How the Hindu Right-Wing Factchecks (Fake) News

by Thomas Manuel

Image Credit: Hrag Vartanian

Recently, the BBC published a report on the experience of fake news in India titled ‘Duty, Identity, Credibility: Fake news and the ordinary citizen in India’. The report primarily consists of two parts. The first section is based on 40 interviews with Indian citizens and a week-long analysis of their social media habits. The second section is a network analysis of India’s fake news ecosystem on social media. In the former, they included a list of 15 twitter accounts followed by the country’s Prime Minster, Narendra Modi, that were known to have published at least one piece of fake news. This list included OpIndia, arguably the most popular right-wing digital news outlet in India. The website’s prompt and vociferous response in the form of factchecks and editorials provides the perfect opportunity to examine how right-wing media in India counteracts criticism.

In his essay in EPW Engage[1], Ajay Gudavarthi describes how the Right appropriates ideas from the Left and retools them to achieve the opposite of their original intention: “Right-wing populism has managed to turn the traditional progressive political practices on their head. A critique is absorbed or resignified from its original meaning… it is instructive to observe how the left-liberal critique of the class character of democratic institutions is usurped in legitimising an aggressive state that in fact makes institutions further dysfunctional to the peril of the socially and economically weak and in targeting the religious minorities.” This resonates with how the right-wing relates to journalism and its subordinate traditions. While there are examples of legitimate factchecks from right-wing media, there is simultaneously a fetishization of the vocabulary of fake news, factchecks and debunking.

These terms gained currency after Brexit and the 2016 US Presidential election where they were used to analyse highly successful disinformation campaigns run by right-wing organisations. Factchecking emerged as the primary tool to combat the explosion of disinformation on social media. But the right-wing has usurped this vocabulary, not to combat disinformation or make facts easier to pin down. Rather they enable the right-wing to perform a kind of ‘public’ rationality while still defending the irrational actions of the state. (This is not to say the right-wing is the only source of disinformation; the other political parties in India like the Congress are also guilty but it’s clear that the BJP pioneered the tactic and the rest are rushing to catch up.) Read more »

Important Reflections on the Balcony

by Niall Chithelen

It’s getting colder now in Beijing, and I can’t help but feel for the clothing left outside to dry. They had to hang through the night and on through the weak sunrise, doing their best to catch the wind before the temperature drops again. How do they feel being out there for passers-by to see, all exposed, caught up in the dust and very small toxic particles?

I wonder if they catch cold when the temperature drops and they’re still damp. They might huddle together for warmth, but then they’d have to stay out longer, and no one wants that. Is it wrong to forget about them, or retrieve them late, only when it is convenient? Not for the fabric—which I have no idea about—but, you know, morally. They’ll survive, sure, but maybe they deserve better.

“Once upon a time, Europe really did not matter.” The Silk Roads: An Illustrated New History of the World

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

“You start with a scarf…each 90-by-90-centimeter silk carré, printed in Lyon on twill made from thread created by the label’s own silkworms, holds a story. Since 1937, almost 2,500 original artworks have been produced, such as a 19th-century street scene from Ruedu Faubourg St.-Honore, the company’s home since 1880. The flora and fauna of Texas. A beach in Spain’s Basque country” –- this is a fragment from an advertisement article for Hermès in this month’s issue of a luxury magazine. The article is called “The Silk Road.” Does it refer to the “Silk Road” in any way that justifies the title, beyond the allure of legend? No. Does it mention that the first scarves created for this very label, in 1937, were made with raw silk from China? No. Not necessary, not relevant to the target reader. In fact, the less we mention the “East” while trying to sell such luxury designer items, the better, aiming as we are for the rich collector, the global consumer of fashion (whether belonging to the East or West) willing to spend hundreds of dollars on a small square of silk, and more likely to associate such status symbols with Western Europe rather than with the “underdeveloped,” impoverished, overpopulated, conflict-ridden East.

While silk has always been a coveted item, a symbol of wealth and power for millennia in many cultures around the world, the detailed, de-mythologized, accurate history of what we have come to know as the “Silk Road” is not only of little interest but has been deliberately suppressed in the West. Besides a vague connection with Marco Polo, most people usually draw a blank at its mention. During the many years that I have been working on (and presenting from) a trilogy of poetry manuscripts based on aspects of this history, I have come across few readers (including writers and academics) in the US who have a clear idea of the regions that have been, since antiquity, a part of these trade routes we call the Silk Road (or “’Seidenstrasse,” a term coined by the German historian Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877) to define a network of land and sea routes of central and continuous importance to global trade as well as civilizational influences and the shifts in geographical borders around the world: a history that has been shaping not only how the world map looks from time to time, but how attitudes, knowledge, goods, technology, weapons, fashions, and even diseases and cures have been spreading across the continents and through the centuries. Read more »

Smart Pain

by Nickolas Calabrese

A few months back my boss and I had lunch with the person who, wearing a t-shirt that read “black death spectacle”, stood in protest in front of a painting of Emmett Till by Dana Schutz called Open Casket at the last Whitney Biennial. Shortly after his gesture another artist penned an open letter about how Schutz’s painting uses “black pain” as a medium, and how this use by non-Black artists needs to go. I’m not sure what the ethical verdict is (of whether or not Schutz made a gravely racist error), or whether the artist’s letter voiced an instance of over-reaching aesthetic censorship, nor will I make any attempt at trying to resolve that issue here; it would take far more space than what is available and is not my aim. Consider reading Aruna D’Souza’s recent book Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts for a thorough treatment (which, not so incidentally, the above mentioned protestor provided images for).

What I am interested in, however, is the broader idea of pain as a medium. That pain can be an aestheticized form is completely fascinating, and yet it has been employed since at least the Bible. We’re talking here about both physical and mental pains. How does one explain the benefits of painful aesthetics – of horror, of discomfort, of terror, of anything undesirable in real life; generally speaking, of pain – if pain is intrinsically undesirable for most people? Well I understand pain to be valuable as a tool for education and experience because pain, more than pleasure, has the tendency to traumatize the people who suffer it. In other words, it makes a lasting impression. Pleasure leaves an impression too, but it doesn’t traumatize, and that seems relevant to this discussion. Read more »

Why Do We Accept the Same Four Chords?

by Lexi Lerner

Seward Johnson, The Embrace.

“All the greatest hits from the past forty years have the same four chords,” Axis of Awesome taught us a decade ago. “You can take those four chords, repeat them, and pump out every pop song ever.”

The band has since released multiple versions of its famous four chord medley, cataloguing more than 80 chart-toppers that follow pretty much the exact same structure. Amongst them: “Let It Be” by the Beatles, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” by Elton John, and “Under the Bridge” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

While they may have lifted the veil for some lay listeners, Axis of Awesome did not invent the music theory behind the four chord song. In fact, that progression has served as the backbone of popular music since the thirties, and its prevalence has only increased with time.

Recall such recent four chorders as “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi with Daddy Yankee, “Edge of Glory” by Lady Gaga, “Someone Like You” by Adele, “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen, and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” by Taylor Swift. Roll your eyes if you must, but these were seminal to the Billboard Top 100 when they came out. The trend has its fingers in far more pies than just pop music; there are four chord songs as indie folk as “The Sounds of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel, and “Lying to You” by Keaton Henson.

Music wasn’t always like this; Brahms and Wagner and Strauss would all sob at what earns airplay these days. So when the permutations, instrumentation, length, and knowledge of music are more boundless than ever, why do we settle for the same four chords? And if most songs are built on that, what makes certain ones destined for mixtapes and wedding dances and long car rides and summer soundtracks? Why do we consider anything to be special? Read more »

Mohammed Hanif, author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes, brings a Kafkaesque doubleness of purpose to a story of war

Jonathan McAloon in The Irish Times:

In Mohammed Hanif’s third novel Red Birds, US Air Force Major Ellie despairs of mission simulations being “dreamt up by some kid who’d never seen the inside of a cockpit”. Readers of literary fiction about war, if not of fiction in general, may feel a similar despair. Does the writer have enough authority to make their simulation convincing? Before Hanif was a Booker-longlisted author, or wrote for the New York Times and BBC, he trained as a pilot in Pakistan’s air force. What Major Ellie says about ejector seats and fireproof suits has the confidence of truth. But much more importantly, Hanif knows about the absurdity of war in a way that a civilian never could.

Ellie has been sent on a mission that is simply an “opportunity” to perform an act of courage that might distinguish him in his “straight line” of a career. It involves bombing a refugee camp in the middle of nowhere, “an outpost in a war that the war itself is not interested in”. (Hanif doesn’t specify the desert location; we feel it is an amalgam of borderlands between South Asia and the Middle East.) But after his plane goes down he is taken in, reluctantly, by the inhabitants of the camp. As he looks to find a way back home, a 15-year-old inhabitant Momo sees his chance to gain access to the deserted neighbouring US base.

More here.

First sun-dimming experiment will test a way to cool Earth

Jeff Tollefson in Nature:

Zhen Dai holds up a small glass tube coated with a white powder: calcium carbonate, a ubiquitous compound used in everything from paper and cement to toothpaste and cake mixes. Plop a tablet of it into water, and the result is a fizzy antacid that calms the stomach. The question for Dai, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and her colleagues is whether this innocuous substance could also help humanity to relieve the ultimate case of indigestion: global warming caused by greenhouse-gas pollution.

The idea is simple: spray a bunch of particles into the stratosphere, and they will cool the planet by reflecting some of the Sun’s rays back into space. Scientists have already witnessed the principle in action. When Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines in 1991, it injected an estimated 20 million tonnes of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere — the atmospheric layer that stretches from about 10 to 50 kilometres above Earth’s surface. The eruption created a haze of sulfate particles that cooled the planet by around 0.5 °C. For about 18 months, Earth’s average temperature returned to what it was before the arrival of the steam engine.

More here.

Mass Immigration Creates Problems For the Left and Tighter Borders Can’t Be the Solution

Eric Levitz in New York Magazine:

In the United States today, the rich lay claim to a higher share of our nation’s wealth than they have at any point since the Gilded Age — and foreign-born residents account for a higher share of our nation’s population than at just about any time since that same era.

In his 2016 book, The Great Exception: The New Deal & The Limits of American Politics, the historian Jefferson Cowie suggests that these two developments are related. His case is simple: It is hard to implement egalitarian economic policies in the absence of working-class solidarity — and it is hard to achieve the latter in a context of mass, multi-ethnic immigration.

According to this analysis, it wasn’t purely coincidence that American workers secured themselves a “New Deal” shortly after Congress passed (profoundly racist) restrictions on immigration, nor that the New Deal consensus unraveled shortly after those restrictions were lifted in 1965. Throughout the Gilded Age, America’s industrial working class was riven by bitter tensions between protestants and Catholics; and/or between longtime Anglo-American citizens, and newly arrived Irish, German, and Jewish immigrants. These ethnic and religious tensions divided workers (and the trade union movement) between the two major parties, preventing them from consolidating power within either.

More here.

Opioid Nation

Marcia Angell in the New York Review of Books:

The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 72,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017, up from some 64,000 the previous year and 52,000 the year before that—a staggering increase with no end in sight. Most involved opioids.

A few definitions are in order. The term opioid is now used to include opiates, which are derivatives of the opium poppy, and opioids, which originally referred only to synthesized drugs that act in the same way as opiates do. Opium, the sap from the poppy, has been used throughout the world for thousands of years to treat pain and shortness of breath, suppress cough and diarrhea, and, maybe most often, simply for its tranquilizing effect. The active constituent of opium, morphine, was not identified until 1806. Soon a variety of morphine tinctures became readily available without any social opprobrium, used, in some accounts, to combat the travails and boredom of Victorian women. (Thomas Jefferson was also an enthusiast of laudanum, one of the morphine tinctures.) Heroin, a stronger opiate made from morphine, entered the market later in the nineteenth century. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that synthetic or partially synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, methadone, oxycodone (Percocet), hydrocodone (Vicodin), and hydromorphone (Dilaudid), were developed.

In 1996 a new form of oxycodone called OxyContin came on the market, and three recent books—Beth Macy’s Dopesick, Chris McGreal’s American Overdose, and Barry Meier’s Pain Killer—blame the opioid epidemic almost entirely on its maker, Purdue Pharma.

More here.

Sunday Poem

From Vocable

—for JKG

Ninety now, you’re adrift on the vowel-stream,
the crisp edge of all your five languages gone

and we’re back to the least of language. It’s all one,
your, his or my slight modulations of the bare

vowel of animal need . . . though even there
how they give us away, our vowel sounds:

class, place, family secrets, the wrong
school or side of the blanket or overstayed

visa, let slip, between one consonant
and the next.


a fence of plosives, dentals and fricatives
as we will . . . in times of war and weather

we can’t stem the vowel-flood; it will swell,
barely articulate. No border can contain it;

it will seep, erode, find
cracks; it will break through.


North America’s Earliest Smokers May Have Helped Launch the Agricultural Revolution

Lorraine Boissoneault in Smithsonian:

In the beginning, there was smoke. It snaked out of the Andes from the burning leaves of Nicotiana tabacum some 6,000 years ago, spreading across the lands that would come to be known as South America and the Caribbean, until finally reaching the eastern shores of North America. It intermingled with wisps from other plants: kinnickinnick and Datura and passionflower. At first, it meant ceremony. Later, it meant profit. But always the importance of the smoke remained.

Today, archaeologists aren’t just asking which people smoked the pipes and burned the tobacco and carried the seeds from one continent to the next; they’re also considering how smoking reshaped our world. “We teach in history and geology classes that the origins of agriculture led to the making of the modern world,” says anthropologist Stephen Carmody of Troy University. “The one question that keeps popping up is which types of plants were domesticated first? Plants that would’ve been important for ritual purposes, or plants for food?” To answer that question and others, Carmody and his colleagues have turned to archaeological sites and old museum collections. They scrape blackened fragments from 3,000-year-old pipes, collect plaque from the teeth of the long-dead, and analyze biomarkers clinging to ancient hairs. With new techniques producing ever more evidence, a clearer picture is slowly emerging from the hazy past.

More here.

The human inside the machine

Tom Standage in The Economist:

In 1770 a chess-playing robot, built by a Hungarian inventor, caused a sensation across Europe. It took the form of a life-size wooden figure, dressed in Turkish clothing, seated behind a cabinet which had a chessboard on top. Its clockwork arm could reach out and move pieces on the board. The Mechanical Turk was capable of beating even the best players at chess. Built to amuse the empress Maria Theresa, its fame spread far beyond Vienna, and visitors to her court insisted on seeing it. The Turk toured Europe in the 1780s, prompting much speculation about how it worked, and whether a machine could really think: the Industrial Revolution was just getting started, and many people were questioning to what extent machines could replace people. Nobody ever quite guessed the Turk’s secret. But it eventually transpired that there was a human chess player cleverly concealed in its innards. The apparently intelligent machine depended on a person hidden inside.

It turns out that something very similar is happening today. Just like the Turk, modern artificial-intelligence (AI) systems rely on help from unseen humans. Training a “deep learning” system involves showing it millions of examples of an input (such as photographs of animals) and telling it what the correct output is (“cat”, “dog”) in each case. Once trained, the system can then correctly identify animals in pictures it has not seen before. But the training process requires huge numbers of correctly labelled examples – and those must be created by humans.

More here.

The Prophet of Envy

Robert Pogue Harrison in the New York Review of Books:

René Girard, 2000

René Girard (1923–2015) was one of the last of that race of Titans who dominated the human sciences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with their grand, synthetic theories about history, society, psychology, and aesthetics. That race has since given way to a more cautious breed of “researchers” who prefer to look at things up close, to see their fine grain rather than their larger patterns. Yet the times certainly seem to attest to the enduring relevance of Girard’s thought to our social and political realities. Not only are his ideas about mimetic desire and human violence as far-reaching as Marx’s theories of political economy or Freud’s claims about the Oedipus complex, but the explosion of social media, the resurgence of populism, and the increasing virulence of reciprocal violence all suggest that the contemporary world is becoming more and more recognizably “Girardian” in its behavior.

In Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, Cynthia Haven—a literary journalist and the author of books on Joseph Brodsky and Czesław Miłosz—offers a lively, well-documented, highly readable account of how Girard built up his grand “mimetic theory,” as it’s sometimes called, over time.

More here.

We Didn’t Know We Needed Mongolian Folk Rock Until We Heard It

James Lanka in Phantom Sway:

I can’t understand the words. Heck, I can’t even identify all the instruments these guys are playing, but I am loving The HU.

Finding their video was just a happy accident thanks to whatever arcane divination is behind YouTube’s recommendation algorithm. For some serendipitous reason, it served up The HU’s video for Yuve Yuve Yu and I had to check it out.

Four guys looking like warriors from another age playing wildly ornate instruments against a rugged backdrop of Eurasian wilderness—the video is visually stunning. The music is at once alien and familiar. The hooks and the driving beat are pure rock and roll while the instrumentation and vocals are something that many in the west will find entirely new.

More here.