Centre for Internet & Society

For many days to come, people will speculate what caused Sunanda Pushkar's death last week in a New Delhi hotel. Did Union minister Shashi Tharoor's wife die of poisoning or a drug overdose? Wasn't she unwell? Was it suicide? Or was it murder? No less a matter of speculation has been the social media's role in the whole affair.

The article by Veenu Sandhu and Surabhi Agarwal published in the Business Standard on January 24, 2014 quotes Sunil Abraham.

Writer Suketu Mehta has called it "murder by Twitter". Pushkar's very public spat with Mehr Tarar, a Pakistani journalist, on the micro-blogging site, many psychologists feel, may have multiplied her anguish. Apart from other things, Tarar had tweeted: "The blonde's aqal is weaker thn (sic) her grammar & spellings." Still others believe Pushkar had the premonition that end was near, and it was there for all to see on social media. "Hasta hua jayega," (will go laughing), she had tweeted a few days before her death.

Social media is no longer time-pass in the country, certainly not with over 90 million users. The line that divides online and offline lives has blurred. Networking sites have begun to impact human behaviour. Lives are being lived in the open: open to comment, analysis and abuse. Mahesh Murthy, the founder of digital brand management firm Pinstorm, calls it the "demise of the culture of secrecy". This is the age, he says, "of diversity, of coming out in the open with sexual preferences et cetera. Social media will help slaughter sacred cows. It is a good thing to happen, except for the sacred cows." According to Murthy, the pitfalls of uncensored speech are for those "who think they can control their lives or are insecure".

But pitfalls are showing up. Some time ago, a high-profile couple from Delhi approached marriage and family counsellor Nisha Khanna. Their problem was aggravated by the wife's obsession with Facebook, to the extent that she would put out everything, including the ups and downs of her relationship with her husband, as status messages for the consumption of her social media friends and acquaintances. The husband was livid - he felt exposed. It took six months of rigorous counselling before the wife started controlling, though marginally, her social media behaviour. "We are seeing obsession, irrationality and an inability to spot the very thick line that divides the private from the public," says Varkha Chulani, clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and consultant with Lilavati Hospital in Mumbai. People, she adds, are looking for Facebook 'like' buttons even in real life.

Feelings of extreme happiness, depression, loneliness and even suicidal thoughts are being shared not with family and friends but with Facebook 'connections' and Twitter 'followers'. Tweets or status updates that point to suicidal tendencies, in particular, can be telling. Some of these key expressions are "depressed", "feeling abused", "it's over" or "empty inside". A study - Tracking Suicide Risk Factors through Twitter - conducted in the US last year found a strong correlation between the number of tweets that indicated suicidal intentions and the number of suicides committed.

Having realised that the platform is also being used as a medium to vent and express personal trauma, Facebook has, for about a year, been sending reports on profiles of people with suicide risk to Mumbai-based suicide helpline Aasra. "In the last one year, we have received 350 such email intimations concerning Indians," says Aasra Director Johnson Thomas. Aasra then mails that person to subtly and sensitively convey that there is help at hand, in case it is needed. Facebook and Twitter did not offer any comment for this article.

Decoding Social Media Slang

I am an aggregator who has left a cookie crumb trail (while writing this) for a machine algorithm to follow. So, can it point out to my boss the scoops and their origin? In all probability, yes. For an all-devouring algorithm, no crumb, no target, is too small. Algorithms (at their core, a step-by-step method for doing a job) can sound scary, but social media analysts depend on these little-understood, obscure mathematical creatures.

So, information posted publicly on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and other sites are fair game for these data predators. Suppose you click ‘like’ on Facebook, you’re giving away a lot more than you might think. Your ‘likes’ can be pieced together to form an eerily true portrait of yourself. A study of 58,000 volunteers by Michal Kosinski and David Stillwell (University of Cambridge) and Thore Graepel (Microsoft Research, Cambridge) charts the chances of an accurate prediction: 67 per cent for single versus in a relationship, 73 per cent for cigarette smoking, 70 per cent for alcohol drinking, 65 per cent for drug use, 88 per cent for male homosexuality, 75 per cent for female homosexuality, and 93 per cent for gender.

Another point is not all data out there are cold facts. Far from that, most are sentiments and slang: sweet, bitter and often intimate. “Wazup homie!! howz it going!!” is a profound example. “‘Yo, homie, I'll be at my house in case you want to come kick it later” is another. How is a number cruncher such as an algorithm expected to crunch slang and emotions? But experts insist there’s a bull market in sentiments and foul language. And an emerging field known as sentiment analysis is taking shape. The simplest algorithms here work by scanning keywords to categorise a statement as positive or negative, based on a simple binary analysis (‘love’ is good, ‘hate’ is bad). But a more reliable analysis requires decoding many linguistic shades of gray. For example, to get at the true intent of a statement like ‘dude, i'm like......duuuude,’ the software will have to activate several different filters, including polarity (is the statement positive or negative?), intensity (what is the degree of emotion being expressed?) and subjectivity (how partial or impartial is the source?)

“People first thought that emotions expressed on social media were just cute and stupid,” says Sreeju Thankan who has done computer science and engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee and is now working at Mango Solutions. “Now, they are recognising it as a rich vein.” But translating slang into binary code can be much tougher. “Sentiments are different from conventional facts,” says Thankan. “There is a long way for slang patrol to go.” For casual web surfers, a simpler sentiment-analysis tool, Tweetfeel, is available. It tells you the numbers of positive and negative tweets on a given topic. It also gives you their percentages. Its analysis is based not just on emoticons, but also words and phrases.

Ashish Sharma

Last October in Mumbai, a 17-year-old college student, Aishwarya Dahiwal, killed herself after her parents barred her from using Facebook. "Is Facebook so bad? I cannot stay in a home with such restrictions as I can't live without Facebook," her suicide note reportedly read. The parents were in utter shock. "Girls are more prone to putting personal and emotional messages on social networking sites," says Manju Chhabra, child counsellor who runs an organisation called Cactus Lily in Delhi. And they tend to get more affected by what people say and how they react. "And comments on this very impersonal medium which we are giving a very personal space can be very cruel."

Seema Hingorrany, a Mumbai-based psychologist, says one of her recent patients is a girl studying in Class 9. Her friend from school had uploaded a photo of herself, which got 200 'likes'. That upset the patient terribly because it reinforced her belief that she was unattractive and she became extremely upset, to the extent that her parents felt she needed counselling. Constant use of Facebook can affect one's self-esteem, if it's already low. Another of Hingorrany's patient was a 30-year-old who took to social media after he lost his job. But seeing other people's photos and updates made him increasingly jealous, and he began posting nasty comments. The recipients of his ire began "unfriending" him, which only made him more withdrawn.

Irrational behaviour can also be seen in the world of random video chat. Sites like Omegle and Chatroulette aim to bring together surfers together with the help of webcams. The promise is irresistible: an endless stream of visitors in your room. When Ashish Sharma (the author of the accompanying article) logged on, he met a gaggle of girls who giggled endlessly, a German painter who was looking for his muse and wanted him to pose in a state of undress, a Swede who danced around and asked him to sing in praise of his bottom, and a man with an iron mask. It was crude and shocking. The excessively sexual behaviour can be unsettling for an unsuspecting (and young) visitor.

There is another side to it. "Twitter posts," says an article posted on rediff.com, "have saved lives. A man lost on a ski slope in Switzerland got help when he tweeted his predicament. Another got bail from arrest as his friends discovered from a tweet that he was jailed in a foreign country." Human resource managers check out the profiles of job applicants on social media. "People might mask many judgmental things in an interview; there is a possibility that they might express it on social media," says Debdas Sen, leader of technology consulting, PricewaterhouseCoopers. "Inclusion and diversity are important for us." But job seekers have become wise to it. That's why many airbrush their social media profiles. All politically incorrect posts are removed. Friends are treated lavishly offline so that they write nice posts on Facebook pages. Some even hire professional photographers for as much as Rs 20,000 to paste good profile pictures.

But those who hire have started to see through it. Says Murthy of Pinstrip, "One can easily figure out the truthfulness of your statements by seeing what your friends are saying." One human resource manager says he pays more attention to what people post after 10 pm because "it tends to be more truthful". A senior functionary of a Gurgaon-headquartered firm says that he had hired somebody after he had found nothing suspicious on his LinkedIn profile; it was only later he found out that this person had been involved in some financial misdemeanour in his earlier job. "His LinkedIn profile had no clues, he was not on Facebook. That should have struck me," he says. Of course, the person was asked to leave.

Sunil Abraham, the executive director of Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society, says social media has made people forget the distinction between private, semi-private and public statements. "Speech used to be ephemeral, but Internet has given it the power it never had," he says. "Internet never forgets." The fact that traces of a communication may remain in cyberspace even after they have been deleted has prompted a legislation called the Right to Erasure by the European Union. Under the law, earlier called Right to be Forgotten, an individual can request all his data to be erased, including by third parties. India is also mulling a similar legislation under its Privacy Bill.

Those at the bottom of the social pyramid, who have little to lose, express themselves most freely on social media, while those with reputations to protect are cautious. The consequences can be serious, as the Mumbai girl who questioned the city's shutdown after Bal Thackeray's death in November 2012 on Facebook and her friend who "liked" realised: both were called in by the police. It's not surprising why even standup comedians, who can't resist taking potshots at one and all, turn extremely careful before they tweet.

So, is social media good or bad? "Social media can help," Amartya Sen said at the recent Jaipur Literature Festival, "But you must read more books".