Saturday, the 6th of February

Talking Points

Far-right group elevated to same threat as al-Qaeda. PHOTO: Eze Amos / Getty / Telegraph
  1. Canada officially designated the Proud Boys as a terror group
  2. President Biden withdrew support for the ruinous war in Yemen
  3. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Liz Cheney exposed a riven GOP
  4. Google repaid 5,500 underpaid female engineers amid ethics row
  5. Another Elon Musk tweet made a dubious asset soar in value
  6. Britain's unlikely Covid inspiration Sir Captain Tom Moore died
  7. Ex-ECB head Draghi tried to cobble together Italy's government
  8. Evergreen French populist Marine le Pen staged a comeback
  9. The IOC released a 'playbook' for managing risk in Tokyo
  10. 180 rights groups call for a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Games

Deep Dive

Public enemies #1 and #2. PHOTO: Bloomberg

This week we'll dive into the latest arguments on the question of our era: whether social media is real life. For the thousands of Indian farmers protesting against government reform, the answer is complex.

Farmer wants a life

While India's official COVID case count stands at 11m, by one estimate (based on a survey of antibodies in the population) some 300 million Indians may in fact have already contracted the virus. Meanwhile, the pandemic's attendant economic downturn has swollen the ranks of India's precariat (precarious proletariat) and its impoverished. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman have just handed down a budget comprising half a trillion dollars in spending that is unlikely to make a dent in the unemployment rate. Tensions with China remain at a rolling simmer along thousands of kilometres of vulnerable borders. And, the English cricket team is touring the subcontinent. So, with so much going on, why did the Indian government and their supporters lose their heads this week over a tweet by Rihanna? It all comes back to the farmers protest in Delhi.

As a quick refresher: tens of thousands of farmers (and their tractors) have been encamped on the outskirts of India's capital since November, to voice their anger at the government's agriculture sector reforms. For the 40% of India's population whose livelihoods depend on small family-owned landholdings, 'modernising' and 'regularising' means a loss of the state-aid that has conferred price protection on their meagre offerings in a highly-competitive market.

In January, the Supreme Court suspended the implementation of the farm laws, arguing that, "[The government of] India has to take the responsibility. The laws have resulted in a strike and now you have to solve the strike". Chief Justice Sharad Arvind Bobode recognised that blood had been spilt and compelled the government to avoid further violence. Since the protesters stormed Delhi's colossal Red Fort on Republic Day – an unquestionably provocative move – the authorities have intensified their crackdown. The protest camps have been ringed with gratuitous amounts of barbed wire and barricades that could stop not just tractors, but tanks.

Not satisfied with physical barricades, the government has also cut access to the internet around the protestors. This has become one of the first tools the government reaches for in times of crisis – indeed, India switches it off more than any other country. And it is an extraordinarily effective mode of censorship. 12 million Kashmiris were deprived of the internet for seven months in 2019-2020. Even today, most are only allowed to browse 301 handpicked websites – no social media is allowed. But it is one thing to do so up in the Himalayas away from the public. It's quite another on the outskirts of the seat of power in the largest democracy on the planet. And this move to silence dissent is what has (counterproductively for the Modi government) drawn the attention of the international media.

Why aren't we talking about this? #FarmersProtest

Given our growing attachment to the internet (the distinction between it and us has blurred considerably over the years), there's no surprise that its deprivation sparks fear and anger. And this is where beauty entrepreneur, musician, and all-round icon Rihanna's innocuous one-line tweet comes into frame. Refracted through the lens of celebrity, the farmers protest was instantly elevated to the human rights issue du jour . Social media became awash with posts decrying Modi's government – and a particular brand of indignance endemic in the newly-informed and the minimally-uninformed.

But it wasn't just Rihanna stans launching salvos against Delhi's constabulary. Greta Thunberg joined the chorus too, sharing a 'toolkit' for activists on how to support the farmers protest. This had suddenly become an international issue – although not one that necessarily redounded to the farmers themselves. The internet in general, and social media in particular, are wonderful tools for raising awareness. But they are equally proficient at creating distractions. Public figures like Rihanna and Thunberg can focus attention on issues like a laser – but all you need to stop a laser is a mirror.

Following the hullabaloo, India's foreign ministry released this statement: "It is unfortunate to see vested interest groups trying to enforce their agenda on these protests, and derail them". India's powerful Home Minister, Amit Shah, described any foreign intrusion as "propaganda". Soon after, cricket demigod Sachin Tendulkar stated that "India's sovereignty cannot be compromised. External forces can be spectators but not participants". And in a frankly jaw-dropping coincidence, Bollywood celebrities – for whom criticism of the government is a career-ending professional hazard – simultaneously began to boost the hashtags #IndiaAgainstPropaganda and #IndiaTogether. An effigy of Thunberg was even set alight by pro-government supporters in Delhi this week.

All the while, protest leaders continued to be harassed by police . Senior journalists, editors, and even an opposition politician have been aggressively charged with sedition for reporting that security forces had shot and killed a protester on January 26. And India's government seems increasingly at ease with wielding state-sanctioned violence against its opponents and critics.

The accelerating damage of climate change on India's arable land, and soaring levels of indebtedness are squeezing India's farmers; thousands upon thousands have been taking their own lives every year. But today everyone's focus is on a drummed-up nationalist internet spat between Indian and foreign celebrities.


Jeff, out. PHOTO: Reuters / Gus Ruelas

The everything salesman

Jeff Bezos will resign as Chief Executive Officer of, Inc this northern summer, some 27 years after he founded it. The online bookstore that became the 'everything store' measures its market capitalisation in the trillions. It's lodestar's net worth is in the hundreds of billions. It employs 1.3 million. Its push to make same day delivery has indelibly changed commerce and our relationship to the products we buy. I n some cities Amazon is eyeing one-hour delivery! The company that has kept a daggy '.com' in its name now owns an eye-watering share of the internet's infrastructure through Amazon Web Services.

AWS's cloud computing is the beating heart of a conglomerate that stretches across the globe, into dozens of sectors, and even reenters the physical plane with bricks-and-mortar stores. It seems only natural that the person to follow Bezos should come from that goldmine (rather than logistics, ecommerce, or devices) – that man is Andy Jassy. The 53-year-old whose role was to challenge Bezos's thinking as his 'brain-double' will take up the mantle in a few short months. He is the ultimate continuity pick, a life-time Amazon employee who not only learnt at the knee of, but will continue to be guided by, an entrepreneur who is taking the step from CEO to executive chair.

Apart from delivering parcels and selling server space to just about everyone, what is Jassy facing? His most pressing task will be managing the company's response to a widening anti-trust front. Regulators in the US, Canada, the European Union, and India are investigating whether Amazon has abused its total dominance of online retailing in the Western world. Then there is the needling threat from below: a unionisation effort by 6,000 warehouse workers in Alabama is a watershed moment for a company that has so far managed to stamp out collective action with carrot (leading the charge for a $15 minimum wage) and stick ( spying on employees and dismissing anyone who showed signs of organising ).

The coup landed with a hollow thud. PHOTO: AFP

Myanmar's democratic experiment ends

Following an accepted rule of thumb for coup d'état, Myanmar's military swept back into power first thing on Monday morning (no-one has time to protest Monday to Friday). It was bloodless, thankfully, but why would it not be? This wasn't a rogue unit under a hot-shot junior officer fighting its way into the presidential palace. It's the Tatmadaw, Myanmar's monolithic (and mostly Burmese) military simply removing the fig-leaf of civilian rule . President Win Myint, a close ally of the civilian figurehead Aung San Suu Kyi, was promptly removed from office. Suu Kyi has been detained, but she's no longer the dignified freedom fighter of yesteryear – the Rohingya genocide has seen to that. Now she's just another flawed politician who was ousted unceremoniously.

General Ming Aung Hlaing is back in charge, and the country's decade-long dalliance with parliamentary democracy is already fading in the rear-view mirror. The nominal leaders of the international community – the United Nations, the European Union, President Biden – have asked the junta to release Aung San Suu Kyi and relinquish control over the government. But the Tatmadaw showed its willingness to continue a genocide under the eye of the international community in 2016, so we can't imagine they are too concerned about disapproval now.

In Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, people took to the streets, beating drums to show their displeasure . Elsewhere there is grim acceptance – a sullen return to normal transmission . Facebook and Instagram have been shut down to staunch the tide of messages in support for Suu Kyi, whose international loss of standing is not reflected at home. But most people are wisely staying home to avoid the armoured personnel carriers and road-blocks.

The best of times

Doubling the uses of disposable masks. PHOTO: AAP

Roadsafe, Covidsafe

As the pandemic continues, so does our use (and disposal) of single-use face masks. An estimated 6.8b of them are used across the globe each day. But what to do with them afterwards? Australian scientists have a solution: shred the coverings and combine them with building rubble to build roads . Three million masks can make a one-kilometre stretch of a two-lane road. Even better, 93 tonnes of waste are prevented from being sent to landfill by doing so.

Change you can see (through)

Say au revoir to glass windows, scientists have created a greener alternative: transparent wood . Previous methods for making wood transparent required significant amounts of chemicals and energy, and yielded hard-to-recycle liquid waste as a byproduct. Now, the researchers can just brush the wood with hydrogen peroxide and allow it to dry in the sun. It's not really quite that simple, but the end result is stronger, more efficient, and, most importantly, better for the planet.

The worst of times

Two-fifths of coastal-dwellers are at risk. PHOTO: Bloomberg

Dire modelling

Last week, a new way of analysing global temperature changes revealed that the world is at its warmest in 12,000 years. This week, a similar revelation occurred: it found that sea levels are rising much faster than previously anticipated. By going back centuries instead of just 150 years, researchers were able to create a more accurate model of sea level changes. As such, a worst-case scenario would mean a 1.35m rise in water levels. To put it simply, we now have even more need and less time to address climate change than before.

Xinjiang exposed

Women held in Xinjiang’s detention camps have exposed a system of mass rape, sexual abuse, and torture. In an investigation by the BBC, one woman said she was tortured and gang-raped by multiple Chinese men on several occasions. Another said she was forced to strip and restrain women before leaving them to be raped. A former guard confirmed witnessing beatings, as well as electrified sticks being used for torture and rape. An estimated one million people are thought to be held in Xinjiang’s camps.

Weekend Reading

The image

A boy stands next to an oil-stained river in Goi, Nigeria. This week a court at The Hague ruled against a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, finding the company liable for the environmental damage caused by oil spills in the Niger Basin in 2004-05. Photograph supplied by Al Jazeera / Martin van Djil / EPA.

The quote

“Additional information: Blue denim overalls with multi-coloured striped long sleeve shirt wielding a huge kitchen knife”.

– This week the Texas Department of Public Safety accidentally sent an Amber Alert email blast warning Texans of a threat from the 1980's killer-doll Chucky. Quelle horreur.

The numbers


- The loss that ExxonMobil reported in 2020 . A pandemic-sized hole in the oil price precipitated its first annual loss since 1999. The oil giant's chief executive described "the most challenging market conditions" the company has ever faced. Here's to hoping those conditions keep getting tougher.


- The combined market capitalisation of ExxonMobil and Chevron Corporation. Secret legal documents revealed that America's two largest oil companies toyed with a merger amidst the annus horribilis of 2020. What better omen do we need of a new gilded age than two fragments of Standard Oil merging again.

The headline

"Elon Musk says he has ‘totally happy’ monkey with brain chip so it can play video games using its mind" The Independent . The future: we were promised flying cars, but all we got is billionaires drilling holes in monkey's brains and dodgy doggy coins.

Editor's note: In fairness, we did also get one space-bound car.

The special mention

The winner this week is corporate jargon. In quotidian usage it simply massages the truth out of why that project is behind schedule. However, at the pointy end of business it can also be used to veil veritable immorality. This week the preeminent consultants at McKinsey & Company settled for $574m over their role in the US opioid crisis. Documents revealed that the firm had helped Purdue Pharma's directors to "turbocharge the sales engine". Stripped of chirpy euphemism , this means to further asphyxiate impoverished towns with millions of OxyContin pills.

A few choice long-reads

  • The novel coronavirus Covid-19 is bad – its successor is on the horizon. Bloomberg Businessweek discovers what needs to be learned before the next one.
  • Some coups are a surprise, others not so much. Foreign Affairs discovers that Myanmar's military junta was never far below the surface.
  • Climate change is destroying our planet. In the meantime the rush to renewables is changing the political fabric of the international community. Financial Times on the seismic shift of our age.

Tom Wharton @trwinwriting