Editorials - 08-01-2021

Disinformation is increasing and becoming harder to combat, but fact-checking too is evolving

Disinformation, or “fake news”, is a malaise that has been worsened by the infodemic of the social media age. In the last few years, it has been used as an effective weapon to polarise communities and upset democratic processes. As we begin 2021, what is the current state of the malady? Pratik Sinha and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen discuss this question in a conversation moderated byP. J. George. Edited excerpts:

The modes and means of disinformation have been perpetually evolving. What is the state of disinformation as we have entered a new year?

Pratik Sinha:In the Indian context, disinformation is not evolving in quality but in quantity. WhenAlt Newsstarted in 2017, we used to debunk maybe five, six stories every week. But the nature of disinformation was the same as it is today — primarily old videos and images used to represent something in the present, especially if they have an element of violence or are highly politicised. We saw massive spikes of disinformation on the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests, elections, the Delhi riots of 2020, and the pandemic. In all of these issues, the kind of disinformation which was perpetrated was pretty simple, and not that difficult to debunk. It’s just the organised manner in which it was produced every single day — multiple false claims using photos, images and text.

Going forward, I don’t think this is going to change much. In fact, it is just going to keep increasing because political parties have found out that if you put out organised disinformation, then any political narrative can be controlled. At the same time, even though India has a federal structure, the parties which have been targeted are not doing anything about it. They are not introducing any educational reform so that people can be more aware. So, what we are going to see is just a lot more disinformation that is rudimentary, but with a lot of people consuming it day in and day out, and forming their political opinion.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen:Pratik has described very clearly the basic dynamics of disinformation in many countries. It’s very visible in India, but we also see similar patterns in the U.S. and Brazil and a number of other countries. While the tactics, forms, and communities involved in creating and disseminating disinformation evolve over time, by now we have a very clear sense of what the basic dynamics are. I think of it as the four Ps: You have disinformation that is spread and created in the pursuit of Power. It often comes from the political establishment: sometimes from the governing party, sometimes from the opposition. Then you have disinformation that is spread for Profit. This is mostly sort of low-grade clickbait. Then you have disinformation that’s driven by Profound public disagreement. This is bottom-up disinformation, where people in good faith spread information that others think of as disinformation. We see this around vaccines, climate change, community relations in countries such as India. And the final P is that all of this is enabled by Platform companies. Facebook and WhatsApp, Google and YouTube, Twitter, and others enable the creation and spread of this information in ways that set us apart from where we were before the advent of digital media. These four Ps of power, profit, profound public disagreement and platforms will continue to drive disinformation in 2021.

Then there are some things that are changing. Many disinformation actors have embraced formats that are harder to fact-check and harder to moderate, whether by humans or by automated forms. We’re also seeing that platforms have been, on rare occasions, willing to go after disinformation very aggressively. [Due to this], we are seeing a migration or a partial migration of disinformation actors away from the large consumer-facing platforms to smaller and more specialised platforms. These could be encrypted messaging applications or chat functions in online gaming platforms, or newsletters, or any number of other platforms where, at this stage, we don’t have the same amount of effort or resource to try to combat disinformation.

Do you think the traditional media has improved its game or is it going round in circles when it comes to disinformation?

RKN:The fact-checking community has evolved in really impressive and important ways over time, in particular, when they fact-check powerful and prominent individuals who seem keen that others’ disinformation should be countered but not their own. In terms of journalism, we have seen some recognition of two problems that have plagued news organisations while dealing with disinformation historically. One of them is that a fundamental driver of disinformation is powerful people who lie, and who have weaponised the journalistic convention of quoting powerful people verbatim in headlines, even if what they say is untrue. Any fact-checking and debunking happens much later in articles that many readers never get to. We’ve seen some news organisations, most prominently perhaps in the U.S., showing a greater willingness to have headlines that run along the lines of ‘so-and-so have falsely claimed without evidence that this is the case’.

The other area in which we see some progress is in journalists making really important case-by-case decisions about when to cover disinformation narratives that are potentially harmful. They are striving to strike a balance between covering them because it’s important for the public to know of the harmful claims, and risking bringing people’s attention to such narratives by virtue of covering them.

PS:In India, there are two kinds of false news: the ones that come directly from politicians, and the other that is organised disinformation on social media. About politicians themselves, [statements by] Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah have hardly been fact-checked by any news organisations. I think one television channeltried to do a fact-check, and three of its anchors were asked to leave and some advertisements were withdrawn.

When it comes to organised disinformation on social media, again, the mainstream media in India has acknowledged the issue but not many news organisations actually do fact-checking. Even if any mainstream media organisations are doing so, they are not looking at the most dangerous claims that are being put out. The main purpose of disinformation in India is to target minorities, and there’s very little fact-checking that has been done to reduce that harm.

India also has another problem. Not only is the mainstream media not fact-checking people, but it is actually putting out disinformation. If not disinformation, these are plugs by the government. The government claimed that Arsenicum Album 30, a homeopathic drug, can prevent people from having COVID-19 and so, many organisations carried that claim. Many mainstream media organisations gave Baba Ramdev unlimited bandwidth to put out his claims on Coronil.

Platforms such as Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube have amplified disinformation with algorithms that prioritise engagement and revenue. Do you see 2021 being any different on this front?

PS:From the point of view of India, it is not going to be very different. As I said, one of the most common forms of disinformation in India are old images and old videos. Now, platforms claim that they don’t want to be the arbiters of truth, but it takes very little technological work to have something as basic as a database of images. We have developed a similar technology for theAlt Newsapp with a database of images with dates that the users can look up. There is no question here of the platform deciding what is the truth. This major vector of disinformation can be controlled if platforms are willing to go that extra mile. When I’ve had an audience with some of these platforms, I have suggested that that they bring us in, as we are the people who are bridging journalism and technology and have ideas on how to deal with these issues. But all our requests have fallen on deaf ears. Second, a lot of their decisions are not well-thought-out. They are constantly reacting to situations and do not seem to have any plan.

RKN:I agree that technology has the potential to deal with these problems. But at a very fundamental level, there are key parts of these problems that are political and social in nature. Several of these companies took major initiatives around the 2020 U.S. elections. And if you are a user in India, you would have every right to ask, ‘Am I not equally important?’ The companies have some tough questions to answer in terms of how they treat us.

While questioning science and questionable science have both been aspects of disinformation earlier, the pandemic period saw an overabundance of this. Where’s the slip up happening due to which established science such as vaccines is being called into question?

RKN:Science is arguably the single most powerful way we have of arriving at the best obtainable version of the truth. There are clear examples of misinformation and disinformation that is in direct conflict with the best available scientific evidence. These are harmful as they can be around vaccines or public health emergencies and, for that matter, climate change. It’s a particularly problematic form of disinformation and one where we actually have a ground truth that we can compare the claims against. However, we need to recognise that in a rapidly developing situation, research in science by its very nature deals with uncertainty rather than certainty. Large and powerful institutions that make decisions based on scientific input have to recognise that the scientific consensus will evolve as we get new data, and different analyses sometimes overturn established findings. Think of a situation like the early parts of the pandemic. Very important international health organisations made a number of claims about the way in which the disease is transmitted that we now know are wrong. I don’t think we should blame them for that. There are some areas in which there is a clear scientific consensus and an established ground truth, but there are other areas in which this is less clear.

PS:From the Indian perspective, I’ll give it a two part-answer. One is how journalism deals with science. I knowThe Hinduhas one, but most news organisations don’t have a science team that is trained to cover science. They treat science as press releases, dutifully putting them out without examining the facts. Problem number two is that none of us expected a pandemic; we were just not ready for the fact that during a pandemic, we will have science that is constantly changing. Even recently, we debunked a video where people were circulating an old mask protocol. The other thing that happened, especially in India, was that alternative medicine thought of this as a very good chance to gain prominence. A number of cures were put out claiming to be COVID-19 cures. These claims are there on Amazon and Google and many people are buying these drugs; again, no fact-checking. So, in India, we are facing a much bigger problem, not just because we have what the rest of the world has, but because the journalism industry in India is not equipped to handle the science.

Powerful people have weaponised the journalistic convention of quoting them verbatim in headlines, even if what they say is untrue. Any fact-checking happens much later in articles that many readers never get to.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

With a grasp of her writings on totalitarianism and the human condition in crises, Biden could have a vision for change

For the first time in the history of the United States, a President has incited insurrection by his neo-Nazi brigade of right-wing supporters, opposing the peaceful transfer of power. It is tantamount to encouraging hostility when the world stood horrified as a witness to the rioters storming the U.S. Capitol. The violence against democracy, a blotch on the American constitutional democracy, interestingly, changed the minds of senators like Kelly Loeffler (Republican) who had previously said that they would object to the Electoral College results.

Healing a polarised nation

The unhinged and angry authoritarian at last stands crushed and humiliated after trying his best to undercut one of the oldest democratic systems in existence. With Joe Biden walking into the White House on January 20, there can be no overplaying the enormity of the tasks ahead of him, what with the deeply polarised nation divided into two belligerent camps. Afflicted with an escalating novel coronavirus pandemic, an ailing economy, racial discrimination, and a climate crisis rebuffed by millions, Mr. Biden’s America has four long years to undo the tragic consequences of intolerance and division left behind by the incumbent.

Tragedy, for Joe Biden, is the very condition of life. Having lost his wife and daughter in an accident and a son to cancer, Joe Biden has always had the deep-seated desire to urge politics towards humanism in the wake of the overwhelming systemic racism that has underpinned American culture recently. The bitter assault on democracy is better understood in the recent revelation of his letter written in 1975 to the famous German-American philosopher, Hannah Arendt (https://bit.ly/38lEct6), requesting her to send him a copy of her paper read at the Boston Bicentennial Forum. It reflects his desire to find “deeper causes” underlying the economic and social collapse as well as the scourge of racism.

A contrast to Trump’s politics

Arendt sent out a warning in her paper entitled “Coming Home to Roost” which the present generation must heed: “All speculation about deeper causes returns from the shock of reality... the stark, naked brutality of facts, of things as they are.” Her focus is largely on her deep-seated interest in political humanism and a free space in the world inhabited by people who are inspired by public principles and an ethics that stands in stark contradiction to the inherent ethno-nationalist populism and alternate-reality politics of Donald Trump. Boastful and deluded like Mussolini, and with an overriding penchant for self-glorification, he is overwhelmingly obsessed with not letting go of his power. More frighteningly, his conception of reality is different and facts have no significance for him.

Arendt returns repeatedly to this theme of the difference in things as they are and things as they can be made to seem — the difference, for example, in “our … outright humiliating defeat” in Vietnam and what Americans had been led to believe would be “peace with honor”. The image projected by Mr. Trump of an America for the whites, where there is no place for immigrant “termites”, coheres with the public sentiment of the white non-college going population that relates fondly with the language of a President that is no better than a junior school third rater. The invasion of Mr. Trump into the political life of America has been more of a politics of lies projected through the dominance of an image to convince the people that only he could save America. And now when the shaky putsch has failed and the Trump loyalists have departed for home, he has begun to exactly do what the American government is an old hand at: “finding ways and means of how to avoid admitting defeat” and keeping the image of a President as the ‘mightiest power on earth’ and the only one who can keep it intact. A bully is no different.

In asking for the paper, Mr. Biden, to use Arendt’s words with which she described President Ford’s attitude after the defeat in Vietnam, has taken on the responsibility “to heal the wounds of a divided nation,” urging the people to begin a new chapter. As a young man in his thirties, he had already become aware of America’s “image-making as global policy”, a fundamentally American version of “big lie” techniques devised in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. There, Arendt argues, “lying was guided by ideology and backed by terror”; here, it has been directed at creating images and bolstered by “hidden persuasion” through the manipulation of public opinion.

A parallel, then and now

Interestingly, Mr. Biden, in keeping with the intellectual leanings of the 1960s and the 1970s, had begun to think at a young age of Arendt as a contemporary philosopher speaking on the idea of “image and lies”, on disinformation, on violence, on public and private freedom, and on political action. It was the war on terror, on Afghanistan and Iraq that echo Arendt’s report on the Holocaust organiser, Adolf Eichmann and his trial which derives its significance from the complex notions of justice and responsibility, ethics and duty. The war, for instance in Iraq or a few decades earlier in Vietnam was not in support of defending democracy and human rights but to exhibit the power and might of the American hegemon. The fabrication of the hypothesis of “weapons of mass destruction” was exposed when no such lethal nuclear arsenal was discovered. The sham left both the United States and Britain red in the face.

Setting policy right

Mr. Biden had early on in life learnt from political philosophy that the rise of a more workable political and public humanism depends singularly on Arendt’s “free spectators of action” who determine the meaning of action and its public relevance that saves humans from the abyss of a miserable existence.

No wonder Mr. Biden has taken keen interest in pressing humanitarian issues such as Sudan’s political crisis or the dark contemporary history of Syria. He has already introduced a national security team designed to repudiate Mr. Trump’s nationalistic isolationism in order to usher in humility and confidence among America’s allies.

His choice to execute the nation’s immigration policy is a Cuban-American (Alejandro Mayorkas). Avril Haines will be the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence. And possibly Lloyd Austin would be the first African-American in America’s history to head the Department of Defense. As Mr. Biden’s choice for Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland will be the first Native American Cabinet Secretary to ensure that the nation would make right the wrongs in the long history of bloodshed and extermination of the natives. This counters not only Mr. Trump’s misogynism but also his agenda of withdrawing shamelessly from America’s role in the world as a defender of democracy and human rights.

Arendt’s castigation of Zionism and the fascism of the American supported Israeli leadership brings us to the question of how authoritarian regimes fail to notice the lack of any sense of ethics or humanitarian necessity. It is true that “biological racism” that is visible in the history of apartheid, or in Germany under Nazism, or the resurgence of racist politics under Mr. Trump subsists on the major ideology of enforcing complete submission of the individual self to the state, the evil of incorrigible megalomaniacs striking out at the very dignity of being human.

Schooled in Arendt’s writings on totalitarianism and the nature of the human condition in times of crises, Mr. Biden is the right choice for President who hopefully, has the vision for an exceptionally progressive change. It is expected that he will constantly be on his toes with the same readiness as Barack Obama, and alive to what George Santayana warned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Writings that inspire

America must know that politics of terrorism will not work any more at home or abroad. And it is hoped that many around the world would go to Arendt if only to learn a lesson or two about the vulnerability of our democracy that allows people like Mr. Trump to even stand for election when he is guilty of allowing thousands to die of the pandemic. Her writings have always been a powerful foundation of inspiration to the people’s movements fighting against totalitarian lying and the infringement of basic human rights. Her persistent warnings of failure of the American republican tradition for self-government asks for an ideological position underpinned by a more cognitive existence that is mindful of the facts ‘coming home to roost’. For Arendt, if you remain an onlooker and express no reaction appropriate to the circumstances, your inertia will amount to deliberately perpetrating violence and accepting lies to prevail.

Shelley Walia is Professor Emeritus, Department of English, Panjab University, Chandigarh

The loss of the Republican party in the Georgia run-offs has exposed the limits of Trumpism

January 6 was supposed to be a day of reckoning for the delicate balance of power between the American legislature and the upcoming presidency. The Democrats had barely managed to retain control of the U.S. House of Representatives in November 2020, even as their candidate, Joe Biden, had achieved a decisive victory over a first-term President. The Senate elections ended on a near coin flip as Georgia headed to run-offs with no candidate, Republican or Democrat, managing to win 50% of the vote, and the Democrats needing two more seats for a 50-50 split in the Senate, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris providing a tie-breaking vote.

Change in a ‘red’ State

Georgia, traditionally, has been a Republican State, a fixture of the Deep South in the U.S. that has been a stronghold of the Grand Old Party (GOP), years after the Civil Rights Movement and Lyndon B. Johnson’s institution of the Voting Rights Act flipped the Democrats’ support bases and won the GOP white majority support. But demographic changes due to urbanisation and changes in the nature of the economy brought in new objective factors favouring the socially liberal and diverse Democrats. The work done by Democrat leader Stacey Abrams in increasing the turnout of the black minorities against overwhelming odds set by a Republican-controlled legislature to constrain voting, provided the heft that the Democrats long needed to change the contours of a traditionally “red” State.

The fact that the Democrats fielded an African-American pastor in Rev. Raphael Warnock who went on to become only the 11th African-American U.S. senator, and a Jewish documentary film-maker in Jon Ossoff, who at 33 was the youngest senator to be elected since Joe Biden, suggested that this was the outcome of substantive change. The Republican candidates were rich plutocrats in incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, who positioned themselves on the far-right to secure support. After all, despite Donald Trump’s decisive loss, he did manage to enhance the overall vote for the Republicans in 2020 and consolidate support among the white working and small business-owning classes. Loeffler and Perdue branded their opponents as radical socialists, creating a bogey of the demands for welfarism from the progressive wing of the Democrat party even if the policy palette of Ossoff and Warnock was hued closer to the moderate and socially liberal wing. Scare tactics have been successful in the U.S. against progressive candidates in the past, with a willing right-wing media ecosystem providing the misinformation machinery to do that. But the Republicans hit a road block. Unlike the GOP’s agenda of retaining control of the U.S. Senate and to continue its well-honed obstructionist tactics to stymie any progressive change — something that characterised the second term of the Barack Obama presidency — Mr. Trump’s main agenda was to sow misinformation about the presidential election results and a quixotic pursuit to overturn the presidential mandate.

By discrediting the 2020 election and calling into question the mail-in balloting in particular, Mr. Trump depressed the GOP turnout in the Georgia run-offs relatively as a section of his most ardent supporters believed that the voting process was already flawed. This helped the Democrats flip the script in Georgia in the run-offs — a motivated Democrat base adeptly organised by Abrams’ endeavours helped increase the turnout to a historic high (nearly 4.4 million voters), with African-Americans in particular voting in large numbers.

Advantage Biden

The Ossoff-Warnock wins on January 6 helped the Democrats get a controlling majority in the U.S. Senate and allowed the Biden presidency the breathing space to push for at least minimal reform, away from the Trumpian era. It will now be much easier for Mr. Biden to get his government nominees confirmed and to pass meaningful COVID-19 relief and vaccination measures. Substantive reform, something that progressives seek, would still be difficult as conservative sections among the Democrats could tie up with the Republicans to block policies such as filibuster reform or greater state spending in health care, but this is a definite contrast to a Republican majority which was a cul-de-sac, with reform proposals more or less becoming dead on arrival to the Senate.

A Democrat control over the Senate, Congress and the presidency is also a welcome change for the world. The Republican party, after all, has transmogrified significantly in the last few years. A classification of major political parties by the Swedish research institute, V-Dem, located the Republicans (as of 2018) as having moved further into the “Illiberal Right” (in terms of commitment to democracy). Only three right-wing parties were worse-off among electoral democracies — Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP in Turkey, the Viktor Orbán-led Fidesz in Hungary and, to no surprise, the Narendra Modi “led” Bharatiya Janata Party in India.

The clipping of the wings of the authoritarian and populist Right in the U.S. at the national level heralds genuine change for liberal democratic positions worldwide, at least on some issues – climate change and immigration. The protectionist driven impulses and the trade “wars” initiated by the Trump regime, will on the other hand take much more effort and coordination in international relations to wither away.

Trump and history

Mr. Trump will be remembered as a narcissist and a pathological liar who managed to rise up to the U.S. presidency and retain support despite his naked recourse to crony capitalism and venality. He did so by playing into the fears and discontent of the white working class and small business sections with globalisation and affirmative actions. But his success was also enabled by a plutocratic Republican party that gained from his rise by pushing for scores of conservative judicial appointments and achieved comprehensive tax cuts benefiting the ultra-rich and the corporate sectors in the country. Having achieved these sops for the fiscal and social conservative wings of the party, the GOP tolerated Mr. Trump’s repeated excesses and lies, even to the extent of allowing him to discredit the 2020 presidential election. Even though Republican office-bearers at the State and judicial levels resisted the soft coup attempt by Mr. Trump’s allies (which were based on fiction and falsehoods), the party’s senior leaders in the Senate allowed the charade to continue unimpeded till late December 2020, leading a large section of the Republican supporters into believing that the election was stolen.

Self-imposed ignominy

A thoroughly immoral section of the Party led by Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley among others sought to use a routine certification ceremony in the U.S. Congress on January 6 to repeat lies about the election being stolen. These efforts only emboldened Mr. Trump further and the consequence was there for all to see — the insurrection led by a ragtag bunch of white supremacists and other lumpens egged on by Mr. Trump who sought to violently disrupt Congressional proceedings. The Republican party has brought this ignominy upon itself, and the turn of events in the U.S. have shocked and alarmed the world. It will take a while to overturn the rot in U.S. politics heralded by the Trumpian turn in 2016 but the world will breathe a sigh of relief that the stranglehold of the Republican party has loosened somewhat.

srinivasan.vr@thehindu.co.in

Training more and more healthcare workers to become COVID-19 experts is the way forward

With the announcement that India has approved two COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use, we may finally be seeing some light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. That’s good news.

But India is also at a fork in the road: are we prepared to dramatically increase the number of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals who are trained for immunising and treating us? If not, none of these advances will matter for millions of our citizens.

This is a problem that can be solved. If we do it right, we will not only be able to provide care for 1.6 billion people, but also have a model to show to the world on how vaccination and treatment can be done quickly and skillfully. If the world’s second-most populated nation can vaccinate and treat its people, other countries with far fewer daunting challenges can learn from India and save millions of lives.

Over 4,00,000 frontline workers in India have been trained to respond to COVID-19. This number represents a massive ramping up of skills for many professionals who had never had this training. Thousands have learned about contact tracing, quarantine strategies, ventilator management, personal protective equipment, and psychological issues.

Learning from one another

India was a beneficiary of a successful global innovation called Project ECHO. It’s a low-cost solution for increasing the capacity of health workers in underserved communities to provide patients with the best possible care. Using videoconferencing technology, community health workers, nurses and doctors — generalists by training — learn specialty care from subject matter experts and from each others’ community informed knowledge. ECHO started as a strategy for treating Hepatitis C, and is now responsible for newly trained experts in HIV, malaria, tuberculosis, addiction, mental health, and many other conditions.

The number 4,00,000 is impressive, but it’s not enough to meet the demand in India. There are many States, particularly rural ones, where we are gravely understaffed for the needs of our people. ECHO gives us the ability to reach healthcare workers in the most remote areas and afford them training comparable to what a healthcare worker in one of our largest cities would receive.

The fact is that India, led by the Serum Institute of India, has the largest vaccine manufacturing capacity in the world. We need to plan smartly before COVID-19 vaccines become widely available. Who will deliver these vaccines? How do we store and handle the vaccines? How do we overcome cultural and religious barriers for those who are reluctant to accept a vaccine? How do we counsel people about side-effects so that they come to embrace the vaccine even if they start out with reservations? Knowing how to answer these questions requires cultivating real skills.

And beyond vaccines, new treatments are on their way. As of last August, there were more than 20,000 peer-reviewed publications on COVID-19, and more than 100 are coming out every day. Who can make sense of this avalanche of knowledge? How will healthcare workers — many new to COVID — keep track of the most important information?

More training

Training more workers to treat more people is the best solution — for our personal and economic health. Simply put, we need more health experts to support vaccination and treatment. The ECHO model is worth ramping up even more to identify new healthcare workers who can be trained to be COVID-19 experts.

At the end of the day, our personal, community, and national health hinges on a trained and plentiful workforce that is constantly up to date with the right knowledge and skills to care for all of us. We now have the model for successfully addressing not only this pandemic but future ones. Let’s build on what we have accomplished so far.

Dr. (Col.) Kumud Mohan Rai is Chairman of ECHO India and Dr. Prabhat Chand is Professor of Psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurological Sciences, Bengaluru

After the Capitol breach, the task of building bipartisan consensus is that much harder

If the history of nations is replete with ironies, nowhere were they more evident than in the U.S., when the “greatest nation on earth” became hostage to an ugly attempted coup led by a mob, bearing slogans of support for outgoing President Donald Trump. On Wednesday, hundreds of them stormed the Capitol building, as police appeared to be overwhelmed, and members of Congress, who were gathering to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election, cowered behind benches or were evacuated. Although the mob was eventually ejected, lawmakers went on to reconvene and formally certify the results, and Mr. Trump finally committed to an “orderly transition,” major social media platforms locked his accounts for violating their civic integrity policies, namely inciting violence with months of contentious posts that made baseless allegations about electoral fraud. The immediate trigger for the mob, said to have been methodically planned online via social media, was the surprise victory of two Democratic candidates, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, in the January 5 run-off election in Georgia. That election was necessitated by the fact that no candidate won 50% of the popular vote in the November 3 general election. Their win gives Democrats 50 seats in the Senate, which is tantamount to control of the upper chamber of Congress, because the incoming Vice-President, Kamala Harris, will cast a deciding vote in a tie.

To say that the incoming and 46th U.S. President, Joe Biden, has a tough job on his hands after his inauguration on January 20, would be an understatement. The sheer viciousness of the January 6 mob attack, and more than two months of hateful vitriol online and offline following the 2020 election, is proof that political America is deeply polarised, brimming with anger and disenchantment at the ground realities. The “unprecedented assault” on the very soul of democracy (as Mr. Biden put it) has been in the making for more than four years. At the heart of the tsunami of angst that was evident throughout the election campaign is a sense of frustration that grips middle America, including the white middle class and blue-collar workers, over the inevitable changes to the U.S. economy and society. There is a view that the forces of immigration and globalisation have lit the fuses on this explosive combination of racial prejudice and economic insecurity. In reality, Mr. Trump’s strident rhetoric exploited this sense of alienation and socioeconomic dysfunction for narrow political and personal gains. Now Mr. Biden has an opportunity to strike a more balanced note by, on the one hand, seeking to revive the moribund spirit of bipartisan consensus and expediently tackling the thorny issue of comprehensive immigration reform, and, on the other, redressing the ills of runaway free-market liberalisation and forging a post-COVID-19 economic vision that can truly deliver on the American dream.

The avian flu must be stopped before sustained transmission among humans

Just three months after India declared itself to be free of the avian influenza outbreak, the highly pathogenic avian influenza subtypes, H5N1 and H5N8, have been reported from a dozen epicentres in four States — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Kerala. In addition, thousands of poultry birds have died in Haryana, while Jharkhand and Gujarat, too, have sounded an alarm; the cause in these three States is still unknown. The two subtypes have targeted different birds — crows in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, migratory birds in Himachal Pradesh, and poultry in Kerala. While tests have confirmed H5N1 for causing the deaths of over 2,000 migratory birds in Himachal Pradesh, H5N8 has been identified for killing thousands of poultry in Kerala, and hundreds of crows in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. In a bid to stop the spread, as on Wednesday over 69,000 birds, including ducks and chickens, were culled in Alappuzha and Kottayam as per India’s 2015 National Avian Influenza Plan. Other States have been asked to be vigilant of any unusual deaths or disease outbreak signs amongst birds, particularly migratory ones. Migratory birds have been largely responsible for long-distance transmission of the virus into India during winter. It then spreads through local movement of residential birds and poultry. Movement of men and material from poultry farms too has been a cause for further spread. This is why States have been asked to strengthen biosecurity of poultry farms, disinfection and proper disposal of dead birds. With backyard rearing of poultry birds common, the task of elimination will be particularly difficult.

A recent European Food Safety Authority report says 561 avian influenza detections were made between August-December in 15 European countries and the U.K. The virus was predominantly found in wild birds, and a few in poultry and captive birds. H5N1 and H5N8 were two of three subtypes found in Europe. Genetic analysis helped confirm the spread from Asia to west-central Europe, suggesting a “persistent circulation of this virus strain, likely in wild birds in Asia”. While avian influenza virus crossing the species barrier and directly infecting humans happens occasionally, human-to-human spread has been rare. But mutations or genetic reassortment of an avian influenza A virus and a human influenza A virus in a person can create a new influenza A virus that could likely result in sustained transmission between humans, thus increasing the risk of a pandemic influenza. Hence, all efforts should be directed at stamping out the outbreaks in the affected States. It is also important to undertake genome sequencing of virus samples to track the evolution of the virus.

Some protests strengthen democracy, others weaken it

The seat of power has always been a platform for protest. As a child, I would marvel at the fact that the ‘Boat Club’ on Rajpath, just a few hundred metres from Parliament, North and South Block, and Rashtrapati Bhavan, could be used by protesters of all political colours and hues. Protest marchers would begin at the Boat Club and walk to Gol Methi Chowk, just next to the Prime Minister’s residence. As a teenager one witnessed the tens of thousands of farmers led by the Bharatiya Kisan Union “occupy” the lawns from India Gate up to Vijay Chowk for a week in 1988, and then the Mandal anti-reservation agitation of 1990. Years later, it was the anti-corruption movement of 2011 and the protests against the gang-rape of a young woman in Delhi in 2012 that saw crowds overrun parts of “Lutyens’ Delhi”, as the area surrounding Parliament is known. In later years, protests in these areas were no longer allowed, and the government now restricts marches to a small strip of road near the Parliament Street Police Station, while larger protests like those against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the ongoing protests against the farm laws have been relegated to the outskirts of Delhi.

During the Arab Spring, one covered protests in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad, and in Libya, against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi where police would take down details of those protesting and those covering the protests. However, “pro-regime” protesters were allowed to gather at will, threaten civilians, and even fire in the air. In Egypt, the second round of Tahrir Square protests in 2013 actually reversed the course of democracy, and installed another authoritarian government — that of former Military Intelligence Director Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

The point of rallying at the seat of power is simple: not only are the protesters ensuring that their voice is heard, as it should be in any democracy, they also believe that the buildings of power and the manicured lawns are public property and therefore lay claim on them as members of the public. As a journalist, you learn to quickly appreciate the power of protest when you are about to be trod underfoot in a crush of people. You are trained not to move towards the middle of the crowd, but to stay at its periphery, and move to a height on the side if possible. You are also given a first-hand look at the answer to important questions: when does a cry for justice turn into a movement to overturn a government, or even a coup? Also, when a government is elected by millions, can a crowd of less than a hundred thousand really represent a challenge to it? Finally, is a government more “in control” if it allows large protests to gather against it, or if it quells all protests so the protesters don’t have a chance of ‘Storming the Bastille’ as it were?

The answers in my reporter’s notebook are simple: protest is a legitimate part of democracy, and when protestors fight to overturn a government action, or even to demand elections to overturn a government, they only strengthen that democracy. It is those that seek to overturn democracy as a system itself that are the worry: like the mobs on Capitol Hill who bore loyalty to one man over the democratic process, or those we have seen bringing authoritarian movements to power by overrunning democratically elected governments in different parts of the world. They do democracy its greatest disservice.

H.R.H. The Duke of Connaught is arriving in Madras on Monday next. It is scarcely necessary to remind our readers that the Indian National Congress has passed a unanimous resolution asking the people not to participate in the functions and festivities arranged by the Government in connection with the visit of the Duke. “We need not remind our Madras friends,” says “Young India” of the 5th instant, “of the Nagpur Congress resolution which must be so fresh in their mind. We hope they will be able to keep before His Royal Highness a true perspective of the state of affairs in the country by their silent but unmistakable protest that these Councils do not represent the electorate meaning thereby the majority thereof, and to impress upon the Duke the fact which he might carry to his Majesty that India will be satisfied with and is determined to have nothing short of full Swaraj and a complete retrieval of the Khilafat”.

An armed gang broke into the State Bank’s branch at Chittaranjan, about 45 kms. from here [Asanol], this afternoon [January 7] and decamped with Rs. 18,71,000 in what is stated to be the country’s biggest bank robbery so far. A guard of the Chittaranjan Locomotive Works was shot dead by the dacoits, and two other employees of the public sector undertaking who had taken the money to deposit in the bank were injured by bomb splinters, according to an official report. The dacoits also took away a double barrel gun from the bank’s guard before making good their escape.

The report said that as soon as the money was taken in and kept in the cash enclosure at about 1-20 p.m., five or six people crashed in and exploded more than 50 bombs. The glass panes at the counter were blown to pieces and the hall was filled with thick acrid smoke. One of the members of the gang ordered the bank employees not to move from their places and hang their heads down, while others entered the cash enclosure by jumping across the counter. As the C.L.W. guard sought to resist the dacoits, one of them took out a pistol and shot him dead. As they carried the three cash boxes, the dacoits exploded several more bombs, scaring away the bystanders. They got into a waiting car and fled away.