Monday, 27 April 2015

Lies, damned lies & statistics - interpreting farmer suicides

Statistics is a dangerous tool in the wrong hands. Beware of those who throw it at you to justify their position. Question it. Challenge it. Scratch the surface. The reality may surprise you.

I have this bad habit of going back to verify the original source if I read something that seems illogical or politically motivated to me. This habit wastes a lot of my time and can be annoying too. So when I read this article claiming that there is no spike in farmer suicides, I was very sceptical about the claim. The argument that farm suicides in India are hyped up to attract attention by the critics of the government definitely needed a closer look.

I noticed that everyone quotes NCRB while making their claim and so I also got hold of their reports. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) compiles very useful data on accidental deaths and suicides in India but like all other data, it has to be interpreted with care.

The biggest revelation was that as of date, official NCRB data is only available till 2013. Be very wary when someone tells you that the official data does not support the view that there is an increase in farmer suicides in India.  There is no official data for 2014 - 15 to make such a statement. The truth is that we don't know if there is a spike or not. We can go by newspaper reports or our own extrapolations but we cannot claim that at this point the NCRB data supports either viewpoint. To do so is an outright lie.

In 2013, 11,772 farmers committed suicide, which amounts to 8.7% of the total suicides. I have seen interpretations that this is not a big deal compared to 16.9% share of housewife suicide. When looking at this comparison, please remember that this represents a share of total suicides and not the suicide rate. It tells us of the total suicides, what percentage were farmers and not if there is a higher rate of suicide among the farmer population. Two completely different things which can be very misleading if not presented clearly. A better figure to look at will be the male farmer suicide rate as compared to male non farmer suicide rate.

We know that farmer suicide is a bigger problem in the cotton belt due to falling commodity prices. No analysis of farmer suicides will therefore be complete without looking at the distribution of data by state. There is a very clear picture that emerges of the problem in cash crop growing states like Maharashtra. There is every reason to believe that this would still be the case.

I would direct those interested in studying the figures in greater detail to a LSE working paper on   interpretation of farmers suicides in India. For now, it is sufficient to say that the fact that farmer suicides also took place during the past is no excuse for justifying them. The trend in the years leading upto 2013 showed a decline but the recent crop failures and falling commodity prices have brought the issue to the forefront and we could very well be seeing a reversal of this trend.

Farmer suicide is more than just a statistic and let us not be led to believe by those quoting statistics that the problem doesn't exist. Government intervention to address this problem is definitely the need of the hour.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Desk psychopaths – The Psychology of abuse

Meet the desk psychopaths

A friendly, smiling female doctor working in the ER who is openly abusive on social media towards a particular community and doesn’t think twice before hurling sexist abuses at other women.
A loving father, with his daughter’s picture as his DP who uses abusive language and threatens those who hold different political views.

A student who trolls and abuses women journalists online because he feels their articles do not support his world view.

These are familiar profiles on twitter. They seem to be educated – students, doctors and bankers - regular people with jobs and families, supposedly leading a normal life. But they are also leading another life as an online monster. The desk psychopath could be your dentist or your colleague or your son’s best friend. You can almost picture him typing out a sexist abuse while helping his daughter with her math homework. The picture is both tragic and frightening.
The social media is flooded with abusers. While differences of opinion are common and everyone enjoys a discussion laced with wit, mockery and an occasional insult, the rampant online abuse and threats bring out the dark side of social media.  

Are the abusers a special breed of psychopaths lurking around or are these normal people behind a mask, not fundamentally different from the scores we meet and interact with in our daily lives?

The role of anonymity
Anonymity on twitter has its advantages. It allows a person to express his or her views freely without fear of repercussion. But there is another sinister side to it. It allows the person to take on a dual personality. He can now be somebody he always wanted to be and lead an exciting and adventurous online life behind a mask.

However, anonymity alone doesn’t create monsters. It may neither be a necessary or a sufficient condition. For every three anonymous abusers, there is also one who proudly displays his names and credentials.
Ideology and propaganda

Abusive behavior is not random. It is directed towards those who are perceived as different. Difference could be in terms of religion, nationality, political ideology or just about anything else.
Abusers hold deep rooted prejudices. These have been strengthened over the years by a selective interpretation of the world around them. These prejudices are also reinforced by propaganda that influences their values, beliefs, emotions, reasoning and behavior. It creates individuals who have lost their ability for free thinking.

While extreme prejudice predisposes a person to abuse, not all those who are prejudiced are abusive. I believe a certain personality type is an essential ingredient to convert prejudice into direct abuse.
Personality type

Here is my attempt to profile a desk psychopath:
He is the extremely average person seeking attention in his online life. He wants to appear cool.  Among his twitter followers, there is a clear correlation between abuse and admiration. He thrives on reinforcement he gets when his radical views are liked and RTed by others.

He is often from a conservative and religious background with a strict upbringing. He has grown up obeying authority figures and has seen obedience around him. He has internalized the propaganda and relies on it rather than thinking for himself. He feels victimized and believes he must act to deliver justice and restore glory for his people. He intolerant and is easily provoked. He is convinced that he is on the right path. He classifies others as morally wrong. He finds opposing viewpoints disturbing. They evoke a deep sense of insecurity in him triggering feelings of aggression. He doesn’t want to debate. He wants to teach them a lesson. He believes that women deserve more abuse. He is an online warrior. Abuse makes him feel triumphant. It gives a release for the frustrations, failures and inadequacies he faces in his real life.    
In Freudian terms such behaviors are rooted in childhood experiences and the “unconscious”. I will not go into a discussion of possible fixations at this time. It is sufficient to say that each word of online abuse reveals deep seated beliefs and value systems. It belittles whatever the cause the abusers support and diverts attention from the real issue.

Lewis Mumford, the American sociologist refers to large hierarchical organizations as megamachines—a machine that uses humans as its components. He calls the people who calmly carry out the extreme goals of megamachines as "Eichmanns". This name itself comes from Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official who conducted the logistics behind the Holocaust.  In her book on Eichmann, the author Hannah Arendt introduced the famous phrase, the “banality of evil". According to her, Eichmann appeared at his trial to have an ordinary and common personality and displayed neither guilt nor extraordinary hatred because he believed he was only “doing his job”. Others have argued that Eichmann was indeed a face of the evil as he was a strong believer in the Nazi ideology and view him an instigator and not just a cog in the wheel.
Welcome to the abusive world of virtual Eichmanns on social media. They are slaves of their ideology who think they are “doing their job” by teaching a lesson to people who dare to think differently.

As someone rightly said, “Babylon in all its desolation is a sight not as awful as that of the human mind in ruins.”



Thursday, 16 April 2015

Outrage & Abuse - A guide to understanding Indian politics in the Twitter world.

I have a habit of joining the party late which was also pointed out to me recently in another context by a senior member of the Twitter fraternity. So even though I had created an account a few years ago, I finally joined the party only sometime in January 2015. 

As I took my first steps into this amazing online world, it was an intimidating journey through the confusing world of RTs & MTs. My first few weeks were disastrous. Once I saw what I thought was an outrageous tweet by @swamy39 and asked in all innocence if it was a parody account. He blocked me within seconds. And then a second Swami blocked me for reasons that I still haven’t been able to fathom. On the issue of protocol of saluting the flag, I firmly stood by our VP, Hamid Ansari, a man for whom I have great respect. Despite my newbie status, I thought I must make my voice heard. So on a thread by @praveenswami in support of the VP; I shared an article that also made the same point. Much to my shock, I was promptly blocked. Maybe he didn’t like the other publication, maybe he misunderstood me, maybe he mistook me for someone else, but hey, I was only supporting your point. Twitter celebrities are arrogant. Lesson learned. And I am pleased to report that I haven’t been blocked by anyone since. 
As the weeks went by, the world started to make more sense. My followers grew from three to a slightly more respectable double digit number. Though it took some time to get used to the unsolicited abuse, I soon realized that Twitter is fun. As I complete four months, I somehow feel qualified to comment on how to make sense of this mad, mad world. 

So here is a 25 point primer with my observations:

  1. The Twitter world is divided into two main categories – the bhakts & the non-bhakts. 
  2. As per my estimates, bhakts clearly outnumber the non-bhakts. 
  3. Though they are known by many names, bhakts are fairly easily recognizable. Their most distinguishing feature is an abusive vocabulary which they use freely against those with opposing views. 
  4. Another differentiating feature is free floating hatred. Targets for this hatred are liberals, seculars, leftists, supporters of Congress and supporters of AAP. Each category has been assigned a label – libtards, sickulars, naxals, Khangress & Aaptards. Collectively they are termed by bhakts as anti nationals. 
  5. All bhakts feel they have been wronged in the past. A few radical ones also have a deep-rooted hatred for minorities which they express in most unpleasant ways towards religious symbols. 
  6. Another special target for all hatred in the Nehru-Gandhi family, both its dead and alive members and anyone linked to it.
  7. Religion is a very important part of the equation and issues of Italian missionary connection are frequently brought up. If religion is not obvious from the name, people are urged to declare it like in the case of the shameful #ComeOutSimon campaign against @mihirssharma.
  8. Bhakts constantly reinterpret history in creative ways. Their research wing has recently discovered Ambedkar as a Hindu Nationalist. 
  9. Even as the small sane segment among the bhakts continues to warn them to exercise restraint, in their enthusiasm, bhakts always overreact and score self-goals like #ShameOnArunJaitley. 
  10. Most bhakts are admirers of @swamy39 who as an able leader reinforces their beliefs. So strong is his appeal that his most ardent fans are critical of Modi and believe in Swamy as their savior.  
  11. While their abuse is generally universal, two categories deserve a special mention. Any Muslim or Christian name attracts more abuse than normal and female non bhakt journalists are a special target. @RanaAyyub and @sagarikaghose are fine examples. Rana of course ticks both the boxes. 
  12. Coming to non-bhakts, they generally regard themselves as intellectually superior. They look down upon the bhakts and call them #lowIQSanghis. While this may not always be true, due to their nature, the bhakts get easily provoked and end up proving them right. 
  13. Non-bhakts also attempt to copy the language of the bhakts but fall miserably short. The best they have come up with is BJPigs.
  14. Unlike the bhakts, the non-bhakts are not united. They are divided into different camps. The only feature that loosely binds them together is their dislike for Modi. They spend most of their time in ridiculing him, his ministers, his party members, his policies and any other thing linked to him even if it occasionally means overreacting. The eye is on each battle, not just the war.  
  15. The INC supporters are an enthusiastic and vocal lot. When they cornered a bhakt in the past, he was always able to silence them by asking ‘where is RG’? This tactic sadly, may not work anymore.
  16. The AAP supporters who came out in full force to celebrate the Delhi election victory are now watching the AAP drama unfold in shocked silence. INC supporters consider them as cousins of bhakts and occasionally attack them when there is nothing else to outrage about. 
  17. The leftists are an intellectual lot. They are open-minded in their thinking as they debate and outrage a wide range of national & international issues with finesse. 
  18. All the categories of non-bhakts come together to criticize BJP government and the PM. News sites like @ANI_news provide sensational topics. Non-bhakts outrage and bhakts abuse those who outrage. The cycle continues. Sometimes it also runs in reverse. 
  19. The assortment of babas, sadhvis and yogis make sure that the non-bhakts never run out of topics. If they do, other BJP politicians & associates like Shiv Sena pitch in. The PM himself is a master at it and can even throw math equations for all to solve. @Gen_VKSingh makes sure he contributes by introducing new words like #presstitudes to the vocabulary of bhakts. 
  20. Mockery is big business on Twitter. Though both groups practice it, non-bhakts have a slight edge as they can use an intelligent play of words. All politicians, spokespersons and journalists are considered fair targets and RG is usually a sitting duck. Sometimes people stray from the script and mock sportspersons which is nearly always disastrous. Notable examples are @rupasubramanya mocking @MirzaSania’s ambitions and @TimesNow mocking the cricket team.  
  21. When short of topics, attention shifts to inane issues like Modi’s LV lookalike shawl. Bhakts of course are not amused by any such flippant conversation and come out to defend in large numbers. 
  22. Politicians on Twitter come in all shapes and sizes. While @ShashiTharoor is the original pro, @abdullah_omar is witty, @thekiranbedi is confusing and @swamy39 is entertaining.  
  23. Others who deserve a special mention are the journalists on Twitter. Most can be classified in the bhakt/non-bhakt categories and only few are able to maintain some neutrality. Both groups feel that #presstitudes is an apt description of the other and cat fights are not uncommon. 
  24. A few journalists also feel responsible to initiate debate even though it may mean speculative statements like one by @rahulkanwal that MMS  would have gone largely un-noticed by French media if he was visiting Paris. The non-bhakts, particularly the INC supporters take the cue and carry the animated discussion forward.
  25. A group that deserves a special mention is that of accounts in name of personalities. One brilliant examples is @RushdieExplains that has now been renamed @IndiaExplained (update) There are also many other Twitter celebrities with followers running in hundreds and thousands, who never cease to surprise me with their creativity and humor. They provide a witty comment on every news item of interest to the masses. 

Twitter is definitely not a world for the faint hearted. It is an ecosystem of predators, preys and decomposers at different trophic levels. While most of the twitterati ridicule and troll each other, it will never be so much fun if one group actually went missing from the equation. This nice but highly debatable thought brings me to the end of my troll bait. Have fun and happy tweeting to all!

Disclaimer – All views expressed are my own as a “Twitter nobody” so please feel free to disagree and outrage. You can also choose to ignore but please don’t abuse. I have not yet developed skills to abuse back and it will be an uneven match. All the folks mentioned by name - no offence was intended so hope you have a good laugh. Please don’t react by blocking me, I have enjoyed trolling you and I hope to continue doing so. And yes, please feel to follow me @samjawed65