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Sep 13, 2020

The economy of misinformation!


Some fascinating stories in circulation on the web today.

  • Earth is flat.
  • 'Moon landing' was a conspiracy, it never happened.
  • Herbs cure COVID19.
  • Homosexuality is a disorder and it can be cured by Yoga.
  • Our ‘race’ is the best.
  • 'Motivation and passion' that is all that one needs to succeed in life.

All of the above is just plain untrue, misleading and utter bullshit; but you know what? You can find ‘information’, ‘social media posts’ and ‘opinions’ masquerading as facts - supporting each of these bizarre theories on the internet. Not one, not two but millions upon millions of carefully crafted digital stories backing each of these salacious claims, not only exist but are only a recommendation away. Planted delicately in the way of your attention to make you stop, scroll, consume and click. The currency of your attention is what the spreaders of the misinformation are gunning for. These exist because vested interests are willing to pay for them from their endless pool of resources.

The economy of misinformation is HUGE, estimated at 250 billion USD, globally!

Misinformation, slander and scandals; sell like hotcakes.

Take a moment to imagine a group of people, who were born and brought up on these posts. Consider that they have lived their entire life surrounded by these details, would they ever accept contrasting information worthy of their attention? When they go on to the world wide web and search, they find millions who hold the same beliefs; what do they take away from it? That they are not alone and that there is no way, so many people can be wrong about something, which they believe to be true. So it must be true, the earth is indeed flat and to support that they have emphatic evidence right in front of their eyes, the ground below their feet is indeed flat; so how can the claim that earth is flat be untrue?

While you process that, let me present a thought exercise: look at all the things that you may have acquired in the last 2 years or so. List everything down, every item and then try to trace back, to the original instinct that got you to buy them. What was it? Did any form of advertisement, play a part?

Let me bring the third case into the mix; list down the last ten digital altercation that you may have had with others on various internet-based mediums - social media, messengers, video chat forums and others. What caused those brawls actually? What formed the basis of your opinions, the cause that you stood for? Was it in any way bolstered by what others expressed in solidarity with your views on the matter on the digital platform, that you frequent?

If yes, then you’ve been played with.

You’ve been manipulated by someone who devilishly weaponised the weaknesses of your mind, your ignorance; to further their own cause. They have benefited from the blind spots of your psychology, your behavioural glitches to make money out of your attention. How do you like the idea?

The illusion of knowledge, a false feeling of confidence and sense of community and belonging that these digital excursions (Social media) offer in exchange for time spend on the medium- draws people to them, irresistibly.

Let's take another case.

Imagine an ignorant but decent soul playing a silent spectator in an argumentative exchange going wild on a Whatsapp group that he is a part of, in which he found the group proposing 'earth is flat' presenting colourful reasons for it being the truth. In all honesty, with the sole objective of finding facts he launches youtube and types, "Earth is flat". Youtube returns the man, a ton of videos on that topic. He watches to one, and then moves on to the other and then to the next. After 2 hours of viewing different people eloquently presenting to an HD camera the fact that 'earth is flat' in a well-lit frame, he is confident. In his mind, he has the 'Knowledge' that he needs. He rages back to the group with his newly acquired 'intel and confidence' adds weight on to the side of the argument that purposed that 'earth is flat'. A few of these debates later the man now is a convert, an activist of the cause of dispelling every other version of the earth, circulating faster than earth is rotating on its axis. He considers it his responsibility to put things to record now.

A bubble of sorts is created in which he is trapped for eternity, an expansive universe in which he magically finds different people from different parts of the world who think exactly as he does? It is nothing but smart algorithms pushing on the side of conformance bias.

The principle to note in internet-based knowledge gathering and socialising exercises is that when you find people echoing your thoughts it does not always mean that what you are thinking is the right thing to think, it only means that like you the other people have also been subjected to the same stimulus and therefore they are reacting in a predictable way.

Confirmation is not the same as corroboration, more people saying the same thing does not make it right.

Consider this, let’s say your name is “Lav Kush” and a million people start calling you “Rohan” all of them addressing you by the wrong name at the same time and in a continuous and consistent manner; imagine 10 more people get added to that group of a million people who are calling you by a wrong name. What is the most likely name they are going to think you have? Lav Kush or Rohan? You know they would inadvertently add their voice to the building chorus of “Rohan”. "Rohan" is a fictitious name for you but it is a fact for those million others. Except that the million people, in this case, are simply wrong, but they are united in their misinformation and that makes the cumulative choristers appear much stronger than what is actually the right information - "Lav Kush".

This is how 'spread' of misinformation works.

The other question now is; when people have such an effective and powerful tool in their reach why do they not spread the right information? Are they inherently evil people? Why does it always have to be the wrong use of the tech? What sense does it make to use the tool wrongfully for indecent purposes? Why would someone be so taken up by the cause of spreading misinformation? These are valid questions. The answer is that - the truth is always ‘mundane’ and uninteresting because it does not dress up to impress it just puts clothes on.

Let me present to you two flavours of the same story, to further the argument.

The First Version: Iqbal is a hardworking student. He commits himself to routine and follows it through. He studies 6 hours a day, every day and then sleeps 8 hours a day, every day. He eats home-cooked meals most of the times. With sustained preparation, he cleared the prestigious UPSC entrance examination.

The second version: Iqbal was a bad student, he used to get into fights and all sorts of funny stuff back in school. His teachers and family members were equally worried about the prospects of his future. One day, while strolling back from school he met a sage who gave him a miracle filled sweet, he ate it and from that day onwards he was transformed. He started studying 16 hours a day, he would not even need to sleep for more than 4 hours a day and he constantly just kept on working. As a result, he cracked the prestigious UPSC entrance examination.

Both versions of the story offer the same outcome “Iqbal cleared the prestigious UPSC entrance examination” but which one do you think will sell more? First or second? We know the answer is going to be second.


The second story, forces leading questions on to the readers. Has a hint of mystery in it, waiting to be unravelled, some like these.

•Are miracles possible?

•Sages have transformative capabilities.

•Who was this sage, could we also seek his blessing?

•16 hours of study is possible, can be tried out. All of those who do not put in those kinds of hours are stupid nincompoops and are bound to fail.

•Sleep is not important at all; 4 hours is just about fine.

The first one, will not get anyone excited, it is as boring as a bowl of khichri. It is not exciting and that is enough to drive people away from it. But we can't say the same thing for the 2nd version, which appears straight from the movies.

That is how the business of fake news, conspiracy theories and propagandist narratives work.

It plants juicy connivance at the heart of an earthly event to get people interested, in the story. Constant and colourful reinforcement is supplied. Different people use this hunger (vulnerability of the human mind) for mystery in different forms.

Tech giants - Deploy powerful and pervasive algorithms to supply an abundance, the never-ending flow of content to satiated our senses by confirming to our beliefs, trapping us in our own bubble and yet keeping us hungry, at the same time by furnishing a variety of overproduced agenda-driven content, often for free. They grow audiences by popularising biases which they monetise for their economic gains. They sell our attention to corporations that are willing to place advertisements of their products somewhere in the content for us to consume and then get persuaded to buy.

Political parties use it to generate narratives that suit their politics. They create grand distractions to blind people of real issues/shield their failures. False enemies are erected so that people remain busy fighting them while they make the hay. Accountability is abdicated by confusing public consciences in an endless maze. News organisation and social media firms are paid to do the job. We are witnessing one right now in the country. We've become the 2nd most infected with COVID19 as a country, China is walking over our toes, the economy has plunged by 24%, and joblessness is at its peak and all we are being offered is scandalous collusion of an actor who died.

Corporations - They plug their products where the eyeballs are to boost growth prospects. You can’t buy a product that you have not seen or heard about. So wherever most people are listening becomes the essential place for organisations to advertise. They willingly pay the tech giants for creating these vast networks of disbelieves and misinformation appearing as reality and truth.

Regular people - They have a smartphone with a cheap data connection and nothing better to do with their time. So they hog on it, endlessly. Consumption becomes the easiest and effortless way to spend time.

Very few people have actually studied psychology and human behaviour well enough to avoid falling in these traps as a result they allow platforms to trade their attention for their profit. In the end, capital wins because these spaces are made available to the highest bidder; truth does not matter as much as confirmation bias does. Ordinary users unknowingly grow these monsters by feeding them with their attention. For short term pleasure, they lose long term control. Are you willing to squander your senses to the chorale around you? If not then, delete your social media accounts right now, limit your news consumption (preferably to print). Use your time productively in something useful, something constructive. You'll be better served.

I’m linking my article on digital minimalism, here for you to see the ways in which you can shield yourself from the damage the internet can do to you.

Good luck and stay safe.

Sep 6, 2020

Change, is not easy!

A large part of my professional career in corporate India has revolved around bringing about organisational change, different organisations gave it different titles, some fancier than the others, stacked initiatives differently within the organisational maze but the expectation has more or less remained unchanged in last 16 years - simply put, 'make it better'. The 'it' has been a variety of things to a diversity of people in a wild medley of circumstances. I've written about my experiences with bringing about transformation in many articles (26 write-ups in the last 10 years). Every time, I revisit the topic though, I find that my understanding has differed from my previous chronicles of it; I can't say for the better or not, I would let you be the judge of that. But it has not remained the same.

It is rather easy, some would even say commonsensical to believe that bringing about change is about coming up with a winning and a powerful idea, one which is better than prevalent practice in every conceivable way and then going on with it. After all what else can one need to drive organisational evolution? I used to hold this belief close to my chest too before I began my journey 1.6 decades ago. I could not have been any further from the truth, though.

You'll grow old listening to how dearly people want 'reform', vociferous support for the cause will fall from the skies before you can say the word 'TOM', and yet CHANGE does not happen, as smoothly. Private opposition comes from the very constituents that renders lip service to it in public. The dichotomy that surrounds transformation is fascinating, it is paradox of all paradoxes. Martyrs are respected, celebrated and idolised and yet no one wants their own kin to become one - such is the story of change. People support an idea as long as it does not demand a personal investment of time, effort or money, especially a change that is seen as taking the game away from those who enjoy control. It is fought with tooth and nails. Organisations pride themselves on the value that they generate, remember a unit keeps running only as long as it keeps making those who have invested in it, richer than they were before and therefore it is not a love affair that one can keep running despite occasional heartburns. The whole world knows the story of "Kodak", "Nokia" and "BlackBerry" and yet, change is resisted.

One wonders why?

People make societies and very people like you and I make organisations too. Our strengths play out just as much as our insecurities do; in that sense, the profile of an organisation is a collective characterisation of the people it employees, nothing more and nothing less.

I'd like to summarise my tryst with a change in two categories :

1) Change capital

2) Change capability
- [] Collective Intent of the controlling vote of the board.
- [] Business urgency.
- [] Long-term commitment.
- [] Innate desire of the chair.
Intellect and thoughtfulness of the leadership team
1. Knowing what to change; the core idea itself; requires thoughtful consideration, deep intellectual exploration and creative thinking.
2. Saving the idea from atrophy of inaction requires budgetary allocation and muscle for execution.
Both of these can only come from the top. People at the bottom of the pyramid no matter how engaged, skilful or well-meaning lack organisational control and influence needed to bring about large scale change.
Collective Intent of the controlling vote of the board.
Business Urgency
Long term commitment
The innate desire of the chair
- [ ] Communication
- [ ] Planning
- [ ] Execution
- [ ] Transition
- [ ] Course correction
- [ ] Realisation
- [ ] Closure
Selection of Idea
Course Correction
(Disclosure: The diagrams are from IJRTE Research paper)

I see below 5 elements as essential, non-negotiable building blocks of what I call the 'change capital'. Without these in place, making any alternation is impossible. So if you find yourself in a setting wanting of any of these, you got to take a pause, first work on priming the situation.

- [] Intellect and thoughtfulness of the leadership team.

Let's go over them one by one.

Two questions come out undeviatingly from the label, 1 - Intellect and 2- leadership team; one might ask why these two? To pull a large change, one that has transformative potential and organisation-wide reach - the most fundamental prerequisites are:

Bringing about real revolution is a lot more than romanticising with the idea of change. All transformative endeavours are daunting in nature, necessitating constant reinforcement. It is a long drawn process, it may start with a directive but can't be carried through without substantial investment in bringing the culture of the unit up to it. Cultural shifts are unlikely to bring about unless intentionality is displayed and demonstratively pushed and practised by those at the top. The inertia of the organisation, the old normal works against it with every fibre of its body.

Owners of the P&L unknowingly train their senses to smell and see monitory gains in the short term with a great degree of clarity and objectivity, everything else is just dressing not the main dish. Not every change, pays returns back on the day of commencement, benefits of some initiatives are only realised in the long term and that steals the thunder away from the hustle that change brings with itself. Attention is often diverted to what is considered both urgent and important for carrying the day out. 'Cause of the change' becomes the casualty, here.

A tenant can't be expected to worry about the structural integrity supporting the longevity of the property that he or she occupies, for them it is just not relevant, as their needs are momentary, at best. Contemporary calls are always dearer to the leaser. Change management bears uncanny similarity if leaders do not have long term commitment with the business they would not care enough to have it transformed, into anything better. The incentive of implementing change is understandably just not stimulating enough.

How badly do you want to win? If you want it for real, you bring it to the fore, at the top of the agenda. Otherwise, you naturally keep shifting "the need for transformation' to the future. Do those who hold the key to the business want to change, is the critical question? This issue is less organisational and more personal. Before it is answered the leaders must drift on an introspective journey. The process is taxing, long term and one ridden with conflicts so unless the desire is ironclad, there is no way to make the change for the better happen.

Let's assume you have all the key ingredients in place; congratulations you are halfway through. To bring about an effective change you'll still need a few more things.

With it, I come to the 2nd item - Change Capability

This is a more functional part of the problem, the list below captures it comprehensively.

- [ ] Selection of Idea

Let's look at them one after the other as well.

We're often tempted to ape what others are doing, following the fad is a thing not only in fashion, it creeps silently into the strategy vault as well. You need to know to guard against it. I resort to the process of rejection, list down all the possible ideas for a given situation and then start crossing bad or weak ones out to arrive at the top three or two. Check for its alignment with the larger business objectives. You do not have to work overtime to make the idea sound bold or come out as courageous, it does not have to be. The design needs to appreciate the current business landscape and should have plans for the future at heart. Alignment with the business goal is a must. Every scheme also has the responsibility of proving how it will improve/changes the offering against its competition in the market. As long as these criteria are met, you'll be good.

It often becomes more important than the idea itself. Remember, for your idea to win, it will need the backing of the decision-maker and also nod from those who are going to be directly impacted by it. When you craft the communication plan don't ever forget that your audience is unaware of the background work, the research and the rigorous process of rejection that you've followed to arrive at the final point, which you think carries the cause well- so keep the presentation of the idea suitably descriptive. Always know the taste of your audience, no point placing Arundhati Roy to someone who has been brought up with Chetan Bhagat; dumb the exhibition down if you must or regulate it a few notches up depending upon the unique requirement of the house that you are going to subject your presentation to. Be a moderator, in the conversation. Being good at language pays in ways more than one, you'll know when you present your idea.

The devil lies in the detail, break the steps down to their most granular form, never mind, if a plan that could have got made in 20 rows gets extended to 2000, the more the better. But remember 'more' and not 'more of the same' is being advised here. You do not have to fall into the trap of repeating what has already been said to make the plan look magnificent. A good plan is not an enthusiastic but realistic one. It should account for buffers, count in all the possibilities and the things that could go wrong. Delay is not good news nor is taking too long, balance is the key. Another key objective of a plan is to make stakeholders aware of the contribution that they need to make to infuse life into the idea. Be clear and be firm in the detailing.

I on purpose did not call it project management but execution. As the leader of change, you have to have your skin in the game. You can't be enacting high almighty who only presents himself to review and to point out what is not right, you also have to shoulder the obligation of making what is wrong, right. The most critical items are best co-owned. Integrity is vital, in the execution phase you must keep the sponsorer of the change duly informed of the progress that is being made. They deserve to know the real reason, not the sweetened one. Tell the truth, call out the slacks, if and when they present themselves. Remember, your primary responsibility is to drive the action as planned to the closure.

Agents of change are seen as thieves of comforts, they are hated because people think that they wish to make the lives of the people who are outside of the change management process (ideation) difficult on purpose. Many times, change exposes the truth, in the most uncomfortable, dispassionate and indiscriminate manner which people fear and therefore detest. Protecting the turf is a primal instinct, therefore change is seen as a possible loss. In an odd situation, the anxiety of change also encourages people to work against it. These anomalies must be identified and flagged appropriately within the organisation.

Not all plans work, and there is no harm in accepting when they do not. A common mistake that change leaders make is that they get so invested in the idea that they operate unreasonably to make sometimes even a failed idea work because they simply do not have it in them to concede - "I got it wrong". Getting it wrong is not as bad as pretending that all is well when it is not. Not only it is unethical but it also does the organisation immense impairment by discouraging people from trusting future initiatives. Such conduct discredits the process of change. When things don't work, admit it, go back to the drawing board and try again.

Declaring war is just as important as announcing peace. When the project does draw to a close, communicate so effectively and efficiently. Give an honest account of how true has the endeavour been to the planning that was done. How much of what was promised has been achieved? Go thread bear. After the announcement has been completed, make people aware of the changes that they will have to bring in their routine, aid adoption. Make plans for training those influenced both directly and indirectly. When it comes to letting people know, doing it a little more than needed won't harm nearly as much as not communicating enough.

At this point, you must have thought why haven't I confronted the elephant in the room - "Corporate Politics"; well simply because it is ubiquitous. It exists before the idea of change, while the idea is being given flesh and blood and also after the completion. If the inherent culture of the organisation has the antidote, it won't matter and if the culture lacks the intelligence then the organisation won't be able to embark on any serious change anyway; so I have omitted it.

Know that life of a change agent is not an easy one, it is full of confrontation, pugnacity, strifes, failures and discouragement - when you sign up for it tell yourself that you'd not let the trivialities swamp you down.

ये इश्क़ नहीं आसाँ इतना ही समझ लीजे

इक आग का दरिया है और डूब के जाना है

(जिगर मुरादाबादी)

With that let me end this, GO MAKE CHANGE HAPPEN!

Making the news!