Fake News and the Case of the Internet Police Gone Rogue

“Ibelieved it was the right thing to do,” said Tony Blair about the Iraq War, because self-righteous belief is more important than fact and reality. He had kept repeating to the British public that there were Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq.
As it turned out, there weren’t.
The fake news was further spread out by large sections of mainstream media, as they cheered for military action. Thousands of British troops lost their lives, and many others wounded on account of the “intervention”. Iraq’s education system – considered one of the best in the region at the time – was in tatters. Sanctions and blockades were introduced and instability was created in the entire region from which they struggle to recover even now.
WMDs, however, were never actually labelled “fake news”.
For decades, it was institutions in the form of governments and traditional media that had the monopoly over the circulation of news, information, rumour, gossip, and even fake news. There is a long history of Iraq-like interventions, where elections are swung and panic is spread around, with help from what were outright lies. Make no mistake, presenting lies and falsehoods as credible truth isn’t a new phenomenon. It has existed for over 350 years.
But suddenly there’s huge fuss about it. And it’s a big problem, because anyone with an internet connection and Photoshop can manufacture news. The internet democratised the flow of information, but every silver lining has a cloud. The internet also democratised and paved the path for the cancerous propulsion of fake news. Even as the watchdogs of the internet act as fact-checkers and lie-busters, there are thousands of individuals and websites involved in creating and distributing fake WhatsApp forwards and false news articles.  
That fake news is a nuisance is to say the sky is blue and grass is green. It has become a slur to shut down debate, with Donald Trump going around town, branding anything he disagrees with as “fake news”. It has also become a convenient excuse, for a lot of his critics, to justify certain events they cannot explain or debate with rational argument. “Oh, the electorate was influenced by fake news,” they parrot, without understanding the definition of that argument. It’s like the liberal American version of “soldiers are fighting at the border!”
But if there is one thing that is clear, it is that the elite institutions of government and traditional media outlets appear to have lost their monopoly over the masses in the domain of distributing information.
Today, it is the Facebooks and Googles of the world – along with governments across the world – who crave that monopoly over the flow of information. GAFA is striving to become the class monitors of the internet. Whether it is through the power of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, or in the garb of letting users decide, they want to act as filters to decide what is true and what is fake. They want to be the gatekeepers of information on cyberspace. Post the Cambridge Analytica scandal, users started downloading their Facebook data and were shocked to find out that Facebook had been collecting call records and SMS data from Android devices for years.
That proposed solution to fake news is an even bigger problem than that of fake news. It’s like ordering a lobotomy to treat a cold. It suggests that we can trust a few institutions with knowing what’s best for everyone. And as we all know, “knowledge is porridge.”
The reason we avoid concentration of power in any administrative structure – ideal world scenario, i.e., no relation to IRL – is because when power is restricted to one, two, or even a few entities, the moment they become corrupt, the entire system collapses. There is already enough evidence out there to suggest that the likes of Facebook or Google have no moral right or objective expertise to carry out the function of being the internet police.
We have seen quite recently in the Cambridge Analytica exposé, how criminally negligent Facebook has been with sensitive data. They may now potentially face a federal investigation. Google was fined €2.42 billion by the EU for manipulating search engine results to favour its own shopping service. Do we honestly believe these companies are capable of making moral judgments, capable of deciding what is true and what is false for us?
The simple answer is, we don’t know. We are in a fairly nascent stage of dealing with these arresting questions that have wider consequences on society – we’re only at the start of our online lives.
It will require a whole lot more study and research; it will require a whole lot more debate in the public arena. But we must tread carefully, because it is always easier to make a problem worse than it is. And my fear is, that we’re on that path already.
Always be worried when people tell you to give them all the power, so they can do good for the world. Blair did it in ’99. If history is any indication, it never ends well.

Welcome to the North Korea of Happiness: Be Cheerful or Die Trying

Are you happy?
It’s a burdensome question. If “happy” is your constant state of mind, hop on aboard, you’ve made it, you’re a champ, pass the joint and please remember that sharing is caring. But if you are not, you should be ashamed of yourself. If you don’t shit sparkle and radiate glee, you are “doing life wrong”.
Welcome aboard the North Korea of Happiness, where the ultimate goal to everything you do is a nuclear explosion of joy.
I would call myself a fairly cheerful person, who loves to laugh as much as the next guy. I am happy in certain moments, but then also sad, hopeful, anxious, disappointed, fearful in others. I live in the polluted hyper-city of Mumbai, last went on a date when LK Advani ran for Prime Minister, and have to travel in jam-packed trains every day, so there’s only that many things I can be happy about. At times, I’m neither happy nor unhappy, in a fairly even state of mind, especially at work or when thinking about something. I figure that’s how most people are.
But it’s not a mindset that is acceptable anymore. One is bullied into being happy and ragged about life choices and decision-making – as if there is one giant conspiracy that is keeping me from reaching a state of constant delight and I must be rescued from it.
And this manufactured sense of happiness is pervasive: At work, at home, among my peers, friends when we go for a beer. But more than anywhere, it’s on my social media. On Instagram and Facebook and Twitter in the form of #HeartReactsOnly and #MyHappyPlace and #LoveMyLife. It is like a friggin’ rash that I can’t seem to lose.
Ironically, it is this constant reminder of how I’m not leading a happy life, that is making me… unhappy.
It’s no longer enough that you have to score 99 per cent at school, go through a gruelling college course, a tricky relationship and end up at a stressful high-paying job. You now also have to carry around this additional weight of being happy while you go through the entire ordeal, parts of which are pretty horrifying. This existential-meltdown-inducing question is quite often invoked by a close friend who’ll ask you at the end of a detailed story, “But, are you happy?”
Whether it’s your childhood, education, relationship or career, everything must be defined in this simple yes or no binary of happiness. We love binariness in this country: People we disagree with are anti-national, news we don’t like is paid for, and politicians we don’t like are liars. Well, one of the three is actually true. Binary judgments about happiness though, aren’t.
If you’re not happy with any aspect of your life, just quit it and find the next greatest thing that will change your life forever. After all, you can only either be happy or unhappy. If you’re unhappy, it’s a problem. And if it’s a problem, you must fix it ASAP. There’s no place for other feelings, emotions and different states of mind, fuck psychologists and their 100+ years of research and study. You are either operating at Dan Bilzerian level of ecstasy, or Kumar Sanu level of perpetual disappointment and sadness. There’s no middle ground.
Of course, there is a market feeding and supplying this idea of eternal pleasure. You can instantly go from unhappy to happy by applying a cream on your legs that makes you look younger by 10 years. After all, it is that dark spot beneath the knee that’s keeping you from being happy. Every fear, every insecurity can be addressed. Every third person has written a self-help book and there are more TED talks about how to be happy than there are actual happy people in the world. Yale University now has a course, teaching students how to be happy. If advertisements are anything to go by, you could literally buy yourself happiness. Maybe someday Amazon will sell Happiness as a product with same-day drone delivery; maybe Alexa was laughing for sheer joy.
But before we can bottle and package happiness, there’s always the quick fix. Let’s get high on LSD at Calangute beach, make a bike ride to Ladakh, attend the Jaipur lit fest, go trekking in Himachal, attend the music fest in Pune, or visit Comic Con in Delhi. These are all pursuits that are meant to make us happy, and we must not miss out on anything. It’s a competition of happiness between you and your friends’ Instagram account to be around all the “cool” events happening in town.
There is only one problem, however. And it’s not me, it’s you.
This mad dash for happiness is based on two faulty presumptions. One, that happiness is the sole barometer of judgment for the worth of all life, and secondly, that happiness should continuously exist, every moment, until the end of life.
It’s equally important to be hopeful, sad, disappointed or anxious, as it is to be happy. It’s only when you are sad, that you can know what’s it like to be happy. The more one consciously tries to attain happiness, the more elusive it appears. Trying to make life more meaningful might perhaps be a more noble goal to aspire for, and you deal with everything that comes your way, happiness or otherwise.
Happiness is like an orgasm, it lasts a few moments. And you feel really good. And you can have one every now and then. But to expect life itself to be one long orgasm, is to be a little insane.

Kyunki Shampoo Bhi Kabhi Simple Tha

Igrew up in simpler times, in the town of Mira Road, a place that merely existed as a banter point on whether it was a part of Thane or Mumbai. Mira Road received water at the same frequency I got a beating from my mom, i.e., once every three days. Plus, my forefathers came from Kutch. Clearly, my family was attracted to places with water problems the same way United States foreign policy is attracted to places with oil.
Water was so precious to us, that our minds went into Marwari mode when it came to spending it. Showers were alien to us, and the only accessories in our 4×4 bathroom were a red bucket and a blue mug. In Mira Road, water was heated by my mom on a stove. In Kutch, on a chulha. Most kids my age received pocket money. I, instead, received half a bucket of water and could use it any way I wanted. And my only friend was a green Medimix bar.
Medmix was the superhero of the soap world. It was all the Avengers rolled into one. Not only was it a soap, it also doubled up as a shampoo and anything else that you wanted it to be. There was just one soap to rule them all and it was all you needed to get rid of “dhul, mitti, ya daag”.
Shampoos had not made a grand shiny entry into our lives. I wasn’t even familiar with the concept of shampoos until my early teens. Back in the day, my innocent mind would judge the quality of a soap based on how much foam it could generate, and Medimix was just nailing it.
In the hierarchy of soaps, Medimix was the standard of the time, the vanilla equivalent in the ice-cream pantheon. If you were the upper middle class, you could afford colourful Nirma bars endorsed by Sonali Bendre roaming with lions. And the really rich would go for milky white Dove, or at least that’s what my social barometer told me.
As my parents started climbing up the social ladder, my morning rituals started getting complex. The first to penetrate our tiny cabinet was the shampoo that came along with the soap, the original OnePlus One of the world. I rationalised the thought in my head, “Fair enough, the soap is for the body and the shampoo is for the head.” But it wasn’t going to end at that, was it? Capitalism was at its peak and you were bombarded with choices, whether you wanted them or not.
Soon the generic shampoo had a sibling – the straight-hair shampoo. My sister purchased a special thingamajig that promised her hair without waves and I was warned to stay six feet away from it. I was more worried about accidentally using her shampoo than popping a casual paracetamol.   
My sister was not the only one falling for all this froth and farce. Dad switched to  a hair-fall shampoo. I found it ironic, at first, that he believed he could fight the Gujarati genetics of a balding patch with a yellow fluid that looked like pus. Mom purchased one for keeping her hair “black and strong” (whatever that means) and before I realised it, there were twelve types of shampoos, eight types of conditioners, four types of gels, and six types of body washes overflowing from our humble sunmica cabinet.
Our changing tastes in shampoo called for a change in the cabinet – the only bit of renovation our one BHK apartment has seen. Today the shampoo cabinet is overpowering the shoe cabinet, and we’re considering a menu to keep track of what’s what.
Now every time I go for a bath, it feels like I’ve entered an examination hall of cosmetic care. The other day, I spotted a “Lux Strawberry and Cream Silky Shampoo”, which caused a minor existential meltdown. Is that meant to be eaten or to be used on the hair? What if I use a shampoo that is not for my hair type? Will I ruin it forever? I don’t want to end up like Donald Trump. What are the steps to be followed? Is it soap first, then shampoo, and then conditioner? How much time do you have to wait between using the two products? What if you mistakenly use the conditioner before the shampoo? Will I have to spend a minimum of 45 minutes in the shower? Am I even allowed to use Halo, which is an egg-nourishing shampoo? I’m a vegetarian, what does the Gita have to say about this?
I needn’t have worried so much.
Eventually, it took me only a few days of getting used to when I finally succumbed. Yesterday, I was all set for my luxurious Sunday shower – body wash, shampoo, and conditioner all lined up… when the tap ran dry. I’d to make do with half a bucket of water and frantically started searching for my beloved Medimix. Sadly, it had already been replaced by some fancy bottle of gunk.

Loan-Waiver Schemes Got 99 Problems. And Implementation is One

Earlier this year, over one lakh farmers from across India reached Delhi in March, demanding a special session of Parliament to address the agrarian crisis. The protesting farmers, showing incredible grace and dignity, spent the night at Ramlila Maidan before marching towards Parliament on Friday. Describing it as one of the largest congregation of farmers in the capital in recent times, the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) pressed on its demands for loan waiver and remunerative prices for their produce. 
Waivers are par for the course in our country. The Madhya Pradesh CM Kamal Nath, after winning a hotly contested election, announced loan waivers in his state. We give them more often than Duterte hands out the death penalty. In the last year alone, Uttar Pradesh announced a debt waiver of ₹36,400 crore, Punjab of ₹10,000 crore, Maharashtra of ₹30,500 crore, Rajasthan of ₹8,000 crore and HD Kumaraswamy’s Karnataka government waived off ₹34,000 crore.
It is easy to see just how far loan waivers have solved the problems of our farmers, the most disenfranchised of Indians. The protests across the country are a result of our systemic failure to address concerns in the agriculture sector, pushing farmers to a corner. Organised protests are one way of registering their distress, an attempt to stake a claim to their basic rights of existence and dignity. On the extreme end, of course, the only solution left to them is suicide.
As one state granted waivers, protests erupted in other states, hoping to reap similar benefits. As state after state goes to polls, the demand for farm-loan waivers is only expected to get louder. With the fear of paying for it with a political defeat, governments cave in.
But what makes good political sense, rarely makes for good moral and economic sense.
When we’re ill, we listen to medical opinion by doctors because they’re specialists in the field. When it comes to economics, we need to pay attention to what the experts have to say. “The culture of loan waivers must end,” said former RBI Governor and media darling, Raghuram Rajan in 2014. It was a sentiment that was later echoed by his successor Urjit Patel last year. Even the World Bank commented on the issue in January earlier this year, claiming, “Debt waiver is not a good way of supporting farmers.”
These recommendations, however, seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
It’s the fashion of the times to negate any achievements of the previous government, but at least we can learn from their failures. Not only did a loan-waiver scheme implemented by the Manmohan Singh government in 2008 fail in its long-term objectives, but it also failed to provide short-term relief to farmers. It only marginally affected the number of suicides. The reason is simple: Loan-waiver schemes suffer from 99 problems and implementation is one.
There is difficulty in identifying the beneficiaries and distributing the amount. Seldom do the benefits of a debt waiver reach the right people at the right time, in the right manner. According to the 2008 Comptroller and Auditor General report, many eligible accounts weren’t considered. In other cases, beneficiaries who were not eligible were granted waivers. There are also fundamental question marks over coverage, how many people actually qualify, and can benefit from these schemes.
And then there is the problem that loan waivers only look at institutional credit – but the government is easy to deal with, private loan sharks are not. According to the 2012-13 NSS-SAS report, about 39 per cent indebted households acquired credit from non-institutional sources like moneylenders who charge exorbitant rates, which are outside the purview of debt-waiver schemes. Loans are taken from multiple sources, they are taken for multiple reasons, including non-farm activities.
But those are only the surface problems, the issues with loan waivers are much deeper.
Loan waivers create moral hazards; they discredit farmers who were able to repay their loans fairly on time. It’s a little like telling students after an exam that they could have copied and passed. It is unfair on the students who worked hard and attempted it fairly. Secondly, whenever loan-waiver schemes have been announced in the past, we’ve seen rich farmers default on repayment despite being in a financially viable position to do so.
What we fail to grasp is that when a loan is waived, it is not erased from the face of the Earth. It’s just that the burden of repaying the money shifts from the farmers to state governments. And with the time it it takes the government to pay back the principal loan amounts, the burden shifts to the bank. See what’s happening here? The good old game of relay.
For a system that’s already struggling with huge NPAs and stressed assets, this only makes things worse. When banks don’t get back their money on time, not only does it affect their capacity to lend money to others and fund various large-scale projects, they become selective in their lending of money to the agriculture sector in the future, knowing it’s a possible red flag. If I know that lending money to someone could result in a potential loss, I might just do away with it and save myself the headache. It affects the overall long-term credit culture of the banking system.
As money goes out from state budgets to pay these loans, it goes from a kitty that was supposed to fund some other project. As dads told us, “Money doesn’t grow on trees,” and a sum that was allocated to fund a highway, college, or hospital will now be used to waive off loans, crippling infrastructure demands of the state.
Again, all of this trouble would be completely acceptable if the waiver did indeed solve the problem forever. It would be acceptable even if at least improved conditions for farmers so there are no more suicides. But is that really happening?
The government is only able to waive off the farmers’ current loans instead of empowering them to be able to pay their future loans. What happens if we face the same problem again next year? Another drought? What if farmers borrow and default again? Will there be another protest? Another loan waiver?
Loan waivers are a short-term remedy, and – unpopular opinion alert – a quick-fix with the aim of political gain rather than an attempt to fix deeper structural problems that engulf the agriculture sector. Instead of waiving off their debts and sending the economy into a spiral, it is infinitely better to ensure farmers become capable of repaying the loans themselves. When this happens, farmers do well, and the economy does well. Instead of adopting this paternalistic attitude, we need to push for their self-sufficiency and profit. It is a goal towards which all efforts need to be made.
The tougher but more tenable solution to this is to strive toward increasing agricultural income. It includes attempting to tackle long-term and difficult problems related to supply chain, trade cartels, land reforms, modernised farming, irrigation, wastage, crop productivity, insurance, and warehousing among others. In his Union Budget speech, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced a remuneration price 1.5 times higher than MSP, which turned out to be an empty promise on closer examination.
We have known these problems for a long time. We have also known the solutions to them for a long time as well.
My guess however, is that loan waivers will continue to be the story. The problem with these structural long-term reforms is, they don’t help you win the immediate election. The effects will be seen in a decade from now, when a government may or may not be in power.  
Loan waivers have been carried out by the Congress, by the BJP. The only thing they help in solving, is the problem of voting a party to power and soothing a protest. But these short-term fixes will never be able to solve the acute agrarian crisis we are staring in the face right now. To really bail out the folks who put the food on our plates, will require a more humane rethink.