Thursday, 1 August 2019

WhatsApp played a big role in the Nigerian election. Not all of it was bad

Supporters of Nigeria’s All Progressives Congress presidential candidate, President Muhammadu Buhari, at a rally earlier this year. EPA-EFE/Stringer
Nic Cheeseman, University of Birmingham

There is growing concern about the potential for the message and media sharing platform WhatsApp to undermine democracy in a number of countries across the world including Brazil and India.

Because WhatsApp is encrypted – and so offers users far greater protection from prosecution than Twitter or Facebook – it has become particularly notorious for spreading “fake news”.

This is a major concern in Africa, where WhatsApp is the most popular messaging app in 40 countries. This is due to its low cost and the ability to easily share messages with both individuals and groups.

But is this really how WhatApp is used? And if it is, to what extent does this compromise the quality of elections?

A joint team from the Centre for Democracy and Development (Nigeria) and the University of Birmingham (UK) has spent the last few months researching the impact of WhatsApp on the 2019 Nigerian elections held in May.

Their report comes to conclusions that are both troubling, as well as encouraging.

The research reveals that the platform was used to mislead voters in increasingly sophisticated ways. But it also shows that Whatsapp strengthened democracy in other areas.

Misinformation and disinformation

The term “fake news has become widely used over the past few years. However, it is problematic because it lumps together very different kinds of information and behaviour. For example, we need to separate out deliberate attempts to mislead others by creating false stories (disinformation) from the innocent sharing of made up stories by people who believe it to be true (misinformation).

The 2019 Nigerian elections saw both disinformation and misinformation. We studied this by conducting 46 interviews in the states of Abuja, Oyo and Kano, as well as seven focus groups and a survey of 1,005 people.

During the course of conducting the research candidates consistently told us that they predominantly used WhatsApp to share information about their qualities and campaign pledges. But many WhatsApp users said that at a high proportion of the messages they received were designed to undermine a rival leader’s reputation – to "decampaign” them.

There were some high profile examples of disinformation. The most notorious story circulated on social media was that the president had died while undergoing medical treatment outside of the country, and had been replaced by a clone from Sudan.

Other fabricated communications were less outlandish but no less significant. Many ordinary citizens shared these messages, in some cases because they knew they were false and wanted to amplify their impact, but in many cases because they thought they were true.

The most effective decampaigning strategies were those that shared messages that resonated with individuals because they contained an element of the truth, or played on recent experiences.

WhatsApp takes over

The political influence of WhatsApp has expanded rapidly in line with its growing penetration. As a result, it has become part of the fabric of election campaigns and is now a key mechanism through which political leaders seek to communicate with their campaign teams and supporters.

Fully 91% of the people we interviewed were active WhatsApp users; as one person put it:

I use WhatsApp more than I use the toilet.

In Nigeria, election candidates were already using the platform to push messages in 2015. But the people we interviewed agreed that the 2019 elections saw a significant step up in terms of how the leading parties organised their social media strategy.

Politically, WhatsApp was used in an increasingly sophisticated way at the presidential level. In 2019, the two main presidential candidates – President Muhammadu Buhari and opposition leader Atiku Abubakar – both had dedicated teams pushing out messages over social media: the Buhari New Media Centre and Atikulated Youth Force. By forming hundreds of Whatsapp groups of 256 members, these organisations could send messages to tens of thousands of people at the touch of a button.

Buhari’s effort was better funded and particularly impressive. It established a network of local and regional representatives connected to a “central command” in Abuja. This enabled the campaign to rapidly send messages from the national to the local level, while also responding to hostile messages and rumours shared by its rivals.

While those in power typically had more money to invest in their campaigns, many opposition leaders pointed out that in important ways WhatsApp had created a more level political playing field. Those who had been involved in politics for some time explained that “fake news” was nothing new in Nigeria, but that in the past it was sometimes impossible to counteract these messages because there was no way to get airtime on government aligned radio.

WhatsApp had changed this situation. Opposition leaders now have a cheap way of fighting back. It has also been used to coordinate anti-corruption campaigns and election observation, strengthening democracy.

Evolution or revolution?

It’s also important not to overstate the significance of WhatsApp. Things look very different below the national level, for example, where campaign structures were less developed and a significant proportion of activity remained informal.

We found that while candidates for Governor and Member of Parliament did set up WhatsApp groups, they were much less organised. In many cases, candidates relied on existing networks and social influencers to get the message out.

Candidates were also keen to stress that while they used WhatsApp during their campaigns, they did not rely on it. Voters expect to see their leaders on the ground, and expected them to provide a range of services for the community. Advertising good deeds over WhatsApp could help a leader get credit, but only if they had fulfilled their responsibilities in the first place.

In other words, WhatsApp can amplify and complement a candidate’s ground campaign. But it cannot replace it.

Throwing out the water but keeping the baby

These findings suggest that solutions to the power of social media platforms like WhatsApp isn’t to ban them, or to allow governments to censor them. This would merely exaggerate the vast advantages of incumbency that ruling parties already enjoy.

A better solution would be to promote digital literacy, develop social media codes of conduct around elections, and empower WhatsApp uses to control which groups they are added to, and what information they receive.

The research was conducted, and publications authored by, Jamie Hitchen, Idayat Hassan, Jonathan Fisher and Nic Cheeseman.The Conversation

Nic Cheeseman, Professor of Democracy, University of Birmingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Are Robots Coming for Our Jobs? Careful, It's a Trick Question

By

The robots are coming, and they’ll probably take your job when they get here.

Oh wait—have you heard that recently? As recently as, say, yesterday? In the news, or from a coworker, or in a sinister dystopian movie, maybe?

Sounding the alarm about job losses to automation has become commonplace—in fact, it’s more of a nonstop siren these days. Multiple Democratic presidential candidates are featuring their plans to combat Big Tech and solve technological unemployment as talking points of their campaigns. Dread of a robot-dominated future is mounting.

Friday, 26 July 2019

How ad hominem arguments can demolish appeals to authority

-- Moti Mizrahi

‘In logic, inconsistency is the cardinal sin, and consistency the first of the virtues.’
Patrick Shaw, Logic and Its Limits (1981)

In 2018, the US Surgeon General declared e-cigarette use among young people an epidemic in the United States. As a result, parents were encouraged to talk with their children about smoking. One of the Surgeon General’s tips for parents is to ‘set a positive example by being tobacco-free’. But what if parents are smokers, too? What if children respond to their parents’ plea to refrain from smoking by saying: ‘You use tobacco, so why shouldn’t I?’

This retort is an example of ad hominem argumentation.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Programming on Windows

During the last four years, until the early part of 2018, I worked on a MacBook. Sometime in the second quarter of last year, I shifted to a Windows 10 laptop. The transition has been quite smooth and delightful.


There were two Rails applications that I had to write and maintain. The first application, let's call it webapp-1, was coded by me in 2016 using Ruby 2.3.1 p112 and Rails 4.2.6. The second application, hereafter referred to as webapp-2, is a new application that I had to write from scratch, so I chose the latest versions: Ruby 2.5.3, Rails 5.2.1.

For both these applications, the database was MySQL, and I decided to install the latest version, i.e., 8 running on Windows. The MySQL installer tools make the installation and configuration very easy and I could bring up MySQL quickly.

I started setting up the Rails environment for webapp-2 first. The installation program for windows that I downloaded was rubyinstaller-devkit-2.5.3-1-x64.exe. I ran it, selected MSYS2 and MINGW development toolchain option and the installation went through smoothly. I installed rails gem with the following command
> gem install rails --version 5.2.1

But then, when I started the rails server, I ran into a library issue. In the browser, I accessed localhost:3000 and I got a nasty looking error:
Authentication plugin 'caching_sha2_password' cannot be loaded: The specified module could not be found.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Easy Image Slider

I needed a image slider for one of my web pages. The bootstrap template that I was using also provided a slider component but needed a lot of tweaking to suit my page.

When I googled, I chanced upon imageslidermaker.com. It was simple and very easy to use. All you need to do is select the slider configuration on the screen and with one click, the site will generate the css, js and html files that you can download as a zip file.

The generated slider code stands on its own and does not intrude into the existing style, script and mark up code. You can easily customize the css. For example, I made my own style for the image caption as given below:
#my-slider .ism-caption-3 {
    font-size: 1.75em;
    font-family: sans-serif;
    position: absolute; top: 20%;
    left: 10%;
    border-radius: 4px;
    border: none;
    color:  #FFFFFF;
    text-align: left;
}
Try it, you will like it.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Daughters Of India

This post is not about feminist movements in India or any such similar topic; rather it's about using Python code for applying basic NLP (Natural Language Processing) techniques on tweets.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Ideas From Another Field

Applying concepts from one field or a book in another field has been a common pattern in modern technological development. The spirit of antifragile, a recently coined word, has found its way in the implementation of microservices. In the quest to make software programs antifragile, the way forward is to build intelligence into them. A couple of other examples are: i) The law of diminishing returns from economics which applied to parallel computing becomes Amdahl's Law. ii) I surmise that the Agile board in the Scrum methodology is the application of the Hawthorne Effect. Cross-pollination of ideas is one of the mechanisms of innovation. And, as we found out recently, learning transfer is the way Elon Musk follows to become such a prolific technocrat and businessman.
My essay ends here.