad who used Twitter and Facebook to spread misinformation about the 2016 election.

Did some people tweet in their vote? Twitter did not say. Not even when a Congressional committee eventually began an investigation into foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election, as fake news surged unchecked on social media platforms, Twitter and Facebook included.

Four years later we are in another contentious election cycle. And the fake news machinery rolls on, brazenly manipulating a divided electorate with tales that range from the silly to more serious.

In a post that went viral, President Trump recently retweeted a link entitled “Twitter Shuts Down Entire Network To Slow Spread Of Negative Biden News”, from the news site Babylon Bee, that openly admits to running “Fake News you can trust” – the tagline on its Twitter page.  Sometime the truth isn’t obvious even when it stares you in the face!

Absurd news stories from the conservative Babylon Bee and its left-leaning counterpart The Onion, often get significant clicks and shares with their satirical takes on current events. But they sit outside the fringes of ‘countermedia’ outlets which produce stories that are much more insidious and dangerous to democracy.

What’s different with the current crop of fake news protagonists, is they’re not just distant, foreign ‘troll factories’ igniting discontent among voters in the US. A University of Colorado study of Facebook and Twitter users in America reports that people at ideological extremes in this country are likely to make misleading stories go mainstream via social media.

Fake news instigators are unleashing a wave of misleading ads and false news to sow unrest among voters.  But’s what’s more concerning is that bad actors are weaponizing social media, with much more dangerous consequences.

Axios reported that at least 11 Congressional nominees have expressed support for QAnon, a conspiracy theory cult which has propagated bizarre stories through its Redditt and other social media accounts, like the one about the coronavirus being created by the ‘deep state’, and the notorious ‘Pizzagate,’ which ended with an armed vigilante storming a neighborhood pizzeria.

This election season, purveyors of fake news are adopting devious tactics to spread misinformation and disinformation to interfere with the election, intimidate voters and suppress the vote.

Speakers at an October 16 Ethnic Media Services briefing shared their perspectives on the intent behind messaging that’s being fabricated to confuse and disenfranchise voters.

Cameron Hickey, Jacqueline Mason and Jacobo Licona

“It doesn’t have to be false to be a problem,’ said Cameron Hickey, Program Director of Algorithmic Transparency at the National Conference on Citizenship (NCOC). In fact, fear mongering in conspiracy theories is designed to make recipients scared, angry or self-righteous and provoke changes in behavior, like the aforementioned gunman in the ‘Pizzagate’ incident.

With regard to the upcoming election, said Hickey, the most ‘concerning’ thing is talk of an impending ‘civil war’ that is appearing in messaging from both sides of the political spectrum. Warnings to voters about being prepared for armed conflict in the event of election results that don’t result in their favor, are “seeding the ground for potential violence,” warned Hickey.

Information about mail-in and absentee ballots, or when and where and how people can vote are embedded in messaging  that may be (intentionally or unintentionally) misleading. A classic example of this said Hickey, is the one which says, “Republicans can vote on Tuesdays and Democrats vote on Wednesdays.”

Jacqueline Mason, senior investigative researcher at First Draft, shared a picture of Kamala Harris, the Democratic VP nominee, that went viral on social media. The photoshopped image showed Harris against images of black men she had allegedly imprisoned beyond their release dates, though upon closer inspection, the background appears to be composed of repeated images of the same six men.

What does this discordance say about our culture with its reliance on digital echo chambers and crumbling trust in mainstream media and government?

“We are no longer having conversations about the issues or the identities of the politicians running for office but exaggerating narrow bands of their perspective and amplifying them in ways that distort reality,” said Hickey.

Not only is it becoming harder to distinguish between what’s true and what isn’t, in the false narratives being pedaled on social media, but it appears that civil discourse, along with a responsibility to the truth, is also slipping away from our collective grasp.

Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents


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

QuaranTeen – The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

“It’s like you’re practically living through history, Kanchan,” was the first thing my mother told me as I logged into my third period on Zoom.

I rubbed my eyes, which had become perpetually blurry after my exponential increase in daily screen time. Every day became Pajama Day, where I drowsily took calculus notes from the comfort of my bed. Every night was dedicated to hilariously cynical posts on Facebook’s Zoom Memes for Self-Quaranteens and Instagram’s Self-Isolation Bingo. I was not living through history. I was practically sleeping through it, coping with fear and mass-anxiety with a tired sense of denial. And it was only after my mother made that comment that I was reminded of the immense responsibilities that young people have during this global pandemic.

For us, the coronavirus is not a test of what we’ll endure; rather, it’s a test of whether we’ll let others survive — a test that’s meeting with some mixed responses from our generation. 

The Good

E-shopping, social media, digital marketing — the infamous hallmarks of the iGeneration now play a critical role in the sustainability of social distancing. And young people are spearheading this effort, with the trending #stayhome and the #stayhomesavelives tags on social media platforms. Digital culture has changed dramatically since the onset of the coronavirus. My feed is flooded with screenshots group Skype calls, featuring laughing friends and family. People post daily photos of their dogs lying on living room rugs, of the closets they’re about to finally clean and the new recipes they’re about to try with all the spare time. I didn’t realize it at first, but this shift is comforting in a domestic way; I think posts that document self-isolation provide a necessary reminder that all of us are learning to adjust to this New Normal, with its glitches and imperfections. 

Even more helpful is the volume of educational content that is available online, a bulk of which is circulated by young people. Everyone benefits from knowing the facts — from knowing the concentration of alcohol required for a bottle of hand sanitizer to understanding the difference between ‘antibacterial and ‘antiviral’. Students with parents or relatives in the healthcare industry often provide updates about the impending situation. One of my friends even posted a tutorial showing the spots we tend to miss when we wash our hands on her Youtube channel. Although we’re physically separated from one another, our digital communities provide a platform for compassion and group learning. It was through Instagram that I signed an online petition encouraging major corporations like Whole Foods to pay laborers for their time off. Informational content is so simple to spread. It’s a matter of a click, a forward, a re-tweet — but it’s my generation’s effort to protect some of society’s most vulnerable. 

The Bad

But for every helpful post that I find on social media, there are two more derisive comments about how only ‘old people are affected by corona’, and how ‘this is a free country’.

Freedom, the cultural hallmark of this democracy, has been warped to accommodate selfish delusions of young people who feel invincible in the face of a global pandemic. A distinct disappointment fills me when I come across videos of lockdown parties, where college students secretly celebrate their ‘extended vacation’ by deliberately ignoring the rules of social distancing. As they cheer on a keg stand, I frown in disapproval. A painfully oblivious beachgoer responds into the camera, “If I get corona, I get corona.” Because it honestly does not matter if he goes ahead and “gets corona” while spring breaking in a jam-packed Florida beach. What does matter is the countless elderly or uninsured people he will put at risk. I wonder if he can see beyond the idyllic Florida sunlight — if his ignorance permits him to notice his city’s crowded hospitals and exhausted healthcare workers paying the consequences of these very parties.

The response from my generation reeks of the same ignorance that permeates conversations about gun control or climate change. From the right to bear arms to the right to congregate, our individual freedoms don’t mean we are not  accountable for the choices we make — and the lives we may take in the process. 

The Ugly

The moment you think it can’t get worse, it somehow does. The line between the ‘bad’ and the ‘ugly’ emerges when ignorance turns to apathy. Some of us refuse to self-isolate because we don’t understand the consequences of our actions. Others simply don’t care — and that’s a far more horrifying mindset to face.

When I first heard about ecofascism, I was convinced it was a joke. But through the ever-present Internet, I was guided into this twisted celebration of the coronavirus, where the horrifying death toll is another step towards an ecological utopia. “Coronavirus is saving the planet”, a netizen proudly claims. Yes, our air-quality will naturally improve with fewer flights and vehicles dominating the highways. But in no way is COVID-19 a step towards a hidden “Greater Good”. Glorifying a pandemic disrespects the thousands who have lost their lives to this virus. It disregards the janitors and sanitary workers who have no choice but to risk their own for a Greater Good that is far more terrifying beyond the face of a screen. As much as I appreciate memes for pulling me through my second week of self-isolation, I can’t help but reel in disgust when I see jokes about ‘BoomerRemover’, which somehow insinuates that the vulnerable elderly deserve to face this harrowing reality alone. 

All of us are living through history. Like every other high school junior, I fantasize about the essay questions found on AP US History exams ten years later. When I finally have that opportunity to reflect on the coronavirus outbreak rather than cope with it on a daily basis, I wonder what I’ll tell my children. I wonder what they’ll tell their own. Regardless of what that day will look like, I don’t want to tell them that my generation watched thousands of immunocompromised individuals buckle beneath the weight of a threatening disease. I don’t want to tell them we shut our eyes and waited for these moments of crisis to pass. Without the right to drive or vote, young people still hold immense power to fight back. And the way we use that power ultimately defines the stories we’ll tell. 

Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, CA. Aside from being the assistant culture editor of India Currents, she is the editor-in-chief of her school’s news-zine The Roar. She is also the Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton, and uses her role to spread a love of poetry in her community.

In the “Age of the Coronavirus” – A Reflection

I sipped my morning coffee and browsed through the news, social media and emails. Spain declared an emergency and locked down.  The situation was still dire in Italy. Testing was woefully inadequate in the US and published numbers were the tip of the iceberg.  Toilet paper, cleaning supplies and frozen food shelves could not be restocked fast enough in supermarkets and grocery stores across the country to keep up with the wave of panic buying.


Three other items caught my eye.  

The Times had a heartwarming story about how Italians nationwide – under lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus – took to singing and playing musical instruments from their balconies and rooftops, with “piano chords, trumpet blasts, violin serenades and even the clanging of pots and pans” spilling from people’s homes” to show that they would get past this together, and to thank all the medical personnel on the front lines fighting the spread of the virus.

A good friend in Switzerland sent me a WhatsApp message.  “People have been hoarding toilet paper here,” she said, “empty shelves.” She also forwarded a video (it likely took multiple forwards to get to me) showing a young man in a coffee shop paying for his coffee with single sheets of toilet paper, and the barista asking for one more sheet, as Abba’s classic song plays in the background.  Money, money, money, must be funny, in the rich man’s world.

And then I saw this post on the social networking platform for local communities, Nextdoor:

“I’d like to take a moment to reflect on our current situation by bringing up a quote from the author C.S. Lewis.  It’s from an essay titled “On Living in an Atomic Age”. I’ll let Lewis say what he says best:

‘In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation…

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.’

“On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays”

Lewis wrote these words 72 years ago.  We must heed his advice today. Let’s not panic. Let’s be sensible. Let’s use common sense. Let’s adopt common courtesy. Let’s pull together towards a common cause.

Carefully follow the simple, sensible advice of healthcare professionals. Wash your hands, Maintain social distance. Stay indoors and avoid contact with others as much as you can. Be prepared to sacrifice some of your needs for the common good.  It’s not just for you. It’s for everyone around you, and for everyone around them.

Together, we will eventually emerge victorious from the “Age of the Coronavirus.”

Mukund Acharya is a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area established to advocate for healthy aging within the South Asian community. 

With gratitude to Joel Filipe for the use of his beautiful photograph from Unsplash.com

Ro Khanna, Big Tech & the 2020 Elections

Congressman Ro Khanna participated in a telebriefing on “The Role of Silicon Valley in the 2020 Elections” on Tuesday, November 12, and answered questions from diverse ethnic media reporters on topics ranging from technology’s role on the 2020 elections and privacy issues, to the gig economy.  

Vandana Kumar, Publisher, India Currents, moderated a Q&A session that gave the congressman an opportunity to share his perspectives as a key lawmaker representing the Silicon Valley. 

Ro Khanna (California’s 17th district), sits on the House Armed Services, Budget, Oversight and Reform Committees, and is the first Vice-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

He talked at length about the role of giant tech companies and the fight against fake news. Khanna argued that social media companies have a major responsibility to be vigilant and voluntarily police their platforms to prevent hate speech, viral false ads, and election interference; blatant false speech or disregard for truth is not protected by the first amendment, Khanna said.

Khanna admitted he was concerned by Mark Zuckerberg’s views on fake news, but stressed that the “Facebooks of the world” aren’t the gatekeepers of blatantly false speech; that role belongs to an independent regulatory agency. Rather than an outright ban, a thoughtful regulatory framework to establish reasonable standards that require political ads to remove falsity, would better protect first-amendment traditions, he said.

Khanna is working with Congressman Kevin McCarthy on a bill that will allow social media companies to monitor and remove “bad actors” from election interference. 

Though he hopes that these bills will be passed before Election 2020, Khanna claimed that the hostile tone of political discourse and cable news should share the blame for false news. With the upcoming elections, Congress is concerned about security on social media platforms, he said, and tech companies need to do the right thing to avoid a repeat of 2016.

The congressman commented that healthcare is another issue getting attention in Congress, which is trying to lower the cost of prescription drugs, preserve the Affordable Care Act, and lower premiums.

Conhgressman Ro Khanna

Khanna who is co-chair of Bernie Sanders‘s 2020 presidential campaign, described the Medicare for All bill he is co-sponsoring with Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (Washington’s 7th congressional district).The bill will give states the flexibility to use federal funding for Medicare and Medicaid when implementing the single payer system and include a caveat requiring states to get to 100% coverage in five years. A tax on corporations will pay for the bill, said Khanna, who proposes to cover any shortfall with supplemental federal matching funds.

On the role of big tech protections for privacy and consumer data, Khanna referred to his proposed Internet Bill of Rights that requires an individual’s consent before their data is collected or transferred, and the right to know how it’s used. Reforms can protect data from being manipulated against their interests and protect privacy, Khanna pointed out, but what’s really needed is well-crafted regulation that catches up with the pace of technological change.

As the Supreme Court determines the fate of DACA recipients, Khanna expressed his opposition to end DACA; he thinks Congress should act to offer protections to dreamers. He also is supportive of AB 5, California’s effort to regulate the gig economy. Gig economy workers should be treated as employees, and get the same benefits and rights, because with universal healthcare, contends Khanna, people won’t rely on their jobs for medical care.

Khanna agreed that affordable housing remains a challenge, though he acknowledged “constructive” private sector funding from Apple and Google towards affordable housing. He emphasized that low income housing needs additional federal investment and affordable building tax credits to expand.  Khanna stressed that what would make a difference are more temporary shelters and services for the homeless, and intervention programs to help with rent and mortgage payments, as exemplified by a successful pilot program in Santa Clara.

The telebriefing, sponsored by India Currents in partnership with Ethnic Media Services, was part of the ‘Conversations with Candidates’ series initiated by India Currents to expand ethnic media news access to elected officials and presidential candidates. The event  was attended by reporters from Silicon Valley Innovation Channel – DingDingTV, EPA Today, Phillipinenews, Chinese News, The American Bazaar, California Black Media and India West. 

Meera Kymal is a contributing editor to India Currents

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.

Real and Unsettling Dangers of Digital Dependency

It looked like a surreal scene except that it wasn’t. The family of five, all sitting in the living room and busy with their gadgets, hadn’t uttered a word in the last 30 minutes. It was when this scene was getting repeated several times over the week that Rafi Q Khan realised there was something wrong with the way the family was communicating with each other. “Even while at home, my kids had started messaging us on our family WhatsApp group instead of walking into our room to discuss things,” says Khan, a 47-year-old communications consultant from Gurugram. “It seems we are all happier typing than talking,” he adds.

There are many urban households like the Khans where gadgets have taken the central role in everyday lives. A self-confessed gizmo addict, Khan is away from his phone barely for a few minutes a day, keeping it at arm’s length even while sleeping. With three children aged 24, 21 and 17 years, the family of five is almost always engaging with each other through mobile apps. The Khan household has a smart TV, a smart refrigerator, digital cameras and innumerable other gadgets, which are connected to smart home device Amazon Echo. “I am always staring at a gadget. And I do realise that it’s a problem,” Khan confesses. His dependency on gadgets has reached a point that has had a ripple effect. His family members have started having conversations online rather than face-to-face interactions. Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Harvard Law School, might classify Khan as a borderline case of ‘tech addiction’.

His recently released book Your Happiness was Hacked, written with co-author Alex Salkever and published by Penguin Random House India, tries to pin down cases such as Khan’s and the effect technology is having on people’s happiness. Wadhwa stresses that most people don’t realise that there is such a thing as technology addiction. “They check their email 20 times an hour and spend hours everyday on WhatsApp and Facebook, but don’t know that these products have been designed to make them addicted. They don’t realise the harm that is being done to their well-being and happiness,” he says. With the proliferation of social media sites and a communication explosion, the desire to stay connected online has become permanent.

What started out as humans controlling a device has now turned the other way round. A situation, which Simon Gottschalk, a sociologist from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, puts across as: “machines have normalised a state of permanent urgency”. In his book The Terminal Self: Everyday Life in Hypermodern Times, he talks about how when we turn the terminal on, it immediately responds and prompts us to respond. And as soon as we do, it typically reacts instantly in an ongoing and potentially endless conversation. “Such a rapid response time naturally invites us to follow suit, to ‘sync’ to the tempo of terminal interactivity, and to accelerate our response time,” says Gottschalk.

We talk to our device, listen to it and even decorate it. We rely on it to remember information we deem important and consult it when making important decisions. “Its mere presence in a setting transforms interactions, we feel lost without it and violated when others look at it without our permission,” he adds. Ironically, even as people are worried about artificial intelligence (AI) engulfing humanity, not many seem bothered about inching towards it by being dependent on the intelligence of their devices rather than their own intelligence. “AI is surely advancing rapidly, but is nothing like what we saw in science-fiction.

Yes, some people have proposed marriage to Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, but these bots are far from being human-like and we can’t depend on them for anything but telling us the weather. And yes, we often trust the directions given to us by Google Maps over our own instincts, but there is little to worry about here… no one spends their days chatting with Siri and Alexa,” assures Wadhwa. Yet depression arising out of an uptick in the usage of sites like Instagram and Snapchat has been the topic of many research papers. Getting trapped in the web of unending demands of technology has taken its toll, and how.

Digital doom

The industry defines digital dependency as a behavioural addiction, loss of control due to excessive immersion in digital gadget usage, consequent daily disorder in the form of nervousness and anxiety, and inclination towards the virtual world. According to a report published this month by Ofcom, the UK government-approved communications regulator, the average internet user spends 24 hours a week online and checks the mobile phone every 12 minutes. Ofcom also found that, for the first time, the time spent making phone calls from mobile phones fell, as users used messaging services such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger instead. On average, British children own their first mobile phone by the age of seven years, a tablet at eight years of age and their first smartphone by age 10. India isn’t far behind.

As per a KPMG-Ficci 2016 report on cellphone usage, the number of smartphone users in India is expected to reach 690 million by 2020, which is seen as a key enabler in internet consumption. So it is not surprising that as per a new research conducted by the Aligarh Muslim University, which is yet to be made public, it was revealed that 63% of those surveyed logged on to their smartphones for four-seven hours daily, while 23% are logged on for more than eight hours daily. The study, titled Smartphone Dependency, Hedonism and Purchase Behavior: Implications for Digital India Initiatives, was funded by the Indian Council for Social Science Research, New Delhi, and surveyed students from universities of Delhi and surrounding areas. The preliminary findings reveal that only 26% respondents indicated the primary usage of smartphones for calling purposes and the remaining used it for accessing social networking sites and entertainment.

This year, the World Health Organization added gaming disorder to its list of mental health conditions. Staying in denial is no solution. Some like Belinda Parmar, a London-based tech evangelist who was a passionate advocate of the digital revolution for women a few years back, have now started keeping their family’s smartphones and laptops locked away. The change happened when Parmar started getting disturbed by her son’s apparent compulsion to play video games. “‘I need to get my life out of the way, so I can get on with gaming’—this sentence sums up how my son feels about video games,” says Parmar. She started the campaign #TheTruthAboutTech to raise awareness about the positives of technology along with the consequences of its addiction and is working in schools and running workshops across the UK.

“I still love technology for the benefits it gives us, but I’ve seen a different side to it as well. The hijacking techniques, the way the companies design games so you can’t end them until you’ve finished the battles, the manipulation to keep us addicted to our devices, etc. I saw my son and his friends use technology in a way that was more about pressure than pleasure,” Parmar adds. According to Parmar, the number one aspiration of a teenager today is to become a ‘vlogger’ or ‘live streamer’ like Ninja or Summit 1G. “The rise of digital dictators and their desire to make us tech addicts is changing the nature of our relationships. The ‘boring real world’ can’t compete with the number of dopamine hits that the virtual world offers. The levels of empathy in society have dropped in the last 10 years, coinciding with our increased use of tech,” she says.

Dependency fallout

Digital dependency isn’t difficult to define. Checking messages or browsing the web compulsively, without even being conscious of it, are the first signs of dependency. “Technology addiction can be defined as frequent and obsessive technology-related behaviour, which continues to be increasingly practised, despite negative consequences to the user,” says Mohammed Naved Khan, project director, Faculty of Management Studies & Research, Aligarh Muslim University. In his research, individuals admitted to suffering from “extreme tech anxiety” when separated from their devices such as smartphones or tablets. Researchers are putting technology addiction on a par with dangerous addictions such as drugs and alcohol.

Last year, researchers from University of Maryland’s International Centre for Media and the Public Agenda conducted a study where college-student volunteers at 12 universities around the world were asked to spend 24 hours without access to devices or even newspapers. The study findings revealed that when not allowed to connect to digital technology in any way, participants developed withdrawal symptoms typically seen in people addicted to cigarettes or other substances. Many study participants said they felt like they were trying to kick a hard drug habit or going on a strict diet. This condition has been described by experts as ‘Information Deprivation Disorder’. It is now reported that technology impacts the pleasure systems of the brain in ways similar to psychotropic substances.

“It provides some of the same rewards that alcohol and other drugs might: it can be a boredom-buster, a social lubricant and an escape from reality,” says Khan. In fact, a name has been coined for the fear of being without your phone: nomophobia (no-mobile phobia). “It is defined as that rush of anxiety and fear when you realise you are disconnected and out of the loop with friends, family, work and the world,” he adds. Rajiv (who goes by one name only), a 29-year-old media professional from Delhi, identifies with tech anxiety. “My mobile phone, if nothing else, is always with me. I don’t part with it even in the shower where it is lying comfortably in a dry corner,” he says. Rajiv likes to believe that he isn’t addicted to any gadget, but says, “I do like to keep my phone with me all the time.

Keeping it with me is not a problem. Losing sight of it is.” A worldwide study conducted by Internet security company Kaspersky Lab earlier this year suggested that spending too much time in cyberspace is taking a toll on people’s natural ability to learn, memorise and recall information. It’s leading to digital amnesia where people can’t recall more than two or three phone numbers, as they are using their brains far less than their forefathers did. In Norway, researchers at the University of Bergen studied the social media use of more than 23,500 people in 2016, revealing that addictive social media use is linked not only to low self-esteem, but also narcissism.

Besides the health ramifications, cyber security is another area of concern. According to Debarati Halder of Centre for Cyber Victim Counselling, Ahmedabad, spending too much time on devices has led to an increase in cyber crime, ranging from stalking to forgery. “I have come across several cases where young people (teens and young adults) have faced problems of data mining and grooming by strangers online. This has led to cases of cyber stalking, cyber bullying, trolling, creation of fake avatars, etc. Sexting is another area of concern, which has led to an obsessive nature of content generators,” says Halder.

Plan of action

India’s first tech de-addiction centre, SHUT Clinic (Service for Healthy Use of Technology), was started in June 2014 and, the same year, Uday Foundation, an NGO, started the first tech de-addiction centre in Delhi. “Awareness has increased, so we are seeing more cases in our clinic. Parents are now conscious of the lifestyle disturbances they notice in their kids, especially lack of sleep and social activities,” says Manoj Sharma, associate professor, department of clinical psychology, Nimhans, who also heads SHUT. While technology de-addiction centres are becoming a norm, technology companies have started owning up to some of the responsibility too.

In August, social media giant Facebook announced that users of Facebook and Instagram will be able to create pop-up alerts to limit their time on the apps, block push notifications for fixed periods and get updates on the time they spend on the social networks each day. Google’s ‘Digital Wellbeing’ and Apple’s ‘Screen Time’ are similar concepts that the tech firms developed recently to discourage smartphone overuse by allowing a user to set self-imposed time limits for apps on their phone. Yet not everyone is convinced that digital well-being tools will help. “The top tech companies are the most powerful brands in the world—more powerful than governments. It is not in their interest to stop our addictions.

For everyone of us trying to stop using tech, there are thousands of designers, psychologists and technologists working to keep us addicted to their platforms to consume ads and make them money,” points out Parmar. Words that indeed ring a bell. Wadhwa suggests, “Analyse how and why you are using technology and decide what is best for you. Ask yourself these questions: is the way I am using this app (or any technology) making me happy or unhappy? Is it hurting people around me emotionally? If I look back on my life, will I be glad I spent a lot of time on this app or would I rather have spent it another way?” In short, it’s time to question your digital dependency.


This article was posted with permission from the author

Facebook and WhatsApp aren’t just flawed — they’re downright dangerous

Facebook’s woes are spreading globally, first from the U.S., then to Europe and now in Asia.

A landmark study by researchers at the University of Warwick in the U.K. has conclusively established that Facebook has been fanning the flames of hatred in Germany. The study found that the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated, and those living in large cities and those in small towns were alike susceptible to online hate speech on refugees and its incitement to violence, with incidence of hate crimes relating directly to per-capita Facebook use.

And during Germany-wide Facebook outages, which resulted from programming or server problems at Facebook, anti-refugee hate crimes practically vanished — within weeks.

As The New York Times explains, Facebook’s  algorithms reshape a user’s reality: “These are built around a core mission: promote content that will maximize user engagement. Posts that tap into negative, primal emotions like anger or fear, studies have found, perform best and so proliferate.”

Facebook started out as a benign open social-media platform to bring friends and family together. Increasingly obsessed with making money, and unhindered by regulation or control, it began selling to anybody who would pay for its advertising access to its users. It focused on gathering all of the data it could about them and keeping them hooked to its platform. More sensational Facebook posts attracted more views, a win-win for Facebook and its hatemongers.


In countries such as India, WhatsApp is the dominant form of communication. And sadly, it is causing even greater carnage than Facebook is in Germany; there have already been dozens of deaths.

WhatsApp was created to send text messages between mobile phones. Voice calling, group chat, and end-to-end encryption were features that were bolted on to its platform much later. Facebook acquired WhatsApp in 2014 and started making it as addictive as its web platform — and capturing data from it.

The problem is that WhatsApp was never designed to be a social-media platform. It doesn’t allow even the most basic independent monitoring. For this reason, it has become an uncontrolled platform for spreading fake news and hate speech. It also poses serious privacy concerns due to its roots as a text-messaging tool: users’ primary identification being a mobile number, people are susceptible everywhere and at all times to anonymous harassment by other chat-group members.

On Facebook, when you see a posting, you can, with a click, learn about the person who posted it and judge whether the source is credible. With no more than a phone number and possibly a name, there is no way to know the source or intent of a message. Moreover, anyone can contact users and use special tools to track them. Imagine the dangers to children who happen to post messages in WhatsApp groups, where it isn’t apparent who the other members are; or the risks to people being targeted by hate groups.

Facebook faced a severe backlash when it was revealed that it was seeking banking information to boost user engagement in the U.S. In India, it is taking a different tack, adding mobile-payment features to WhatsApp. This will dramatically increase the dangers. All those with whom a user has ever transacted can harass them, because they have their mobile number. People will be tracked in new ways.

Facebook is a flawed product, but its flaws pale in comparison to WhatsApp’s. If these were cars, Facebook would be the one without safety belts — and WhatsApp the one without brakes.

That is why India’s technology minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, was right to demand, this week, that WhatsApp “find solutions to these challenges which are downright criminal and violation of Indian laws.” The demands he made, however, don’t go far enough.

Prasad asked WhatsApp to operate in India under an Indian corporate entity; to store Indian data in India; to appoint a grievance officer; and to trace the origins of fake messages. The problems with WhatsApp, though, are more fundamental. You can’t have public meeting spaces without any safety and security measures for unsuspecting citizens. WhatsApp’s group-chat feature needs to be disabled until it is completely redesigned with safety and security in mind. This on its own could halt the carnage that is happening across the country.

Lesson from Germany

India — and the rest of the world — also need to take a page from Germany, which last year approved a law against online hate speech, with fines of up to 50 million euros for platforms such as Facebook that fail to delete “criminal” content. The E.U. is considering taking this one step further and requiring content flagged by law enforcement to be removed within an hour.

The issue of where data are being stored may be a red herring. The problem with Facebook isn’t the location of its data storage; it is, rather, the uses the company makes of the data. Facebook requires its users to grant it “a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content” they post to the site. It assumes the right to use family photos and videos — and financial transactions — for marketing purposes and to resell them to anybody.

Every country needs to have laws that explicitly grant their citizens ownership of their own data. Then, if a company wants to use their data, it must tell them what is being collected and how it is being used, and seek permission to use it in exchange for a licensing fee.

The problems arising through faceless corporate pillage are soluble only through enforcement of respect for individual rights and legal answerability.

Vivek Wadhwa is a Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School and Carnegie Mellon’s School of Engineering at Silicon Valley. He is the author, with Alex Salkever, of “Your Happiness Was Hacked: Why Tech Is Winning the Battle to Control Your Brain — and How to Fight Back.” Follow him on Twitter @wadhwa.

This article was published with permission from the author.

Technology is as Addictive as a Casino

Many of us are addicted to social media. Whether it be Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or Twitter, the technologies’ creators have found ways to keep us coming back for more. Google design ethicist Tristan Harris has called the smartphone a “slot machine in our pocket”: one carrying a litany of addictive applications and fostering harmful behaviors.

Now, that same slot machine is becoming entrenched at work. And it is making our lives more disconnected, more disjointed, less productive, and less satisfying.

This is a relatively new development. Over the past decade, technology adoption flows have reversed, driven by the smartphone and the widespread popularity of consumer technologies such as social networks and chat. The copy machine, fax, mobile phone and personal computer and even the Internet started as work tools and then moved into the consumer realm. But, with the advent of the smartphone, employees began to insist on bringing their own devices to work, for personal purposes. They then won the battle with IT teams to allow them to use these to conduct work business such as making phone calls and sending e-mails, and a wave of companies emerged that built work tools that took social networks and chat systems as their models for inciting addiction and overuse.

Employers these days are all too happy to have their employees addicted to the tools of their trade if it means more time immersed in their jobs.

To take one of the most popular new business applications as an example: Slack uses numerous techniques that encourage workers to pay attention to it as much as possible. The most aggressive of them is a series of strong warnings to turn on desktop notifications, allowing Slack to pound them with notifications regardless of whether they are actively using the application. The company’s tagline, after all, is “Where Work Happens”: that is, “Don’t leave Slack; you will miss something and fail at your job”.

Slack’s designers have tapped into addictive techniques developed by companies such as Facebook and Twitter— with desktop and e-mail notifications of every mention of our name, and shortcuts to post GIFs in chat channels. There is no malice on their part; the company truly believes that all work should happen inside Slack and that we should all know just about everything happening on its platform and be notified instantly.

Unfortunately, humans can’t easily deal with such flows of information. The barrage of notifications crushes efforts to perform thoughtful work requiring quiet, space, and uninterrupted mental effort.

The average worker checks e-mail 77 times a day — and sends 4.73 messages, texts, or e-mails during an in-person meeting

Slack is not unique: most providers of work technologies, from human resources to document-sharing to systems for customer-relationship management, emphasize some style of interruptive notifications systems to alert us to a new message or other event. And the result is a blizzard of notifications, and intense pressure (sometimes from bosses) to keep these notification turned on, because ignoring a notification could mean you miss something that someone considers important.

We all know that this is happening, but usually we are powerless to stop it. And it is our managers who are all too often now bringing in new tools for us to use without thinking through their impact on our time and attention.

This new reality of notification insanity obstructs not only our concentration on individual work but also our communication with one another in person and in virtual conference. In a study of 1,200 office employees in 2015, videoconferencing company Highfive found that, on average, 4.73 messages, texts, or e-mails are sent by each person during a normal in-person meeting. Of millennial respondents, 73% acknowledged checking their phones during conference calls, and 45% acknowledged checking them during in-person meetings. Ironically, the greatest problem that 47% of respondents had with meetings was that co-workers were not paying attention.

And that is on top of the well-known problem of checking for messages far too often.

University of California Irvine researcher Gloria Mark and colleagues found that workers check e-mail an average of 77 times a day — and that checking e-mail constantly tends to increase worker frustration and stress. Additionally she found that interruptions can increase the total time necessary for completing a task, often significantly. It usually takes 23 minutes to return to a task after an unrelated interruption — but many workers must switch their attention every 10 minutes.

Statistics on reading texts, chat, and other forms of notifications at the office are harder to come by, but it is clear that the use of these is growing. Slack, for example, has 9 million global active users, who, in 2016, used it for an average of 140 minutes per work day. Add that to the 4.1 hours that, on average, workers spend checking their business e-mail per day, and you get the sense that the job has become mostly about responding to chat and e-mail, with a diminishing portion available to do actual work.

A further irony is that even though Slack claims that its technology helps workers reduce the number of e-mails, studies have shown that both e-mail volume and time spent on it continue to grow — and notification madness along with them.

This creates a cycle of increasing disaffection and disengagement. We spend more and more time doing busy work and less and less time doing the substance of what we really want or need to be doing. Work has become a series of unwanted addictions and useless actions that, at the end of the day, leave workers with nothing to show for the time and energy they have committed to it. It’s no wonder that surveys show a disturbing increase in the feeling that our jobs are meaningless: increasingly, they are.

This article has been reprinted with permission of the author.