Monday, July 11, 2022

The Case Against Facebook (now Meta)

(Image: OMG News Today)

The primary issue with Facebook is not their platforms or algorithms - those can be fixed. It is their leadership.

The company was borne out of deception after Mr. Zuckerberg reneged on a contractual agreement he made with his Harvard classmates. They had approached him with an idea for a social networking platform and sought his help to build it. In 2009, Mr. Zuckerberg paid his ex-classmates around $65 million to settle the lawsuit.

I am not suggesting Mr. Zuckerberg set out to build a hate-filled platform, but I am saying that his lack of ethics and his megalomania combined with a desire to blindly maximize profits make Meta’s platforms uniquely dangerous.

The reality is even worse.

It is not just that Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg have chosen to ignore real-world harms. In a bid to make their service more addictive to users, they have actively designed and conducted experiments to find new ways to manipulate emotions.

Independent studies have shown that a large majority of health news shared on Facebook is fake or misleading, yet for a long-time the platform embraced conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers and climate deniers because fake news drives more engagement than boring facts, which in turn translates to more advertising revenue for the company.

In my mind, the pivotal point for Facebook came in 2012 when General Motors, one of the largest advertisers in the U.S., decided to stop advertising on Facebook, saying that “paid ads on the site were having little impact on consumers' car purchases.”

GM’s announcement came one week before Facebook’s IPO and raised some uncomfortable questions, not only about the company’s ability to maintain its 88% revenue growth from the prior year, but also its astronomical valuation. One based entirely on an ad-driven revenue model.

At the time, Anant Sundaram, with the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, noted that the average price-to-earnings ratio for the majority of US companies over the last one hundred years had been around 15, but Facebook’s PE ratio was 100.

He added that “it would take Facebook 100 years to generate enough profits to pay for itself” and it seemed like investors were betting the company's profits would “double, and then double again, and then double again — within the next few years“. He summed up the challenge saying that to succeed Facebook would “need to attract 10 percent of all advertising dollars spent on the planet…”

When you combine this unrealistic growth expectation with an unscrupulous founder, the result is what Francis Haugen described as a company that has, “over and over again, shown it chooses profit over safety”.

We know that the data analytics firm which briefly worked with Trump’s election team in 2016, Cambridge Analytica, legally bought and harvested the personal data of 50 million Facebook users (and their friends). They then used this data to try to influence and manipulate voting behaviour.

While this was the first time most people became aware of real-world dangers and the cost of giving away personal information for “free”, the red flags around Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg’s business decisions had been apparent for many years prior.

In 2013 a tech consultant revealed that Facebook collected content that people typed on the site but erased and never actually posted. The company’s argument justifying this intrusive data collection was that Facebook could better understand their users if they knew their “self-censored” thoughts.

In 2014 the NYTimes reported that Facebook was manipulating people’s newsfeeds, showing overwhelmingly negative or positive posts. In effect, they were using people as lab rats in a “psychological study to examine how emotions can be spread on social media”. At the time the lead researcher at Facebook, Adam Kramer, posted a public apology which has since disappeared.

In conducting this experiment Facebook never felt the need to inform or seek consent from users before making them part of the experiment, a precondition for any ethical research. After they were outed, Facebook argued that users had given “blanket consent to the company’s research as a condition of using the service”.

When Mr. Zuckerberg bought WhatsApp in 2014 he promised to protect user privacy. In fact, WhatsApp’s co-founder penned a blog post assuring users that “Respect for privacy is coded into our DNA…” and that they would continue to “know as little about you as possible…”. Less than two years later Mr. Zuckerberg went back on his word, mandating that WhatsApp share personal information with Facebook.

In 2015, Mr. Zuckerberg launched a seemingly altruistic initiative to provide free internet access to the poorest people in the world, called This too turned out to be smoke and mirrors. Arguably, Mr. Zuckerberg’s real goal was to create a global monopoly for Facebook by building a walled-off internet. 

The condition for the “free internet” was that Facebook would decide the basket of websites people could access. No other social networks were included and Google Search was also excluded. Mr. Zuckerberg likely wagered that if people’s primary experience on the internet was on Facebook, they would come to think of Facebook as the internet. You can read my piece on "How Facebook Can Fix".

Based on internal documents reviewed by the Wall Street Journal, we now know that many of these poor people ended up being charged millions of dollars a month for their “free” internet via carrier data charges due to “software problems” at Facebook.

In 2016, the Wall Street Journal discovered that Facebook was attempting to spread its tentacles into the personal lives of non-Facebook users by tracking them across the internet. Under the guise of showing people more targeted ads, their plan was “to collect information about all Internet users through 'like' buttons and pieces of code embedded on websites.”

The Wall Street Journal reported in 2018 that Facebook had been over inflating the average viewing time for video ads on its platform, by as much as 900 percent for over a year. An unreacted filing from a 2018 lawsuit in California claims that Sheryl Sandberg was informed of the issue in 2017, including a proposed fix, but the company refused to make the changes saying it would have a “significant” impact on revenue.

The Financial Times reported the statements today based on a newly unredacted filing from a 2018 lawsuit in California. The lawsuit claims that Facebook knowingly overestimated its “potential reach” metric for advertisers, largely by failing to correct for fake and duplicate accounts. The filing states that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg acknowledged problems with the metric in 2017, and product manager Yaron Fidler proposed a fix that would correct the numbers. But the company allegedly refused to make the changes, arguing that it would produce a “significant” impact on revenue.

In 2018, a U.N. fact-finding mission pointed to the role of social media networks, and Facebook in particular, in fueling hate speech against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar. The report said that the “incitement to violence” was “rampant” and “unchecked.” The chair of the committee added that in Myanmar “social media is Facebook”, and “for most users [in Myanmar], Facebook is the internet.”

Independent research going back to 2004 has shown that social media detracts from healthy face-to-face relationships and reduces time spent on meaningful activities while increasing sedentary behavior. 

This can lead to internet addiction, which in turn erodes self-esteem through negative comparisons people make on sites like Instagram. But skeptics claimed it was not clear whether “people with lower self-esteem are more likely to use social media, rather than social media causing lower self-esteem…”

In 2017, two academic researchers conducted a rigorous longitudinal study and published the results in the American Journal of Epidemiology, definitively answering this question. 

Their findings concluded that using Facebook was “consistently detrimental to mental health” and that both “liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.”

In 2018, another comprehensive study by University of Pennsylvania confirmed that there was a direct link between social-media usage and depression and loneliness, and connected Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram use to decreased well-being.

You might ask that if all social media is harmful, why single out Meta (formerly Facebook)? It’s a valid question. I offer a few reasons why we need to start with Meta.

First, no other social platform comes close to matching Meta’s global reach and scale.

As of Q3, 2021, Facebook had more than 2.89 billion monthly active users and both Instagram and WhatsApp crossed 2 billion each. TikTok is the only other social platform with more than one billion users. Compare this with less than 400 million people on Twitter, 478 million on Pinterest, and 514 million on Snapchat. 

Meta owns three of the four largest social networks on earth, which means Mr. Zuckerberg alone has the power to control and manipulate vital news, daily information and communication flow for more than half the planet’s population.

Second, consider that in many countries, Facebook’s platforms are not just dominant but they are the primary mode of communication for people. In India, around 340 million people use Facebook, and 400 million use WhatsApp's messaging service to communicate daily.

The world’s largest democracy has become a case-study in the real-world dangers of one company having unchecked power to impact people’s daily lives with uncontrolled content that is fueled by opaque algorithms.

In 2019, documents leaked to the Associated Press revealed that a Facebook employee created a dummy account to test how its algorithms affect new Indian users on their platform. The results shocked the company’s own staff.

In less than three weeks the test account’s newsfeed turned into a cesspool of fake news, vitriol and incendiary images and videos. Bloomberg reports that there were “graphic photos of beheadings, doctored images of India air strikes against Pakistan and jingoistic scenes of violence”. In documents released by Francis Haugen, a staffer wrote in a 46-page internal report “I’ve seen more images of dead people in the past three weeks than I’ve seen in my entire life."

The reason this test was significant is because it was designed to focus exclusively on Facebook’s algorithms recommending content for the test user and not friends, family or others on the platform. 

Additional documents reviewed by the Associated Press show that Facebook had been aware of this problem for years, and even flagged India as one of its most “at risk countries” in the world, but struggled to do anything to limit the spread of vitriol in their largest and fastest growing market.

The other problem highlighted by Facebook’s test was that because the majority of posts were in Hindi, their content moderation algorithms were not able to detect it. Compounding this challenge is the fact that Indians also use different blends of Hindi, including something called Hinglish. A mix of Hindi and English words that no algorithm can be trained to decipher because often it is made up phonetically as people type.

Consider that in India alone there are 22 official languages and dozens more dialects, and globally there are over 7,000 official languages spoken, not including dialects. As of 2019, Facebook supported 111 languages, but translations for community guidelines and content moderation only existed in 41 languages. 

In essence, Meta’s public pledges to improve content moderation algorithms and hire thousands more human moderators will not solve this problem. According to internal documents reviewed by CNN, Facebook's own researchers stated that the company is not in a position to effectively address hate speech and misinformation content in languages other than English.

Another internal study reviewed by the Washington Post found that between 2017 and 2019 Facebook’s ranking algorithm gave “five times more weight to posts that users responded to with an "angry" reaction than those that evoked other reactions, such as “like”. The newspaper concluded that such posts, while more engaging, were far more likely to include “misinformation, toxicity and low quality news”.

The bottom line is that Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg have shown time and again that they have no real intention of reducing the vitriol and misinformation on their platform. The closest thing we have to a smoking gun pointing to the fact that they prioritise engagement over well-being is a 2011 internal email from Ms. Sandberg, when Facebook was preparing to take on Google’s new social network, Google+.

The emails are is included as part of evidence in an antitrust case filed by 46 US state attorneys general, the District of Columbia and Guam. In the email exchange, Ms. Sandberg writes “For the first time, we have real competition and consumers have real choice…” 

At the time the company was planning to remove users’ ability to untag themselves in photos. But based on the competitive situation it was decided internally to hold off on making changes “…until the direct competitive comparisons begin to die down.” The suit argues that it is proof that Facebook preserves user privacy when it faces external threats, but degrades it when those dissipate.

In late 2021, after seeing alarming signs of deteriorating mental health among youth, the U.S. Surgeon General conducted a national study. His report cited that one of the factors contributing to the mental health crisis is the fact that “social media companies were maximizing time spent, not time well spent.”  

The report was prompted by an alarming rise in teen emergency room visits for suicide attempts. Among adolescent girls suicide attempts surged 51% in early 2021, compared with the same period in 2019.

The Surgeon Generals’ findings are supported by another 2021 study that found that non-educational screen time for teenagers doubled during the pandemic, increasing from an average of 3.8 hours, to 7.7 hours a day. The researchers directly associated increased screen time with adverse health outcomes, which included weight gain and increased stress.

We also now have hard evidence, based on a Washington Post and ProPublica investigation, that groups on Facebook played a key role in spreading misinformation and false narratives between Election Day and the January 6th siege on the US Capitol.  The investigation found at least 650,000 posts questioning the legitimacy of Mr. Biden’s victory, with many posts “calling for executions and other political violence”.

An exasperated Facebook employee wrote on Jan 6th, on an internal forum, “All due respect, but haven’t we had enough time to figure out how to manage discourse without enabling violence?” “We’ve been fueling this fire for a long time, and we shouldn’t be surprised it’s now out of control.”

The fact is that any other company faced with so much internal and external evidence of their harm to society, and particularly young children, might seriously take stock and reconsider their business model. However, Meta, under Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg have demonstrated that they have no real intention of doing so.

Sure, they continue to offer cosmetic changes but these do nothing to solve the underlying problems. Take for example, Facebook’s creation of an independent oversight board. With 20 members this committee can only review a tiny subset of issues, and that too after the damage has been done. Not surprisingly, reporters have found that Meta has been less than honest with their own oversight board.

Even now, Meta’s leadership refuses to take any responsibility. Andrew Bosworth, soon to be their new CTO, recently told Axios that “society” was responsible for misinformation. He said, “Individual humans are the ones who choose to believe or not believe a thing. They are the ones who choose to share or not share a thing.”

This is not surprising since Mr. Zuckerberg told employees not to apologise. On the company’s earnings call, after Ms. Haugen’s revelations, he said that this was a “coordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company”

If Mr. Zuckerberg has nothing to hide, one wonders why, in the weeks following Ms. Haugen’s disclosures, Meta imposed new rules to limit internal access to “research discussions on topics, including mental health and radicalization” and researchers were told “to submit work on sensitive topics for review by company lawyers.”

Over the years, Mr. Zuckerberg has publicly called on lawmakers to regulate social media platforms. In 2019, he penned an op-ed in the Washington Post, saying “I believe we need a more active role for governments and regulators” and added “Lawmakers often tell me we have too much power over speech, and frankly I agree.” He asks Congress to regulate important online issues like free speech, harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability.

From an honest broker this might seem like a reasonable request, but this is Mr. Zuckerberg we are talking about.

Aside from the deep partisan divisions that forestall any meaningful legislation being enacted by Congress, Mr. Zuckerberg is aware that half the US Senate is 65 years or older. The current 117th Congress is the oldest in two decades. The average age of senators is 63.9 and the average age of house members is 58.3. We have twenty-one senators who are between the ages of 70 and 80.

In addition, there exists a skill gap within Congress. Only 11 members (10 in the House and 1 in the Senate) of the current 535 voting members and 6 non-voting delegates have an engineering degree or technical background.

Mr. Zuckerberg is still not taking any chances and has been quietly spending millions to build a powerful D.C. lobbying arm. Over the last decade Big Tech firms have become the dominant lobbying group in Washington, overtaking Big Oil and Big Tobacco. 

Meta which was not among the top eight spenders in 2017 has become the largest individual lobbyist, along with Amazon. Between 2018-2020, Facebook increased its lobbying spend by an a whopping 56%.

In 2020, after lawmakers began to increase scrutiny of tech companies, Meta spent more on lobbying than all the other Big Tech firms. More recently in the quarter ending September 2021, after the whistleblower Ms. Haugen came forward, they nearly outspent the entire D.C. industry on lobbying.

Their goal, it would seem, is to overwhelm the small handful of lawmakers who understand the complexities of social media and technology, by ensuring that they are outgunned and outvoted. To achieve this, Meta’s army of lobbyists routinely wine, dine, woo and whisper in the ears of the majority lawmakers.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the day after Ms. Haugen went public, Meta’s lobbying arm went to work

First they called lawmakers and advocacy groups on the right, telling them that Ms. Haugen was trying to help Democrats. Next they reached out to Democratic lawmakers to say that Republicans were focussed on “the company’s decision to ban expressions of support for Kyle Rittenhouse”, the teenager who killed two people during unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Both Republicans and Democrats familiar with the company’s outreach told the WSJ that Meta's goal was clearly to sow discord along partisan lines and muddy the waters so the two parties would not reach consensus on tough new rules governing social media companies, and Meta in particular.

We know that social media has adverse effects because the algorithms are designed with monetisation in mind. The more time you spend on these platforms, the more opportunities to advertise. As a result, harassment, manipulation and misinformation are rife in an environment where gaining followers and increasing likes is dependent on getting noticed. 

With the volume of noise and clutter on these platforms today, the more controversial, vitriolic and outrageous a post, the more likely it is to get noticed and promoted by the algorithms. Anyone remember the viral video of granny crossing the street safely?

Other CEO’s have acknowledged these dangers and are making efforts to mitigate adverse impacts. Even TikTok, a Chinese company, says they are working on changing their algorithms. Pinterest recently took the extreme step of blocking all vaccine related searches, until they can find a long-term solution.

I have nothing against Mr. Zuckerberg personally, and believe that when we get this right, social media can be a net positive force in the world. However, I don’t believe this can or will happen under Mr. Zuckerberg’s stewardship. There must be a reason why, of all the Big Tech companies, Meta has by far the longest list of “insiders-turned-critics.“

Peter Drucker, the marketing guru, famously said “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” and this is fundamentally the issue at Meta. 

It took Microsoft over a decade, two CEO changes and a Federal antitrust investigation before they were able to change their toxic ‘rank and yank’ culture. Similarly, it was not until Mr. Kalanick was forced out of Uber by powerful venture investors that the company was able to expunge its cut throat, chauvinistic and frat boy culture.

Mr. Zuckerberg holds an absolute majority of Meta’s voting shares and with the company’s dual-class voting share structure, he retains majority control in any shareholder vote. What that means is, as John Webster noted in the Duchess of Malfi, “Usually goodness flows, but if it is poisoned near the head, death spreads throughout the entire fountain.”

I am wholeheartedly a capitalist and make no bones about the fact that it is the only system, even with its many flaws, that has proven successful in lifting millions out of poverty. However, a few private companies should never have this much power to disseminate the world’s news and information thorough black boxes.

Meta has the power to manipulate the minds of people on a hitherto unimaginable scale. Between Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger, one company and one man control the flow of critical information for more than half the earth’s population.

With great power comes great responsibility, and as long as a reckless, irresponsible and dishonest leader like Mr. Zuckerberg is at the helm, that power will continue to be used irresponsibly.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

How Narendra Modi Conquered Coronavirus

(Image: Twitter/ANI)

"No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself or get all the credit for doing it." -Andrew Carnegie

Much like George W. Bush once prematurely declared victory in Iraq, our Prime Minister started taking victory laps in mid-February this year when he proclaimed that …the whole world was worried about India's situation. But today India's fight against corona (coronavirus) is inspiring the entire world…

No matter that the World Health Organization, our medical fraternity, immunologists and scientists the world over warned that complacency could have devastating consequences for India. And that no country would be safe until at least 85% of the population is vaccinated.

On 7th March 2021, the Indian Health Minister boldly declared at a Delhi Medical Association gathering that “We are in the end game of the COVID-19 pandemic in India.” Adding that India was now the ‘world’s pharmacy’, boasting that we had shipped “5.5 crore vaccines to 62 different countries.”

What he failed to mention was that claiming the moniker of world’s pharmacy meant Indians would get fewer vaccines. India’s current vaccination rate is 9.4%, which lags Brazil (12.8%) and Turkey (15.6%). At this pace, it will take another 600 days to vaccinate enough Indians to achieve herd immunity. Shortages have now become so acute that 94 vaccination sites were recently closed for three days in Bombay, even as India was reporting nearly 400,000 Covid cases daily. 

It would seem that the BJP government decided having Mr. Modi strut on the world stage claiming to be the world’s pharmacy was more important than prioritising vaccinating our own citizens, as every other nation did.

Then, as if to prove that he is not just a man of words, Mr. Modi started holding massive election rallies across West Bengal. These rallies had thousands of people in attendance without masks or social distancing because naturally Mr. Modi’s aura was enough to strike fear into the heart of coronavirus.

Just over a week ago Mr. Modi tweeted from a rally sayingHave never ever seen such huge crowds at a rally” and added “wherever I look, I see people, only people”. It would seem that his aura has faded because in the past week West Bengal reported the highest spike in a single day, and instituted lockdowns due to an alarming rise in cases.

The next coronavirus showdown occurred in late March. By now the second wave was well under way and the double mutant variant had been identified, but Mr. Modi refused to cower. Instead, he appeared in full-page ads in national newspapers welcoming devotees to Kumbh Mela, an annual pilgrimage for Hindus.

A courageous leader might have cancelled a gathering of hundreds of thousands of people traveling from all over the country to wash their sins in the Ganges, but not our Prime Minister, destroyer of corona. He made sure the masses got their opium, even if it meant risking their lives.

The ads not only encouraged the young, old and infirm to attend but claimed that the festival was “clean” and “safe”. On being asked, the Chief Minister of the state told the media that the festival would not be cancelled because “Maa Ganga’s blessings are there in the flow. So, there should be no corona…” Incidentally, this man once compared Mr. Modi to Lord Ram. No word yet on whether India plans to export water from the Ganga, along with vaccines.

In Assam the Health Minister, also BJP, declared in April, “There is no Covid in Assam... there is no need to wear a face mask..." When his comments were mocked by the opposition and the media, he took to twitter inviting them to visit Assam, boasting that his state had eliminated Covid, unlike states run by opposition parties.

They must have accepted his invite, because as of this week Assam is witnessing an alarming rise in positive cases across the state. The situation is so bad that they have not only had to impose a nightly curfew but are having to source oxygen from Bhutan.

In Gujarat, Mr. Modi’s home state, an MLA was asked if the spike in cases there might be a result of local elections held in late February. He responded saying thatWorkers of the BJP have done work, have done labour work and none of them has been infected.” We hear this former Science and Technology minister, along with the Chief Minister, state BJP chief and several other MLAs all tested positive for Covid-19. Clearly, they must have been shirking their work.

Yet another BJP luminary, a minister from Madhya Pradesh, recently explained to the media why Modi’s administration should be absolved of all responsibility for this crisis. He said that “Nobody can stop these deaths….People get old and they have to die.” Let’s hope he shares this wisdom with the WHO.

Over the last year, instead of building hospital capacity, oxygen plants and stockpiling life-saving medicines, as WHO and various health experts recommended, it seems Mr. Modi had his finest yoga mind work on developing a drug to fight Covid-19.

Coronil, the Ayurvedic wonder drug was launched with great fanfare in February, with the Indian Health and Union ministers proudly sharing the stage and endorsing it. Baba Ramdev stated that his “research-based medicine” showed 100% recovery for Covid positive patients, in an astounding 3-7 days. Turns out his research was conducted on only 100 people, unlike dumb Western studies that waste time recruiting thousands of participants for research trials. Indian ingenuity at its finest!

The yoga baba claimed that this marvel of science was approved by the WHO. We are still trying to confirm who exactly approved it because the World Health Organisation was quick to issue a tweet saying they have “not reviewed or certified the effectiveness of any traditional medicine for the treatment of #COVID19.”

Even before this wonder drug was created, BJP leaders were not shy to offer Indians various remedies to boost immunity and protect against coronavirus. In July last year, the West Bengal BJP chief told people to drink cow urine. “This is India, the land of Lord Krishna, and here we worship cows. We will have cow urine to stay healthy.” We are reliably informed that those who took his advice are now, indeed, closer to God.

While Mr. Modi has no fear of coronavirus, he does tremble at the sight of a free press and lacks the courage to hold himself accountable to the people who elected him. By the time he finally appeared on national TV India’s healthcare systems had collapsed, crematoriums were overwhelmed and we had widespread shortages of oxygen, plasma, Remdesivir and other life-saving medicines, all across the country.

Mr. Modi is convinced that his long white beard and flowing designer garbs are enough to calm the nation and stop people from complaining about losing loved ones, because he was still unable to offer a plan of action to steer the country out of the worst crisis we have faced since our Independence.

He did acknowledge that the challenge before us is big and that “we have to overcome it with our resolve, courage and preparation” but was not able to explain why, more than a year into the pandemic, his administration was so woefully unprepared.

As infections and deaths continue to break new records each day, states have mandated strict lock downs and banned all non-essential activities. However, Mr. Modi has made an exception for his Rs 20,000 crore pet project to redevelop a 3.2 km stretch of Delhi built by the British. The Central Vista project will needlessly tear down and rebuild several iconic landmarks and construct a new Parliament building.

Since the Central Vista is a vanity project, tied to his legacy, bids were fast-tracked and the entire process was conducted far from the prying eyes of the media, and awarded without a public consultation. Coincidentally, the winning bid went to a firm from Gujarat known to have close ties to Mr. Modi.

Yet, for some reason sanctioning oxygen plants took his government eight full months into the pandemic, just to start inviting bids. Only 11 of 162 plants have been built, and only 5 are operational. The budget for oxygen plants was a meagre 201 crore, while 917 crore was allocated to rebuild a Parliament building that everybody agrees does not need to be rebuilt.

As if mocking the plight of Indians desperately gasping for air, Mr. Modi’s Union Minister recently told the media that the blame lay with state governments who were not “controlling demand” for oxygen. It seems that in a country of 1.4 billion people our government believes that it is resources and not lives that are most precious and must be preserved.

One could forgive Mr. Modi if this crisis had transpired at the beginning of the pandemic when every leader was caught flat footed. Also, we know that unlike Western countries, it is harder in India to institute endless lockdowns, as the overwhelming majority of Indians are unable to zoom to work. For millions of Indians a lockdown can mean starving to death.

However, what cannot be excused, one year into this pandemic, is the fact that the Modi government did nothing to build capacity in the healthcare system, stockpile oxygen and other lifesaving treatments, knowing that it was just a matter of time before the virus would mutate and become more deadly.

Mr. Modi surrounded himself with loyalists and instead of experts. He never assembled a Covid Task Force to monitor the situation or to develop plans to deal with outbreaks and surges, and transfer medical supplies and other things to areas most in need. Instead, he stood on the
stage at Davos this year and boasted, “We worked on strengthening the Covid specific health infrastructure, trained our human resources to tackle the pandemic and used technology massively for testing and tracking of the cases.”

Mr. Modi has gone out of his way to behave like the pandemic is over and his administration has instead encouraged people to stop taking even basic precautions, refused to limit public gatherings, lifted restrictions on massive Indian weddings, religious festivals and election rallies and they have severely botched India’s vaccination rollout plan, choosing instead to ship desperately needed vaccines to far flung corners of the globe.

In less than two terms Mr. Modi has succeeded in taking a proud seventy-four-year-old nation from shining example of democracy and powerhouse of economic growth, to laughing stock of the world. The incompetence, complacency and ineptitude Mr. Modi and his administration have demonstrated during this pandemic rival that of banana republics and failed states like Venezuela.

We know Mr. Modi, cares deeply about his public image and legacy. He now assuredly holds a special place in the heart of every Indian who has lost a grandparent, parent, spouse, sibling, aunt, uncle or child due to his government's apathy and ineptitude.

Mahatma Gandhi, the father of our nation, was responsible for giving birth to India. 

Narendra Modi will forever be remembered as the man who brought death to India.

My heart goes out to everyone, as I spend every moment worrying about my mother, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, friends and their kids - all one symptom away from a life-threatening emergency, or worse.

What makes me livid is the fact this situation was avoidable and unnecessary. More than a year into the global pandemic, the Modi administration’s lack of preparedness is beyond inexcusable. It is criminally negligent.


Monday, March 8, 2021

In Cuomo We Trust?

Andrew Cuomo

(Illustrated Getty Image/iStock)

“Do not be wise in words. Be wise in deeds.”
-Jewish Proverbs

Just a few months ago, Andrew Cuomo, the three-term Governor of New York, was a folk hero and considered a future Presidential contenderThe New York Times asked “Can Andrew Cuomo be one of New York’s greatest governors?”. He was being celebrated as the perfect foil to President Trump. The media portrayed him as a beacon of light. A politician who took charge and guided us through a deadly pandemic by following the science, and listening to the advice of his health experts, unlike our former President.

The Governor became the darling of talk show and late-night hosts. Ellen DeGeneres, Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert professed their love for him as self-confessed “Cuomosexuals”, which according to the urban dictionary is “someone who possesses a powerful urge to engage in various sexual behaviors with a member of the Cuomo family.” 

Major Hollywood celebrities like Spike Lee, Robert DeNiro, Rosie Perez and Ben Stiller were rushing to praise the wonderful Mr. Cuomo in a video tribute at the Emmy Awards, where he received a statuette for his Covid press briefings. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences issued a statement saying it was breaking a long-standing tradition in order to award a sitting politician an Emmy because, unlike most politicians, Mr. Cuomo was real.

He became a regular on CNN. His brother, Chris Como, routinely brought him on his show to heap praise for his handling of the pandemic. There were numerous puff pieces in the mainstream media and the New York Times that declared him “the politician of the moment.” Democratic activists were even pushing for Mr. Cuomo to become Joe Biden’s vice-presidential pick until Mr. Biden made it clear that he was going to pick a woman.

Riding high on all this adoration, Mr. Cuomo decided in the middle of the worst global pandemic in one hundred years to write a book praising his own handling of it. In the book he writes “It seems that every day I tell people not to get cocky about this pandemic, and every day they get cockier”. If only he had followed his own advice.

I am a Democrat, and I was watching this with shock and dismay because it was all happening in spite of the fact that New York was one of the worst hit cities in the country. At the time when Mr. Cuomo published his book and was taking a victory lap, more than 30,000 New Yorkers had died from COVID-19 - far more than any other state in the country.

The truth is that Mr. Cuomo botched the initial response to the crisis, by downplaying the virus and dragging his feet on implementing lockdown measures. As late as 13th March 2020, after California had instituted a ‘shelter in place’ order, the Governor was resisting, saying that “New York City will not be quarantined: It cannot happen”. This after weeks of playing a game of chicken with our Mayor, with whom he has a long history of animosity.

Throughout the crisis Mr. Cuomo continued needling Mr. DeBlasio. He repeatedly contradicted the mayor on school closuresMTA service changes and bickered over measures needed to bring Covid hotspots under control. Rather than rise above this petty rivalry, as a real leader might, Mr. Cuomo seemed to take pleasure in overriding the Mayor’s decisions, never once attempting to coordinate his responses with the Mayor’s to prevent unnecessary confusion for business owners, school parents and New Yorkers caught between the two men’s fragile egos.

In March last year, when it was clear that this virus spread like wildfire, and was more deadly for old and sick people, Governor Cuomo made the inexplicable decision of ordering nursing homes to accept hospital patients recovering from COVID-19, even if they were testing positive. At the same time, in true Trumpian style, he slipped in a little noticed provision into his annual budget that shielded corporate officials who run hospitals, nursing homes and other healthcare facilities from liability for Covid-related deaths and injuries.

Mr. Cuomo tried defending his inane directive, saying it was issued in ‘anticipation’ of a hospital bed shortage, which never transpired. But after widespread criticism he rescinded the order and then claimed “It never happened” – that sick patients were never sent to nursing homes.

In late May, an Associated Press investigation found that at least 4,500 recovering Covid patients were sent to vulnerable nursing homes, based on the Governor’s directive. In June, a medical professional organization claimed that the Cuomo administration was underreporting nursing home deaths, and the number of deaths was likely much higher than they were admitting.

In response to these allegations, Mr. Cuomo ordered his own Department of Health to conduct an investigation. On July 6, the New York State DOH issued a report absolving his administration of wrongdoing. The report concluded that the virus was introduced by nursing home staff, and not by sick patients returning from hospitals. A second AP investigation found that over 9,000 recovering patients had been sent back to nursing homes and long-term care facilities, concluding that this had “unquestionably” worsened the pandemic as it ripped through our elderly population.

In August, Empire Center, a government watchdog group, filed a Freedom of Information Law request for the full death tally in nursing homes. At the same time the Department of Justice launched an investigation to determine whether the state intentionally withheld data regarding deaths in nursing homes.

NY State’s legislature asked the State Health Commissioner, Howard Zucker, for a full accounting of deaths in nursing homes and pressed him on whether there had been an undercounting, he responded saying that there had been “unprecedented transparency” in the public information provided on the number of deaths.

Clearly, Mr. Cuomo believed he would escape scrutiny because it was President Trump’s justice department investigating him, and only right-leaning media seemed interested in pursuing the story. After all, the governor was still the darling of mainstream media, who remained obsessed with President Trump, and felt no need to devote time or resources to investigate the many troubling allegations against the Cuomo administration.

Then in August, as if to add insult to injury to all the New Yorkers who died, Mr. Cuomo announced he was writing a book, chronicling his experiences during the crisis and offering leadership advice. Never mind that we were still in the middle of the crisis and his administration was willfully ignoring the NY State Legislature’s request for an accounting of nursing home deaths.

The full truth only came to light after the NY State Attorney General launched an investigation at the end of January, in no small part thanks to continued pressure from Republican lawmakers and right-leaning media. The attorney general’s report said that Cuomo’s administration undercounted COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes, by as much as 50 percent. This means that the real number of nursing home deaths now accounts for about a third of New York State’s total deaths.

The damning report was followed by bombshell disclosure in the New York Post. They published details of a virtual private meeting between Melissa DeRosa, a top Cuomo aide, and several Democratic lawmakers. During the meeting she admitted to hiding nursing home data so the Feds would not find out. On the heels of this revelation we found out that in July last year, top advisors of Mr. Cuomo successfully pressured state health officials to rewrite a report that disclosed substantially higher nursing-home deaths than had been publicly acknowledged. This intervention from his aides occurred at the time that Mr. Cuomo was preparing to write his book.

Much like Mr. Trump, Mr. Cuomo has also repeatedly ignored the advice of health experts. Over the last six months as many as nine top officials have resigned after being sidelined and treated disrespectfully by the Governor. The Governor repeatedly flouted their advice and made changes to pandemic health policy on the fly, often announcing them at his Emmy award winning press conferences. The final straw came when state health officials were blindsided by the Governor’s announcement that the vaccine rollout plan would be coordinated by local private hospitals.

Mr. Cuomo had shelved the vaccine rollout plan designed by the public health experts. It was a plan built based on years of preparation at the local level to counter bioterrorism fears after Sept. 11, and from experience vaccinating people during the H1N1 pandemic. Mr. Cuomo made his own plan after consulting with hospital executives, external consultants and a top hospital lobbyist. In the end, he chose the Greater NY Hospital Association, a group with a multimillion-dollar lobbying arm and a major donor to his campaign, over the city’s own health department.

This explains why New York State’s early vaccination rollout was massively botched and has been plagued by chronic delays, cancelled appointments and vaccine vials being thrown away due to an inability to match patients precisely with the state’s strict guidelines. When asked recently at a press briefing about the mass resignations in the senior ranks of the health department, Mr. Cuomo replied “When I say ‘experts’ in air quotes, it sounds like I’m saying I don’t really trust the experts,” Because I don’t. Because I don’t”.

Now we have a whole new set of revelations showing that the Governor is not only an incompetent megalomaniac, drunk on power, but also a sexual harasser.

This is the same Democrat who a few years ago conveniently aligned himself with the #MeToo movement and launched a “Women's Justice Agenda”. In 2019, when he signed into law legislation to protect against workplace harassmenthe said at the time he was doing it to “honour the women who have had the courage to come forward and tell their story…”

Turns out that he is just another hypocrite. We are learning that Mr. Cuomo’s bad behavior led to a ‘hostile, toxic’ workplace culture, based on multiple accusations from former female staffers and aides. Many of the women were forced to abandon their careers because they no longer felt safe or comfortable being around the Governor.

Seems it was an open secret in Albany and within the media that Mr. Cuomo routinely delighted in humiliating employees, bullying and threatening people who challenged him, telling them they will be “subject to negative news stories or political challenges or, in one case, would be publicly likened to a “child rapist.” We saw the very same behaviour when he threatened to destroy the career of NY Assemblyman Ron Kim who had refused to cover for him in the nursing home scandal.

Now as the list of accusers grows, rather than resign, as any respectable person would do, he is doubling down and said this past Sunday, “I’m not going to resign because of allegations.” “There is no way I resign”. Instead, he is employing the Clinton defense and casting doubts on the accounts of the women and possibly attempting to destroy their reputation. He is also suggesting that he be entitled to due process. Mr. Cuomo believes that the public should wait for a full and thorough investigation into the allegations before any action should be taken.

This might be reasonable if Mr. Cuomo had applied the same standards for everyone accused of similar wrongdoing. In 2018, The New Yorker published an article detailing the accounts four women, accusing then Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, of abusive behaviour in their private relationships. Mr. Cuomo was among the first people to call on Mr. Schneiderman to resign, saying that he should do it “for the good of the office”.

In the same year, when Brett Kavanaugh was accused by Dr. Blasey Ford and two other women, Cuomo along with every Democrat chastised Republicans who cast doubt on the three women’s accounts, or argued that the women were exaggerating or misremembering things. At the time Mr. Cuomo tweeted that Mr. Kavanaugh should take a polygraph test. I wonder if Mr. Cuomo is willing to take one now?

Most disheartening to me, aside from the media’s reluctance to investigate the numerous red flags over the last year, is the clear hypocrisy that has been exposed with the Democrats, when it comes to one of their own being accused of wrongdoing.

If Democrats were to hold Mr. Cuomo to the same standards that they applied to President Trump for his abuses of power or to Brett Kavanaugh for the harassment accusations against him, then every Democrat in the land, starting with President Biden on down, should have been calling for Governor Cuomo to resign based on all the revelations thus far.

The silence of the party that claims to hold the moral high-ground is deafening.