Database of Intentions : God Google

I enrolled for Coursera MOOC Understanding Media by Understanding Google. Unfortunately I will not be able to complete it due to sudden surge in my other work and personal commitments. But I am thankful for this course for introducing me to wonderful pieces of writing on Google and the immense “Orwellian” (cliched term I know) power it exercises over us. I have earlier written about it here, here, here, and here. Most of those pieces are inspired by two books The Filter Bubble and The Googlization of Everything which I highly recommend. Former is a real eye opening book in terms of amount of knowledge Google has about us and probably knows more about us than we would even admit to ourselves.

Another book that I came across is the dated The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business andTransformed Our Culture. I haven’t yet read it completely but it talked about a powerful concept “Database of Intentions”. As much as I study Google and more importantly social media trends, this should have been blindly obvious to me but it wasn’t. In The Filter Bubble it is covered that how much Google knows about individually, this book talks about how much Google knows about us collectively.

One analytic site reports, 88% of world used Google as their primary search engine.

This gives Google immense insight about what the world (at least the world that is online or has access to internet) is thinking. Are they searching for any particular news, interested in buying any particular brand of clothing or accessories, researching any particular listed financial instrument such currencies, stocks, bonds or commodities (sorry I am a financial guy so this is of my particular interest), checking symptoms to see what diseases have we contracted etc.

Google does release its annual zeitgest report

“Zeitgeist” means “the spirit of the times,” and this spirit can be seen through the aggregation of millions of search queries Google receives every day. The annual Zeitgeist report reveals what captured the world’s attention in the past year—our passions, interests and defining moments as seen through search.

but it is released periodically. Based on this there was this hoopla in 2010 about Pakistan No. 1 Nation in Sexy Web Searches? Call it Pornistan | Fox News. Pakistanis claim to be amongst the righteous people of world but Google search shows their hypocrisy i.e., in the privacy of their rooms, they are largest consumers of porn. Later Google raised doubts on the accuracy of the report but fact remains that Google is sitting on this huge pile of information. Its their PR strategy that they chose to share it with us. They can very chose not to share this information with us.

The real power resides in having real time information about us collectively. A hypothetical example: Google notices a sudden increase in search for special kind of symptoms in a particular locality. Whenever we feel unusual pain or symptoms, our first instinct is to search online and not approach the doctor. If its related to a contagious disease, Google will know days before anybody else that a contagious disease is spreading in that area.

If people start searching for Gold as an investment say in India or similar such country (with significant purchasing power and penchant for gold buying), Google may know that demand for Gold is about to increase. It can either sell this information or use it to make more money for itself at the expense of ordinary investors.

Above are just hypothetical example and come with lot of caveats for example assumes that people are net-savvy, affluent, and research such diseases/terms on internet. Seeing that gold prices are low, an Indian may not research and just go and buy it from a local shop and this whole sentiment-to-action process may not even register on Google. But as people become more affluent, their access to internet increases, the power due to the knowledge that Google has about us will increase.

I am not saying it is easy. People tried earlier to tap into this. Derwent Capital’s Twitter Hedge Fund tried just this:

London-based hedge fund Derwent Capital Markets said it had successfully marketed a new venture to a series of high-net worth clients that makes investment choices using information gathered from over 100 million daily tweets.

Simply put: the fund mines the Twitter-verse to gauge market sentiment, and that information—which the firm futuristically brands as “The 4th Dimension” is used to drive the portfolio’s holdings.

The company still exists and has renamed itself Cayman Atlantic. The fund was shutdown

not because its analysis of Twitter wasn’t working. During the one month that the $40 million Derwent Capital Markets fund was operation, it reportedly returned 1.86 percent, beating the overall market as well as the average hedge fund. The fund’s founder says that its analysis worked so well that one of the fund’s principal investors suggested making a mass-market product out of it, so as to reach a larger market instead of the handful able to invest in a hedge fund.

It might not have worked for the company but the potential is there. One reason could be that other hedge funds would also have developed such data mining software. And since markets are efficient, probably reduced any advantage the Twitter fund had to zero.

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My point is that with the amount of data rather real-time data Google holds about us, it has too much information about us. It may know more about a police-state’s nation than the government of that nation. A lot has been written about recent Arab Springs and earlier revolutions and how social media has been helpful in organizing them. However, in social media we are public or at least broadcasting our intentions. When we discreetly search for anything on Google, after God only two people know about it: us and Google. That is a pretty God like power to have.

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Musings on Pakistani social media – Part II – Liberal edition

I am so glad I went off the grid when I did as shit is really hitting the fan. My twitter timeline is depressing and when people tweet quotes from Pakistani TV talkshows transmitted after a tragedy, I wonder why do people torture themselves by tuning into them but more importantly how do they keep their sanity after listening to the bullshit that passes for discussion on evening talk shows.

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Around couple of months ago I wrote a post titled Musings on Pakistani social media-Twitter edition in which I bashed PTI calling them naive for buying the hype they themselves create on social media and believing that large number of PTI trolls and their RTs of pro-PTI material on social media will translate in to overwhelming majority at the ballot box.

Couple of years ago, one of the starry eyed supporter of PTI named Zohair Toru became famous or rather infamous for displaying such naivete:

The video went viral. Shandana Minhas’s Cafe Pyala did a post on it: The Poor, Sensitive, Hot and Bothered Revolutionaries! . The below translation of the video is picked from Cafe Pyala:

“See what is happening with our sisters and mothers in this demonstration. We are all from good families. We have come out on to the streets to raise slogans for Imran Khan. We are being beaten by our own police. They’re pushing us. We have come for a revolution, for your country. Every person here has come out of his house for this. Who would do such demonstrations in such heat [otherwise]? The police is shoving us, for what? For a foreigner? For Raymond Davis? He caused such bloodshed in Lahore and ran away to his home. See what is happening with Afiya Siddiqui. Nobody has such justice. We have all come out on the streets. Our homes have curtains too. Our women also do purdah. But when revolution requires it, every person in the home comes out on the streets. [To off camera supporter] Am I lying? I’m saying the correct thing, right? Everyone comes out. Sir, look our own police is beating us, how can we bring about a revolution? You tell me, you’re from the media. If you’re with us, only then will the revolution come about. If the police don’t beat us up, only then will the revolution come about. Now look at Imran Khan. What need does he have for this, he’s a very rich man. He’s standing up there on the stage and addressing people and even he is getting pushed around. Everyone’s getting pushed left, right and centre. This brother here, he’s totally sapped by the heat. Do we have any need of coming here?”

We all had fun with him. Garmi mein Kharaab and Inquilaab kaisay aaye ga became catch-phrases. One only needs to read the comments on Cafe Pyala post on how we (including myself) had a lot of fun at Toru’s expense.

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I have grown more mature (at least I like to think that) since then. Yesterday I tweeted this

What brought this on. If you have been following Pakistani news which I don’t much but occasionally get the pulse of the nation through my twitter TL, we are losing the counterinsurgency or counter-terrorism war with Pakistani Taliban aka TTP. Recently TTP had huge successes for example jail-breaking hundreds of their colleagues from D.I.Khan Jail, killing a serving Pakistani General and yesterday there was that despicable attack on church killing 81 people.

Subsequent to all these attacks, educated tweeps became very excited blaming everything on PTI and Imran Khan.  The outrage starts from the moment the news hits the wires till the day-end with all of the influential tweeps coming together in lambasting PTI and RTing PTI bashing posts till the time their fingers are tired from incessant tweeting or they find some other diversion in another window of their browser. The outrage is mellowed down the next day and by third day everyone has moved on.

In their excitement they forget that Imran Khan barely managed to secure enough votes to form a coalition government in KP province otherwise it was quite easy to have a different party ruling the province in KP. They also fail to notice that Imran Khan does not get the same air time on TV as before and does not wield much influence in KP (as many PTI insiders will tell you) either. Young starry eyed too-young-to-vote crowd might still look to him but that doesn’t translate into much influence either in the party nor in the government. Moreover, though he gets the majority blame for stating that we should negotiate with Taliban before we take the full-court-press offensive against them, an All Parties Conference was called and it was agreed by all stakeholders (right wing, secular, military) that negotiations with Taliban to be given a chance.

The [interior] minister said that leaders of all the major political parties were on the same page with regard to national interests. He said that it was a good omen that all the leaders have shared their views and ideas for bringing peace in the country and no personal or party agendas were pushed during the meeting. He said that the resolution adopted by the APC was an outcome of the consensus not only among political leadership but also the military leadership. He hoped all political and military leaders would continue to join hands for national interest and hopefully the security situation would improve by leap and bounds. He also mentioned that the attitude of the military leadership encouraged political leaders to move towards peace process and initiate negotiations with Taliban.

But if one logs on to facebook or twitter, it is as if Imran Khan alone is spearheading the negotiations and all the other stakeholders including military are against it. A friend’s status update:

Then there was this

I am not reproducing here what was and is being said on twitter. The crux of it is that “it is all Imran Khan’s fault and 140 characters are not enough to express my outrage”.

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Musharraf and his supporters were also equally naive believing that social media represents the ground realities. Wusatullah Khan did a brilliant piece on it

اگلے پانچ برس تک جب سیّد صاحب دیارِ غیر میں پاکستانی جمہوریت کے فروغ میں اپنے مدبرانہ کردار پر روشنی ڈال ڈال کے شل ہوگئے تو انہیں دوبارہ سے بے یقینی کے گدلے ساحل پر پھنسے ہوئے پاکستان کو صاف پانیوں میں دھکا دینے کے لیے ٹگ بوٹ بننے کا خیال آیا۔ مگر اس وقت تک اپنوں کے ہی زخم خوردہ سیّد صاحب کے پاس ذاتی مقبولیت کو جانچنے کا صرف ایک ہی پیمانہ بچا تھا یعنی فیس بک۔ چنانچہ انہوں نے چار لاکھ فیس بکیوں کی نیک تمناؤں کے سہارے دو دفعہ ملک میں خمینی اور بینظیر سٹائل میں اترنے کی دھمکی دی۔ ایک آدھ ٹیلی وڈیو جلسے کے ذریعے درجہ حرارت ناپا۔ اپنی مقبولیت کو جمع تقسیم کیا اور خود کو بدلے بدلے سے پاکستان میں دھکا دے دیا۔

جب وہ کراچی میں اترے تو لاکھوں انٹرنیٹیوں میں سے تقریباً ایک سو کے ٹھاٹھیں مارتے سمندر نے والہانہ استقبال کیا۔ مگر سیّد صاحب نے واپسی کی فلائٹ بک کرانے کو ایک بانکے کمانڈو کی روایتی شان کے خلاف سمجھا اور بلٹ پروف جیکٹ پہنے پہنے عمارت در عمارت گھومتے گھماتے عدالتی کمرے میں جا نکلے اور پھر بطور سلطان راہی مثالی حاضر دماغی سے کام لیتے ہوئے مشینی گھوڑے پر سوار وہ بہادرانہ پسپائی اختیار کی کہ اپنے ہی گھر کی جیل میں پہنچ کر دم لیا۔

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The people expressing outrage on twitter are not dumb and their anger is justified at the way things are moving in Pakistan. However, these were the very people who made fun of Zohair Toru and other such supporters of PTI for experiencing the reality for first time by stepping out of their air-conditioned homes, away from facebook and feeling the heat and police shoves (they had yet to face the police baton or rubber bullets but I think that is too much a price to pay for Inquilab for PTI supporters). The same people also made fun of PTI supporters’ love of social media saying that they have already elected Imran Khan as Prime Minister of Facebook Pakistan (I am guilty of this as well). However, my twitter timeline of last two weeks show that they are no better than PTI supporters when it comes to believing in non-existent power of social media.

The twitter revolutions and Taksim protests that were organized using Twitter gave this Pakistani “elite” (in terms of the strata of society they represent) tweeting class a delusion that protesting on twitter matters. It might matter in Arab countries where the press is not free and one is not allowed to criticize government in public or even very carefully in private. In Pakistan, the press is very vibrant and free and full of criticism of government. The amount of (deserving) criticism that was directed at previous PPP government was unprecedented. I don’t think even the current government much less military can absorb such criticism. But I digress. My point is the role of twitter in the aforementioned protests was to allow people to organize physical protests and express their anger and frustration at the government or at the prevailing affairs. The protests were not limited to tweeting about it. They organized protests using twitter, went to protests and then tweeted about it.

In our case, it has been two weeks yet our tweeps are limited to tweeting their outrage on the APC resolution, killing of major General and since yesterday on killing of innocents in a church. Not a single one of them has gone out or even suggested to go out and record their protests/anger/frustration before their political representatives or even at the local press clubs.

Despite knowing better, they are displaying a character which is epitome of naivete, the very character that they made fun of in Zohair Toru. This is why I said that Zohair Toru was better. He may be confused, naive, ignorant but at least he went out, away from his PS3 or keyboard or whatever the rich boys do, in the summer heat to stand up for what he believed in.

[UPDATE]

From Dawn:

The bloody attack was a reality check for the coalition partners of PTI, including Qaumi Watan Party and Jamaat-i-Islami. The ministers and MPAs fearing backlash could not dare to visit the LRH for almost three hours after the incident to console the angry mourners and ensure timely treatment of the wounded. There were no arrangements at the official level to provide coffins. Thanks to Al Khidmat Foundation which arranged about 100 coffins for packing bodies.

Al-Khidmat is charitable wing affiliated with the right wing Jamaat-i-ISlami, coalition partner in KP government.

What have left leaning people done except for tweeting to like minded people on twitter going to achieve?

Going off the grid

In the first few days of Ramzan (or Ramadan), my satellite TV subscription ended. I didn’t renew it believing TV to be an unnecessary distraction during the holy month. Before Ramzan, I watched political news shows about Pakistan as aired on GEO, DawnTV etc and also occasionally also tuned in to watch the hourly news. Since the set-top box was provided by the satellite TV company, when the subscription ended, it stopped showing free-to-air channels too. As such, I couldn’t even watch such channels as CNN, BBC etc.

It had a positive impact on me during Ramzan. Part of it may be the blessings of holy month but mainly it was because I had stopped watching depressing Pakistani political shows which only highlight the problems and or get the invited guests to argue with each other. However, I am not sure if such programs have been instrumental or even helpful in resolving the problems highlighted by them. Sometimes they bring in members of opposing factions in the parliament. Though the programs always end in a handshake and a resolve to sort out the issues, over time the public has come to learn that nothing really happens. Hence, what we get out of these programs is awareness of the myriad problems facing the society and the country yet not a solution in sight. Hence, only outcome for those watching the programs daily is cynicism and depression.

There has been no good news out of Pakistan for last many years except for the election that went smoothly and at least a lesser evil was brought into the government. When it comes to rest of world, last few months have not been good for the Ummah (muslim nation) either. The events/protests in Turkey, Egypt and Syria presenting a very bleak picture. If one is plugged into media and social media like I was till Ramzan, what I was getting 24/7 was depressing news with respect to issues that were close to my heart.

Though due to cancellation of satellite TV subscription, I was saved the ordeal of watching political talk shows, however, I was still pretty much plugged into my twitter feed and continued to get my news and depression fix from it.

Then I took a two week Eid break and traveled to Pakistan. I don’t change SIM of my iPhone and keep keep the phone on roaming just in case someone needs to reach me for work related matter. I carry a local cheap phone when I go out and keep my iPhone in the kitchen (centrally located in our house) so that if there is a call on it, someone can immediately tell me that it is ringing. This meant I couldn’t check my twitter timeline frequently.

Image representing iPhone as depicted in Crunc...Then massacres in Egypt started and my father asked me if I knew about them. I picked up my iPhone and didn’t let it go for next one week. Finally, my father complained that why am I always playing with my iPhone and I realized the addiction it had become. So I left it at the kitchen counter once again and didn’t pick it up (except for checking office emails) till the time my trip was over.

I picked up two books meanwhile and finished them during this period. Occasionally I came across a good quote or passage and had an urge to share it on facebook and twitter. But I resisted. I knew that once I logged into my facebook or twitter account, I will do much more than just sharing and may even end wasting few hours on it. With result that I was able to finish the books.

Now I am back. I have bought a new satellite subscription. However, this time its only for football and other sports (though no cricket). I check in to my twitter timeline twice or thrice daily but not for minutes or hours, Just for a few tens of seconds to read at most ten tweets that are on top.

I stopped caring about Ummah and Pakistan issues. As if my caring mattered. Even my tweets and links I share on facebook have slowed down to a trickle. My klout score which peaked at 60 just before Ramzan is coming down at a fast clip.

I was sitting with a few friends Friday night and having a reputation as plugged-in source-of-information they wanted my opinion on Karachi operation, NATO containers, Mohajir Republican Army, Syria attack, Kerry statement etc. I had an idea about these but since I just read the headlines or few tweets never bothering to go into details, I didn’t have much to add. Rather I asked them to fill me in.

Honestly, the temptation is strong. When you are the source of all information and  theories etc people seek you out for your opinions and information. They listen to you and probably may be swayed towards a particular political viewpoint because the way you presented the information. However, by not remaining that source anymore, you are losing that power, and losing it fast.

Yet the power beckons you, like the ring beckons everyone who comes across it in Lord of The Rings. The question therefore remains do I have the strengthl to resist the temptation of power in light of the costs (from being center of attention to nobody). So far I am resisting.

Internet and elusive search for truth

Propaganda does not deceive people; it merely helps them to deceive themselves. – Eric Hoffer

It was believed that with the advent and ubiquity of internet and the huge information resources that internet puts at everyone’s disposal, creation of propaganda will become hard as people will easily seek out truths and will easily separate fact from fiction. However, recent events have shown that is hardly the case. Moreover, the arrival of social media such as Facebook and Twitter actually adds to the problem.

This was most notable in Pakistan during the Elections 2013 season. Columns were fabricated under the names of well known columnists and political analysts and shared via email, Facebook and Twitter. In pre-Internet times such fake news stories or columns circulated as faded photocopies. Very few people had access to news archives to be able to verify themselves whether such news item or column was ever written.

Now newspapers have their archives online and all one has to do is to visit the newspaper website and verify for oneself if such a column or news item had ever appeared on its pages. If recent experience has taught us anything, no one makes the effort of doing so. Whereas in earlier cases, spreading such false information required us to expend money and energy by photocopying and then delivering such papers, now it can be just done with a simple click of send or share button.

However, Pakistani nation eventually caught up to it as shown by election results and the supporters of political party that were faking such news items and columns lost sympathy of these journalists.

In case of Pakistan, the propaganda remained affected or deceived the Pakistani population. Probably because it was being done by a few die hard media savvy supporters of a particular political party. However, recent coup and subsequent events have shown that if there is a state machinery and intelligentsia behind a propaganda campaign, one can almost fool the whole world.

The campaign against the incumbent president started by “Tamarod” (arabic for Rebelion) by claiming that they have collected 22 million signatures nationwide from people demanding that the president step down. Whereas doubts were raised about authenticity of the signatures or even the numbers, they weren’t taken seriously. June 30, 2013 was announced as a day of protest against the president. A large number of people did come out and it was reported by local media and subsequently picked up by international media that more than 30 million Egyptians are protesting against the government which was also claimed as largest number of people protesting together in history of the world. This was repeated so much by the protestors themselves and the local channels sympathetic to them that they started believing it themselves.

From BBC

Pro-coup claims of 30M people is “gross exaggeration” and “impossible”

It has been claimed that Egyptians staged the biggest uprising in history in the last few weeks. It has been claimed that 30 million people took to the streets.

“I think that’s a gross exaggeration,” says Middle East correspondent Wyre Davies, from Cairo. “I think nationwide there were millions of people this time protesting against the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, but nothing like the 30 or 40 million people some people quoted. That’s 45% of the population – that’s impossible; there are too many young people in Egypt for the maths to work.”

So where has the figure of 30 million protesters come from? It’s difficult to find a source for it, or for any of the other estimates for that matter.

“What we saw last week was a military coup – there’s no two ways about it,” he says. “And therefore the only justification for that logically is that this was a popularly-backed military coup. So it’s in the interests of the people who supported the overthrow of the president to say that they had these millions of people supporting them.”

The BBC website above does not allow for comments. When the absurdity of such huge numbers protesting was pointed out on other websites or blog posts, the authors were branded as stooges of Muslim Brotherhood or USA who do not want to see Egyptians progress. Moreover, unless someone goes to the original source of the estimate and checks its credibility, it is very hard to verify the numbers.

Finally, award winning journalist Max Blumenthal does a deep dive and proves it the numbers were fabricated and social media was used to full affect to forward this.

People, power, or propaganda? Unraveling the Egyptian opposition

Among the first major Egyptian public figures to marvel at the historic size of the June 30 demonstrations was the billionaire tycoon Naguib Sawiris. On June 30, Sawiris informed his nearly one million Twitter followers that the BBC had just reported, “The number of people protesting today is the largest number in a political event in the history of mankind.” Sawiris exhorted the protesters: “Keep impressing…Egypt.”

Two days after Sawiris’ remarkable statement, BBC Arabic’s lead anchor, Nour-Eddine Zorgui, responded to a query about it on Twitter by stating, “seen nothing to this effect, beware, only report on this from Egypt itself.” Sawiris seemed to have fabricated the riveting BBC dispatch from whole cloth.

On June 30, one of the most recognisable faces of Egypt’s revolutionary socialist youth movement, Gigi Ibrahim, echoed the remarkable claim, declaring on Twitter, “I think this might be the largest protest in terms of numbers in history and definitely in Egypt ever!” Over 100 Twitter users retweeted Ibrahim, while a BBC dispatch reporting that only “tens of thousands of people [had] massed in Tahrir Square” flew below the radar.

Some Egyptian opponents to Morsi appear to have fabricated Western media reports to validate the crowd estimates. Jihan Mansour, a presenter for Dream TV, a private Egyptian network owned by the longtime Mubarak business associate Ahmad Bahgat, announced, “CNN says 33 million people were in the streets today. BBC says the biggest gathering in history.”

There is no record of CNN or BBC reporting any such figure. But that did not stop a former Egyptian army general, Sameh Seif Elyazal, from declaring during a live CNN broadcast on July 3, just as the military seized power from Morsi, “This is not a military coup at all. It is the will of the Egyptians who are supported by the army. We haven’t seen in the last — even in modern history, any country in the world driving 33 million people in the street for four days asking the president for an early presidential election.” CNN hosts Jake Tapper and Christian Amanpour did not question Elyazal’s claim, or demand supporting evidence.

Three days later, Quartet’s Middle East special envoy Tony Blair hyped a drastically different, but equally curious, crowd estimate. In an editorial for the Observer (reprinted by the Guardian), Blair stated, “Seventeen million people on the street is not the same as an election. But it is an awesome manifestation of people power.” The former UK Prime Minister concluded that if a protest of a proportionate size occurred in his country, “the government wouldn’t survive either.”

Like the massive crowd estimates, Tamarod’s signature counts were impossible to independently verify. Increasingly it appeared that the numbers were products of a clever public relations campaign, with the Egyptian army and its political supporters relying on the international press and Western diplomats to amplify their Mighty Wurlitzer.

As stated above, it is important to go to the original source to verify numbers, facts etc. Though CNN and BBC carried themselves quite respectively above, however, in these days of Breaking News and ratings game, even they can fall victim to such propaganda.

Osama bin Laden corpse photo is fake

An image apparently showing a dead Osama bin Laden broadcast on Pakistani television and picked up by British newspaper websites is a fake.

The bloodied image of a man with matted hair and a blank, half-opened eye has been circulating on the internet for the past two years. It was used on the front pages of the Mail, Times, Telegraph, Sun and Mirror websites, though swiftly removed after the fake was exposed on Twitter.

In addition, our searching habits and Google ensure that we continue to believe in the propaganda. In his book, Filter Bubble, Eli Parser makes a very convincing case that Google is our gatekeeper to the information. As such, we now see the world through Google. If Google chooses only to show us results skewed towards one viewpoint, it will be swaying our opinion on that issue towards that side. It is a very powerful power that Google exercises over us and we freely allow it to exercise it.

Moreover, in order to improve its search results, Google continuously strives to personalize the search results for us. As such, when we are logged in at our personal or office computer, through cookies Google has an idea of our tastes, viewpoints, location etc and throws up the results that it thinks we want to see. By showing us those results that it considers we are looking for, it plays a crucial role in reinforcing our beliefs about certain topics by not showing opposite opinions or showing them in further down the results list.

Google’s filtering systems, for example, rely heavily on Web history and what you click on (click signals) to infer what you like and dislike…. it’s that behavior that determines what content you see in Google News, what ads Google displays—what determines, in other words, Google’s theory of you.

…According to the New Republic’s Jon Chait, the answer lies with the media: “Partisans are more likely to consume news sources that confirm their ideological beliefs. People with more education are more likely to follow political news. Therefore, people with more education can actually become mis-educated.”

Even if Google does not engage in personalization, websites and activists by using such processes as Search Engine Optimization (SEO) or Google Bombing can ensure that for some search terms, certain results always appear on top thus creating a false image of websphere and consequently the world.

Whereas in theory Internet, social media and world’s most power search engine should have been making us better informed and bringing the world closer, the truth is that its actually quite an efficient medium to spread information and to reinforce our wrongly held notions.

 

Musings on Pakistani social media – Twitter edition

Caveats: I want to highlight four facts before you read this unstructured rant.

1. My political views are what are termed as “political islamist” or just “islamist”. So my observations and inferences that I have derived from them may be colored by those views.

2. The period I am covering here is from pre-May 2013 election till now.

3. I follow around 250 people on twitter and in addition say they Retweet (RT) 50 other people regularly so in effect my observations are based on tweets of total of 300 people

and most importantly, as brought to attention by one commentator,

4. I am generalizing here i.e., brushing with broad strokes. Its just a high level view of my observations.

Pre-election period

PTI by appealing to educated and plugged-into-social-media youth had really taken off and had become a formidable foe by engaging the disengaged youth. Other parties also took to twitter and facebook but one has to admit that PTI had the strongest presence on social media before the election. How they abused this position and how it ultimately fooled them into believing that being a majority on social media means being a majority in the parliament is covered by others extensively so I will not dwell on that.

All parties in Pakistan have an element of cult in them. Most people follow these parties not for the values or manifestos they have presented but because of their leaders. Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has always been a cult of Bhutto on a national level, but under Zardari it has become a Sind regional party.

Supporters of PML-N mainly follow it for the Mian Nawaz Sharif and Mian Shahbaz Sharif but its more of a personality following rather than a cult. The only party that is not a cult is probably Jamat-e-Islami but its too small a party. We also have Awami National Party (ANP) leadership of which remains in the ahl-e-bait of its founder Baacha Khan. But in relative terms, these parties are open to or at least tolerant of criticism of their actions as well their leaders.

On the other extreme, we have Muttahida Quomi Movement (MQM) a party of urban Sind headed by self-exiled leader Altaf Hussain. The cult eader status bestowed to him is extra-ordinary. They are highly intolerant of criticism and no newspaper which has offices or circulation in Karachi will dare to criticize them.

However, they failed to understand the impact of social media mainly twitter. MQM didn’t appreciate the fact that twitter allows people to express their frustrations and criticisms anonymously something which the general public couldn’t do on print and electronic media without fear of reprisal from MQM. So in of absence any criticism in public sphere, MQM fooled themselves into believing that people of Karachi will vote for them out of fear or will remain at home. However, quite a large number of people in Karachi were fed up with MQM and wanted to vote PTI (as no other party reached out to them or even talked to them) but when the voters reached polling stations, in some cases they weren’t allowed to vote, their vote had already been cast, or in some places MQM workers were filling ballot boxes with fake votes and at some places they strong armed the polling station staff to not reach the polling station on the allocated time_a fact which came to light in voting of national assembly seat from Karachi NA-250. MQM presumed that like earlier times people will take this silently. Surprisingly, people refused to be cowed down and in certain cases took to streets (which would never have happened earlier).

For MQM this was a first i.e., ordinary people protesting against them openly. They were at a loss as to how to counter this onslaught and it led to a few faux pas speeches by their leader Quaid-e-Tatheer Pir Altaf Hussain Bhai. (I have covered these  here “MQM’s reign of terror post elections 2013″ and “Why and How MQM Rabita Committee was beaten”). On the social media front, MQM was totally ill prepared for the criticism and abuses that started against them. People who would normally be discrete in their criticism of MQM even privately as they live and work in areas surrounded by MQM supporters took to criticizing MQM openly on Facebook where you are not anonymous. On twitter, frustrated Karachiites tagged MQM representative and became abusive towards them, towards MQM but most importantly towards Quaid-e-Tatheer Pir Altaf Hussain Bhai. MQM was not at all prepared for this barrage of criticism. This post “Social Media Strategy of MQM” makes it pretty clear how MQM deals with criticism generally and how trying the same tactics on social media actually backfired. Later they created a lot of fake accounts to tweet favorable news and occasionally create and tweet a lot of hashtags to get MQM related topics to trend such as #united4Altaf #onlyAltaf yesterday but its safe to say that MQM is still not able find its bearings on twitter. (For some twitter humor -> “Altaf Hussain and Titanic”)

The party that made the most use of social media pre-election was PTI led by former cricketer and philanthropist Imran Khan. The cult leader status that the supporters bestowed to Imran Khan was comparable to cult status of Quaid-e-Tatheer Pir Altaf Hussain Bhai amongst MQM supporters. PTI supporters would not tolerate any criticism of PTI much less Imran Khan and would stoop down to hurtling abuses to anyone daring to criticize or even trying to give suggestions to change their policies/manifestos etc. They earned the name “PTI trolls” as they would come down together on any journalist or analyst on twitter. They also created fake accounts of journalists/analysts and tweeted positive propaganda with respect to PTI and with respect to opponents, they spread malicious propaganda. This is what a fake account of, Jang/TheNews journalist and anchor of GEO TV program Jirga, Saleem Safi tweeted most probably operated by a PTI troll on election day. Tweets have since been deleted but I took a screenshot of them.

This and similar other tweets from other fake accounts upset Saleem Safi so much that he wrote a whole column in Urdu about it

I am having fun with it

Post Election Period

Once the elections were held, it was hard for PTI supporters to fathom that despite having such a huge presence on social media, how come the outcome was not what they desired. They went into denial mode claiming mass scale rigging. Absence of Imran Khan from the scene due to his fall from the lifter two days before the election also meant that there was no leadership to guide them. PTI was a major force in urban centres but failed to make any headway in suburbs and rural areas. As such, when the results showed that masses didn’t vote overwhelmingly for PTI, PTI supporters stooped to calling general public Jaahil (ignorant). You have to understand that these voters of PTI were mainly first time voters and educated elite of Pakistan who had never bothered to vote earlier and credit goes to Imran Khan for engaging them. They were teachers, professionals, businessmen, corporate CEOs and consultants educated from best Pakistani and western universities but they couldn’t take the loss at ballot box and still could not come to grips with the fact that a vote of someone living in rural area or not as highly educated as them or as successful as them is equivalent to their vote. There is a wonderful website which collected unquotable gems from these Harvard, Wharton, IBA, LUMS etc educated youth on social media. Do visit it Public shaming #Pakvotes as it will give you some insight into their mindset. A wonderful essay in this regard that I cannot recommend enough is The Disadvantages of Elite Education by William Deresiewicz, which is a must read.

Now that PTI has its government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province, focus of PTI trolls has shifted to actions of their own government and there is significant reduction in their social media trolling. Probably they too have realized that this trolling is actually destroying the little goodwill that they have left, if any.

Lets move to the other intelligentsia we have on social media. These are the so called English speaking journalists and analysts on twitter and can be described as left-of-centre in their leanings and probably hate PTI for its rightist leanings. They also despise the general public of Pakistan as when it comes to issues such as terrorism etc, general public leans right. They are best described in the following tweet

Pakistan especially KPK is facing a lot of terrorism. One such day was yesterday wherein a Terrorists strike in Quetta, Peshawar, NWA

As many as 49 persons, including security personnel, lost their lives and over 100 others sustained injuries in separate incidents of terrorism in Quetta, Peshawar and North Waziristan on Sunday.

Now if one followed the intelligentsia tweets yesterday, it was all outrage. There was empathy for victims but that was also a tool to express outrage. Outrage against terrorists? No. Outrage against PTI (as they rule in KPK) as well as common man as he is not fully behind the army in this War on Terror or because the common man opposes the Drone strategy

The above are a sample most read journalists/writers in English press of Pakistan and all they have to offer is to blame the common man or blame Punjab. The above is just a sample. Yesterday, my timeline was filled with such useless outrage from morning till night. It is not as if we are not fighting this war. We have been fighting this war for last 10 years. Here is a good piece of research Numbers of Terror on the myths propagated by these journalists in terms of number of people killed and as if our army is not fighting this war.

Twitter has widened the schisms in our society. These journalists consider the rest of the population as illiterate or unenlightened, it has actually polarized the society with the result that if these journalists/analysts/”though leaders” decide to bandy behind a particular issue, the rest of population believes there is a hidden agenda. Like PTI trolls and supporters, by just promoting their own causes and belittling the causes that the rest of the population wants to stand behind, they polarize the society. What they think is satire is actually read as affront by common man.  They don’t try to listen to other viewpoint or convince him of their arguments rather shove their views down common man’s throat. As such, common man refuses to listen to them and runs in opposite direction. As such, we all have our pet projects and causes which are mutually exclusive rather opposites. They are pro-drone, common man is anti-drone. The people who the common man have voted in want to use negotiation with Taliban as part of overall strategy because fighting them for last 10 years hasn’t resulted in any gains as far as common man knows so these people make fun of common man, his thinking, leave no opportunity to snark at it and consequently want nothing to do with negotiations. This polarization manifested itself clearly in case of Malala attack. The innocent minor girl faced a barbaric attack by Taliban. However, the vehemence with which the aforementioned journalists/analysts/thinks took up her cause and displayed their outrage actually distanced the common man from her. Whereas she needed the whole nation to stand behind her, the constant point scoring by our “intelligentsia” made sure that common man believe that she is part of some larger conspiracy or hidden agenda.

The intelligentsia continues to blame Zia ul Haq for creating this confused nation but they have only themselves to blame. Zia has been dead for more than 25 years. A whole generation has been born and grown up during this time. What have they to show for this 25 years to correct Zia’s wrongs? A few columns blaming Zia. 25 years down the line they will still be blaming Zia and all they will have to show for their efforts will be their satirical and hate filled columns, blogs and tweets. Lot of good they are doing.

Below is one of my sunni bias manifesting itself

Getting 100 people killed in a fortnight is a genocide of Karachiites. But we take it in a passing. 12 people were killed in Karachi day before yesterday. But a lot of people only feel outraged when its someone from minority because it allows them to push their agenda whatever that is.

This is till 1155am today: Karachi: Six killed in violent incidents, police encounter today. Only half a day has passed. Assuming pattern continues, around 12 will be killed today, which is a number equivalent to people killed in a bomb blast. But bomb blasts happen once a week or twice. However, this many people keep on dying on streets of Karachi everyday yet there is no outrage in any quarter.

A brilliant, thoughtful and well-structured read on selective outrage that we as a society show is Death of a Nation. Its a must read.

Corporate Social Responsibility is height of Collective Civic Irresponsibility

Whole Foods Market

As the state has retreated from responsibility to protect common resources, ensure access to opportunities, enforce worker and environmental protection, and provide for the health and general welfare of citizens, private actors have rushed in to claim the moral high ground in the marketplace. So, for instance, instead of insisting that farms grow safe food under environmentally sound conditions, we satisfy our guilt and concerns by patronizing stores like Whole Foods and celebrating the wide availability of organic products. Thus food that keeps people healthy and the earth livable remains available only to the well informed and affluent.

Because market fundamentalism declares that consumers have “choice” in the market, doing little or no harm becomes just another tactic by which vendors exploit a niche market. Consumers have become depoliticized, unable to see that personal choices to buy Timberland shoes (not made in sweatshops by children) and Body Shop cosmetics (not tested on animals) make no difference at all to the children and animals that suffer supplying the bulk of similar, less sensitively manufactured products to the vast majority of the world’s consumers. Feeling good about our own choices is enough. And instead of organizing, lobbying, and campaigning for better rules and regulations to ensure safe toys and cars for people everywhere, we rely on expressions of disgruntlement as a weak proxy for real political action. Starting or joining a Facebook protest group suffices for many as political action.

Since the 1980s, firms in the United States and Western Europe have found it useful to represent themselves as socially responsible. As states have retreated from their roles as protectors of the commons and mitigators of market failures, firms have found that trumpeting certain policies and positions puts them at an advantage in competitive markets, especially for consumer goods and services.

The problem, however, is that corporate responsibility is toothless. Corporations do—and should do—what is in the interests of their shareholders, and nothing more. We become aware of the voluntary benevolence of certain firms only when it is in their interest to make that benevolence known.

The principal reason why the idea of corporate responsibility appeals to us is that for thirty years, we have retreated from any sense of public responsibility—any willingness to talk about, identify, and pursue the public good. In the absence of the political will to employ state power to push all firms toward responsible behavior, the purported responsibility of one firm is quickly neutralized by the irresponsibility of the rest. Because we have failed at politics, we now rely on marketing to make our world better. That reliance is the height of collective civic irresponsibility. It’s a meaningless pose.

“The Googlization of Everything”, Siva Vaidhyanathan

Salman Taseer’s tweets

Salman Taseer’s foot firmly in mouth tweets as reported by Foreign Policy magazine:

On Saturday, he tweeted this ill-conceived joke:

“One of first politicians to condemn mad Florida pastor Terry Jones was Sara Palin who said ‘it was inhuman to burn a Korean’! God bless USA”

Apparently not everyone got it, because he later tweeted:

“I’m amazed that the simplistic pathetic remarks to my JOKE that Sarah Palin can’t tell difference between a KOREAN and QORAN! Humour?”

He followed up that tweet with this winner:

“My farms rice crop has never been better because of the rains.Almost ready now ,huge robust grain practically no canal water was required”

A bit insensitive, perhaps, given how the vast swaths of the country have been inundated by catastrophic flooding, not to mention the inherently sensitive politics of land ownership in Pakistan? No matter. When criticized by journalist Dean Nelson (@delhidean) of the Daily Telegraph, who asked, “will you give ur crop to farmers whose land was flooded by Sindh landowners?,” Taseer tweeted resignedly: “These r retards i have 2 deal wth.”

Wow! Just wow!