Monday, December 14 2020

Out of the secret world I once knew I have tried to make a theatre for the larger worlds we inhabit. First comes the imagining, then the search for reality. Then back to the imagining, and to the desk where I’m sitting now.

That’s the legendary spy novelist John Le Carré describing his work. He died late Sunday night at the age of 89. We will always be grateful to the man who gave us the gift of Smiley. The Guardian pays tribute to his extraordinary career. Read the tributes from fellow authors and celebs here.

Big Story

A new Facebook India controversy

The TLDR: A Wall Street investigation shows that the company may have refused to ban Bajrang Dal—even though it qualified as a ‘dangerous organisation’ under its rules—because it was afraid for the safety of its India offices and staff. This revelation comes on the heels of a previous WSJ scoop that showed its then policy chief Ankhi Das intervened to protect other Hindutva groups, claiming it would hurt Facebook’s interests in the country. We explain what happened—and place it in the broader context of Facebook’s big bet on Reliance and the Indian market. 


Quick background

Back in August, a WSJ investigation—based on interviews with former and current employees—showed that the company’s Public Policy Director, Ankhi Das, intervened to prevent action against Hindutva BJP leaders. These included:


  • T. Raja Singh who has called for the killing of Rohingya Muslim immigrants, labeled Muslims as traitors and declared that those who kill cows should be slaughtered, as well.
  • Anantkumar Hegde who has accused Muslims of waging a Corona Jihad—i.e. deliberately spreading the virus.
  • Kapil Mishra who posted a video—threatening anti-CAA protesters in Delhi—which triggered targeted violence that left at least 36 Muslims dead. 


Company sources told WSJ that Das “opposed applying the hate-speech rules to Mr. Singh and at least three other Hindu nationalist individuals and groups flagged internally for promoting or participating in violence.” 


Also this: Her double standards are “part of a broader pattern of favoritism by Facebook toward Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and Hindu hard-liners.” As we explained in detail in August, the company’s close relationship with the BJP dates back to Candidate Modi’s first run for PM in 2014.


So what happened now?

According to unnamed company sources, earlier this year, Facebook’s safety team concluded that Bajrang Dal supported violence against minorities and qualified as a “dangerous organization.” And it concluded that it should be banned. 


A separate report filed by the security team claimed that cracking down on Bajrang Dal will risk “infuriating India’s ruling Hindu nationalist politicians.” Also: “banning Bajrang Dal might precipitate physical attacks against Facebook personnel or facilities.” The security team issued similar warnings against cracking down two other Hindutva groups: Sanatan Sanstha and Sri Ram Sena. 


The outcome: was that Facebook did nothing:


“At Facebook, the review of the group had been listed as ‘blocked’ for most of the year in its internal project management system, a label that usually meant that work had stopped, people familiar with the matter said. A note from an employee in Facebook’s internal task management system, described to the Journal by people who saw it, recommended that a ban not occur ‘due to complexities’ arising from Bajrang Dal’s political affiliations.”


Why is this a big deal?

The policy: The decision to give Bajrang Dal and others a pass violates clearly articulated company policy. Here’s how FB defines ‘dangerous individuals and organisations’:


“In an effort to prevent and disrupt real-world harm, we do not allow any organisations or individuals that proclaim a violent mission or are engaged in violence to have a presence on Facebook. This includes organisations or individuals involved in the following: Terrorist activity; organised hate; mass murder (including attempts) or multiple murder; human trafficking; organised violence or criminal activity. We also remove content that expresses support or praise for groups, leaders or individuals involved in these activities.” 


Bajrang Dal: clearly violates the bit about ‘organised hate’. 

  • WSJ cites a video posted in June by its activists which shows them vandalising a churchand the local Bajrang Dal leader boasting: “I and other Hindu brothers came here and forcefully re-established the temple.” The video was taken down by the company soon after WSJ asked about it. 
  • This is just the latest in a long pattern of such activities: In 2015, activists broke the holy cross and installed a Hanuman idol in another such church in Haryana, and threatened the life of the pastor (identified as Bajrang Dal here). 
  • More recently, its members destroyed a church-shaped film set in Kerala, and the local police charged them with “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion”an assessment Facebook apparently doesn’t share.
  • For more: The Hindu has a good overview of the organisation’s roots, ideology and track record.


The kicker: is buried deep in the WSJ story:


“Facebook’s human-rights staff have internally designated India a ‘Tier One’ country, meaning it is at the highest risk of societal violence and therefore requires heightened efforts by the company to protect vulnerable populations, according to people familiar with the matter. This ranks it alongside Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Facebook staff’s designation of India hasn’t previously been reported.”


Ok, so this is like that Tanishq ad…

Yes, there are similarities. The Tatas pulled the adwhich showed a Hindu-Muslim coupleciting justifiable worries about the safety of its staff and jewellery outlets (explained here). One can argue that Facebook may have made the same call, but without publicising the reason. 


Of course, this raises the bigger question: Are multinationals in India any less vulnerable to bullying than Indian companies?


Are they?

Likely not, especially in the case of Facebook, and for two good reasons:


The jodi with Jio: In April, Mark Zuckerberg shelled out $5.7 billion for a 9.9% stake in Ambani’s digital arm Jio Platforms. One reason: Facebook has the largest number of users in India, and bhaichara with Mukesh-bhai ensures that it won’t be kicked out a la TikTok. The bigger reason: The 400 million users on WhatsApp. 


As Bloomberg News notes, integrating that messaging muscle into a gargantuan Jio online retail platform will deliver a ‘super app’ of its dreams: 


“The social media empire needs new markets to keep growing. Despite learning Mandarin and making multiple trips to China, the world’s biggest market remains out of Zuckerberg’s grasp. India is the next best thing, especially now that Ambani has made it accessible by forcing down data charges and offering cheap handsets and services in Indian languages.


Customers in China and Indonesia have shown a preference for superapps, which allow people to interact with an umbrella brand for everything from chatting with friends to booking cabs and managing money. Ambani could be best-suited to try the model in India, especially if he gets to build it around the popular WhatsApp.”


Point to note: Reliance is firmly in favour of internet censorship, and ending end-to-end encryption that ensures privacy of WhatsApp messages—as it made clear in its recommendations to the government. Facebook may soon make far greater concessions to appease its biz partner and the government than turning a blind eye to Bajrang Dal.


Facebook’s survival: Mark Zuckerberg acquired WhatsApp and Instagram precisely because he knew that Facebook had a limited future as just a social media platform. 


“Facebook is running out of slots to place advertisements on its flagship social network —too many ads in the feed diminish a user’s experience. So it’s leaning hard on the revenue potential of shopping.”


And both Instagram and WhatsApp are critical to that big play—and therefore, the massive Indian market, delivered to its doorstep courtesy Ambani:


“Both WhatsApp and Instagram are crucial to Facebook’s international strategy, offering the company a strong toehold in fast-growing markets like India and Brazil. In some countries, WhatsApp or Instagram far outpace their parent company by users. In India, for example, WhatsApp has over 100 million more users than Facebook does, according to EMarketer. That’s important to Facebook, which views India as the next great internet frontier, and the company has expressed concern that Chinese competitors might get there first.”

The bottomline: This is just the beginning of the morphing of Facebook India—which will soon cease to resemble anything like its US or European counterparts. It will soon become Facebook-Jio, instead—and all things that this pairing suggests.

Reading list

The Wall Street Journal story is behind a paywall, as is its previous investigation. The Verge has the best overview—with key links—on the Facebook-Jio partnership. Scroll has more on Reliance’s view on internet privacy and censorship. Read our previous explainer on the Ankhi Das controversy. Bloomberg News via Business Standard has the best analysis of Facebook’s future.


Sanity Break #1

Taylor Swift released yet another album—her second in 2020—and this one is titled ‘Evermore’. General consensus: It’s plain fab. Adjectives most commonly used: indie-inspired; cerebral craftsmanship; dreamy and poetic. Billboard rates the best songs on the album, and Vulture decodes the lyrics. Our pick: 'no body, no crime'.

Headlines that matter

A smear campaign against farmers

Over the weekend, government ministers launched a full-court campaign to tar the protests as driven by Naxals, Pakistani plants and Khalistanis. Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad promised “stern action” against the “tukde tukde gang,” while another minister Piyush Goyal spoke of Maoist elements. And TV coverage—based on “intelligence inputs”—looked kinda like this:


The farmers: have dismissed efforts to label and divide the movement. The Telegraph has their response. While protesters from Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab and several other states staged a sit-in on the Delhi-Jaipur Highway—when they were blocked from going to Delhi. Rajasthan farmers brought their cows along for the ride (see below). Another 10,000 farmers are expected to join the protests at the Delhi border.:

A quick round up of the rest:

  • The farmers’ demand for a legally guaranteed minimum support price has found an unexpected supporter: The RSS (We explained what guaranteed MSP means here).
  • The Indian Railways did its bit for the government’s PR campaign. The IRCTC sent out nearly 20 million emails with a 47-page booklet—which details 13 decisions PM Modi has taken to benefit the Sikh community.
  • Indian military veterans are camping at the Delhi border, waiting to return 5,000 gallantry medals. They plan to collect a total of 25,000 over the next couple of days.
  • Meanwhile, 188 farmers in Punjab have committed suicide over the last 200-plus days—which is when the farm laws were first proposed. Point to note: The data is sourced from the unions.
  • Indian law students have a new hobby: petitioning the Supreme Court on hot-button issues. On the heels of petitions filed against Kunal Kamra and Rachita Tanja, another wannabe lawyer has moved the court seeking immediate removal of the protesters—citing Shaheen Bagh as a precedent. And because lakhs of farmers will meekly move because the Chief Justice says so? 
  • A related read: The Telegraph explains why at least two of the three farm laws may be held unconstitutional. For a counterview: Read Vivek Dehejia who argues that this is Modi’s ‘Margaret Thatcher’ moment in Mint.
  • Sunday Express captures the core crisis that has driven farmers to desperation: falling crop prices. Or better yet, watch this clip of farmers in Bihar talk about their predicament. They also explain why they aren’t protesting.


Workers riot at iPhone factory

More than 1,000 workers in Karnataka went on a rampage—smashing windows and burning cars—at an iPhone manufacturing plant owned by the Taiwanese company Wistron. The reason: They haven’t been paid their full wages for months: 


“We were hired as contract workers with a monthly salary of about Rs 16,000. But I was paid only Rs 11,000 last month. They always cite vague reasons like wrong punching (attendance) to cut our salaries”


And while promised an eight-hour shift, the workers were forced to work 12 hours instead:


“We have been made to work even on our festivals with the promise of overtime allowances. But once the work is done, our managers refuse to pay for the overtime and ask us to take a compensatory off.”


The government condemned the “wanton” violence, but promised the workers’ concerns will be addressed. Wistron has filed a police complaint alleging that it has suffered Rs 4.37 billion in losses. 


Also in trouble: Republic TV CEO Vikas Khanchandani who has been arrested by the Mumbai police in connection to the fake ratings case (explained here). He has been remanded to police custody for two days. Indian Express has more details. 


A ‘love jihad’ tragedy in UP

Rashid Jahan was arrested in Uttar Pradesh when he and his wife Muskan attempted to register their five-month marriage. The Bajrang Dal surrounded the couple, Rashid and his brother were arrested, and a pregnant Muskan was sent to a shelter home. She called her mother-in-law to say that she had bled profusely and lost the baby. UP officials acknowledge that Muskan has been admitted to a hospital, but insist, “her pregnancy is intact.” The Telegraph UK is the only source that has this story—but registration is required.


The great pandemic: A quick update

  • AstraZeneca and the Russian government-run Gamaleya institute are planning to test a hybrid version of their vaccines—Oxford and Sputnik V, respectively. They will start human trials to test a one-dose combination that may prove more effective than either one alone. FYI: Both Oxford and Sputnik are holding human trials in India. 
  • The first shipments of the Pfizer vaccine rolled out in trucks today—marking a historic milestone.
  • Germany will go into a hard lockdown over Christmas in response to record levels of cases.
  • The World Health Organisation has been accused of conspiring to cover up a report that shows it botched the initial response to the pandemic. The reason: Italy’s pandemic plan had not been updated since 2006 and hence, the initial response from hospitals was “improvised, chaotic and creative.” Why does WHO care: WHO’s assistant director general Ranieri Guerra was in charge of this aspect of Italy’s planning between 2014 and late 2017.
  • Also caught covering up: Disney, which was photoshopping face-masks onto the photos of maskless guests taking rides at Disney World—the kind you can buy after you get off a rollercoaster etc. As per the rules, all visitors have to wear a mask except when eating or drinking. But many took them off during the rides—and were free to scream and spread. 
  • Times of India explains why Tamil Nadu may get more vaccine doses than, say, Bihar. The short answer: greater number of older people, and those with comorbidities.
  • Indian Express reports on the stress faced by Indian cricket players in the quarantine bubble in Australia.
  • Washington Post acquired a military-grade camera to record how exhaled breath spreads an airborne virus. Definitely worth a watch!


Two surprising new studies

One: Earth’s greatest disasters—the kind that decimate entire species—are typically triggered by asteroid collisions. That would seem like random bad luck, right? Wrong. A new study shows that such “widespread die-offs” follow a cycle of about 27 million years. The reason: The solar system passes through the crowded part of our Milky Way galaxy about every 30 million years. During those times, comet showers become highly likely—and our orbit puts us right in their path. It’s kinda like sauntering across a jam-packed Indian road. The good news: we still have another 20 million years. (USA Today)


Two: Researchers spent 52 hours watching popular children’s programmes—including movies like ‘The Secret Life of Pets’, ‘Despicable Me 2’, ‘Finding Dory’, and shows like ‘Sofia the First’, ‘Peppa Pig’ etc. They found that children are averagely exposed to nearly nine examples of physical pain. The bad news: 79% of such moments involved violence or serious to moderate injuries. Even worse news


“The researchers report a universal lack of empathy to a character in pain. Of the painful incidents, 75% were witnessed by others and in 41% of cases, characters did not seem especially responsive. Empathy was measured by whether the characters showed concern (by helping, making vocal remarks giving advice) or indifference (turned away from or ignoring the sufferer).”


Three unhappy bits of gender news

One: An Iranian teenager has been sentenced to 10 years in prison. Her crime: posting distorted images of herself on Instagram—using makeup and Photoshop (see an example below). She was charged with corruption of young people and disrespect for the Islamic Republic. (The Guardian)


Two: Musician FKA twigs has filed charges against actor Shia LaBeouf, accusing him of “relentless abuse,” including sexual battery, assault and infliction of emotional distress. She is the second former girlfriend to do so. LaBeouf blames his behaviour on his PTSD and alcoholism, but also denies the allegations are true—and insists he owes the women “the opportunity to air their statements publicly and accept accountability for those things I have done.” 🤮  (New York Times)


Three: Wall Street Journal thought it fit to publish an op-ed by Joseph Epstein on Jill Biden which read:


"Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small but I think is a not unimportant matter. Any chance you might drop the 'Dr.' before your name? 'Dr. Jill Biden' sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic. Your degree is, I believe, an Ed.D., a doctor of education, earned at the University of Delaware through a dissertation with the unpromising title 'Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students' Needs.”

He went on to advise her to quit her job: "Forget the small thrill of being Dr. Jill, and settle for the larger thrill of living for the next four years in the best public housing in the world as First Lady Jill Biden." Vox has more on the instant backlash. FYI: Epstein only has an honorary doctorate.


Ambani tops yet another fat cat list

Yes, Mukesh-bhai is the richest sports owner in the world. Wait, isn’t Mumbai Indians owned by Nita-Bhabhi? In any case, he is followed by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer who owns the NBA team LA Clippers, and Zara founder Armancio Ortega, and owner of the Spanish football team Deportivo La Coruna. Point to note: When Forbes drew up the same list in April, Steve Ballmer was #1. The pandemic has been very kind to Mukesh-bhai’s net worth. (Sun)


A $300,000 painting is trashed, literally

German police retrieved a very pricey Surrealist painting by French artist Yves Tanguy from a trash can at Düsseldorf Airport. A businessman accidentally left it behind at the check-in counter, and it ended up in the recycling bin—where it was traced after an extensive police-led search. (CNN)


Say hello to America’s fastest dog!

Rescue puppy Phelan—a delightful oatmeal-hued mish-mash of greyhound, borzoi, and Scottish deerhound—completed a 100-yard dash in 6.346 seconds (at a speed of 32.3 miles per hour). She is now the official champion of the Fastest Dog USA competition. National Geographic has the story.


Sanity Break #2

Sticking with the musical theme, did you know that Britney Spears X Backstreet Boys also dropped a new release called ‘Matches’? Ok, so we’re not sure what we feel about it, but hey, at least some of us are still partying like it’s 1999.

Smart & Curious

List of good reads

  • Supreme Court lawyer Menaka Guruswamy writes on the love jihad laws for the New York Review of Books.
  • Read about the growth of political Hindutva in Kerala in Gauri Lankesh News.
  • Hollywood Reporter has a must-read cover story on the toxic implosion of Johnny Depp.
  • Blake Butler in Volta pens a painful and painstaking elegy to his wife, Molly Brodak, who died of suicide. Trigger warning: it describes the suicide.
  • CNN has a lovely feature on how the discovery of 70-year-old photos on an old camera sparked a worldwide search.
  • When Marcel Proust bit into a madeline, it elicited a flood of memories that are now literary history. Eoghan Walsh had the same experience except with a can of Pringles and a swig of Heineken. The result is a wonderful essay on his mother and the connection between food and memory.
  • LongReads does a brilliant job of curating the best, well, long reads from around the web. Their 2020 list offers excellent timepass.
  • Men in their 30s and 40s are opting to become ‘sugar daddies’—who essentially trade money for sexual companionship. Inside Hook reports.
  • Mint Lounge forecasts the top wellness trends of 2021.
  • The Hindu explains how film sets in India are trying to stay safe. 


One very good must-watch…

‘If Anything Happens I Love You’ is a 12-minute animated short film that captures the grief of parents who lose their child. There isn’t a single word of dialogue. Just music and the sound of you crying. Yes, this film will reduce you to tears. But you must watch it nevertheless. 


Feel good place

One: if you want to be an ace rooster rider, it is best to start young…


Two: OTOH, fence-riding can be mastered at any age (or weight).


Three: And dancing lessons will last you a lifetime.


Four: No-deal Brexit. No comment required


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