In July 2019, Alaphia Zoyab was on a video call with Facebook employees in India, discussing some 180 posts by users in the country that Avaaz, the watchdog group where she worked, said violated Facebook’s hate speech rules. But half way through the hour-long meeting, Shivnath Thukral, the most senior Facebook official on the call, got up and walked out of the room, Zoyab says, saying he had other important things to do.
Among the posts was one by Shiladitya Dev, a lawmaker in the state of Assam for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He had shared a news report about a girl being allegedly drugged and raped by a Muslim man, and added his own comment: “This is how Bangladeshi Muslims target our [native people] in 2019.” But rather than removing it, Facebook allowed the post to remain online for more than a year after the meeting, until TIME contacted Facebook to ask about it on Aug. 21. “We looked into this when Avaaz first flagged it to us, and our records show that we assessed it as a hate speech violation,” Facebook said in a statement to TIME. “We failed to remove upon initial review, which was a mistake on our part.”
Thukral was Facebook’s public policy director for India and South Asia at the time. Part of his job was lobbying the Indian government, but he was also involved in discussions about how to act when posts by politicians were flagged as hate speech by moderators, former employees tell TIME.
Facebook acknowledges that Thukral left the meeting, but says he never intended to stay for its entirety, and joined only to introduce Zoyab, whom he knew from a past job, to his team. “Shivnath did not leave because the issues were not important,” Facebook said in the statement, noting that the company took action on 70 of the 180 posts presented during the meeting.
Shivnath Thukral at the Moving to Better Ground session during the India Economic Summit in Mumbai, November, 2011.
Eric Miller—World Economic Forum
The social media giant is under increasing scrutiny for how it enforces its hate speech policies when the accused are members of Modi’s ruling party. Activists say some Facebook policy officials are too close to the BJP, and accuse the company of putting its relationship with the government ahead of its stated mission of removing hate speech from its platform—especially when ruling-party politicians are involved. Thukral, for instance, worked with party leadership to assist in the BJP’s 2014 election campaign, according to documents TIME has seen.
Facebook’s managing director for India, Ajit Mohan, denied suggestions that the company had displayed bias toward the BJP in an Aug. 21 blog post titled, “We are open, transparent and non-partisan.” He wrote: “Despite hailing from diverse political affiliations and backgrounds, [our employees] perform their respective duties and interpret our policies in a fair and non-partisan way.
The decisions around content escalations are not made unilaterally by just one person; rather, they are inclusive of views from different teams and disciplines within the company.”
Facebook published the blog post after the Wall Street Journal, citing current and former Facebook employees, reported on Aug.14 that the company’s top policy official in India, Ankhi Das, pushed back against other Facebook employees who wanted to label a BJP politician a “dangerous individual” and ban him from the platform after he called for Muslim immigrants to be shot. Das argued that punishing the state lawmaker, T. Raja Singh, would hurt Facebook’s business prospects in India, the Journal reported. (Facebook said Das’s intervention was not the sole reason Singh was not banned, and that it was still deciding if a ban was necessary.)
Those business prospects are sizeable. India is Facebook’s largest market, with 328 million using the social media platform. Some 400 million Indians also use Facebook’s messaging service WhatsApp — a substantial chunk of the country’s estimated 503 million internet users. The platforms have become increasingly important in Indian politics; after the 2014 elections, Das published an op-ed arguing that Modi had won because of the way he leveraged Facebook in his campaign.
But Facebook and WhatsApp have also been used to spread hate speech and misinformation that have been blamed for helping to incite deadly attacks on minority groups amid rising communal tensions across India—despite the company’s efforts to crack down. In February, a video of a speech by BJP politician Kapil Mishra was uploaded to Facebook, in which he told police that unless they removed mostly-Muslim protesters occupying a road in Delhi, his supporters would do it themselves. Violent riots erupted within hours. (In that case, Facebook determined the video violated its rules on incitement to violence and removed it.)
WhatsApp, too, has been used with deadly intent in India — for example by cow vigilantes, Hindu mobs that have attacked Muslims and Dalits accused of killing cows, an animal sacred in Hinduism. At least 44 people, most of them Muslims, were killed by cow vigilantes between May 2015 and December 2018, according to Human Rights Watch. Many cow vigilante murders happen after rumors spread on WhatsApp, and videos of lynchings and beatings are often shared via the app too.
TIME has learned that Facebook, in an effort to evaluate its role in spreading hate speech and incitements to violence, has commissioned an independent report on its impact on human rights in India. Work on the India audit, previously unreported, began before the Journal published its story. It is being conducted by the U.S. law firm Foley Hoag and will include interviews with senior Facebook staff and members of civil society in India, according to three people with knowledge of the matter and an email seen by TIME. (A similar report on Myanmar, released in 2018, detailed Facebook’s failings on hate speech that contributed to the Rohingya genocide there the previous year.) Facebook declined to confirm the report.
But activists, who have spent years monitoring and reporting hate speech by Hindu nationalists, tell TIME that they believe Facebook has been reluctant to police posts by members and supporters of the BJP because it doesn’t want to pick fights with the government that controls its largest market. The way the company is structured exacerbates the problem, analysts and former employees say, because the same people responsible for managing the relationship with the government also contribute to decisions on whether politicians should be punished for hate speech.
“A core problem at Facebook is that one policy org is responsible for both the rules of the platform and keeping governments happy,” Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer, tweeted in May. “Local policy heads are generally pulled from the ruling political party and are rarely drawn from disadvantaged ethnic groups, religious creeds or castes. This naturally bends decision-making towards the powerful.”
Some activists have grown so frustrated with the Facebook India policy team that they’ve begun to bypass it entirely in reporting hate speech. Following the call when Thukral walked out, Avaaz decided to begin reporting hate speech directly to Facebook’s company headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. “We found Facebook India’s attitude utterly flippant, callous, uninterested,” says Zoyab, who has since left Avaaz. Another group that regularly reports hate speech against minorities on Facebook in India, which asked not to be named out of fear for the safety of its staffers, said it has been doing the same since 2018. In a statement, Facebook acknowledged some groups that regularly flag hate speech in India are in contact with Facebook headquarters, but said that did not change the criteria by which posts were judged to be against its rules.
The revelations in the Journal set off a political scandal in India, with opposition politicians calling for Facebook to be officially investigated for alleged favoritism toward Modi’s party. And the news caused strife within the company too: In an internal open letter, Facebook employees called on executives to denounce “anti-Muslim bigotry” and do more to ensure hate speech rules are applied consistently across the platform, Reuters reported. The letter alleges that there are no Muslim employees on the India policy team; in response to questions from TIME, Facebook said it was legally prohibited from collecting such data.
Facebook friends in high places
While it is common for companies to hire lobbyists with connections to political parties, activists say the history of staff on Facebook’s India policy team, as well as their incentive to keep the government happy, creates a conflict of interest when it comes to policing hate speech by politicians. Before joining Facebook, Thukral had worked in the past on behalf of the BJP. Despite this, he was involved in making decisions about how to deal with politicians’ posts that moderators flagged as violations of hate speech rules during the 2019 elections, the former employees tell TIME. His Facebook likes include a page called “I Support Narendra Modi.”
Former Facebook employees tell TIME they believe a key reason Thukral was hired in 2017 was because he was seen as close to the ruling party. In 2013, during the BJP’s eventually successful campaign to win national power at the 2014 elections, Thukral worked with senior party officials to help run a pro-BJP website and Facebook page. The site, called Mera Bharosa (“My Trust” in Hindi) also hosted events, including a project aimed at getting students to sign up to vote, according to interviews with people involved and documents seen by TIME.
A student who volunteered for a Mera Bharosa project told TIME he had no idea it was an operation run in coordination with the BJP, and that he believed he was working for a non-partisan voter registration campaign. According to the documents, this was a calculated strategy to hide the true intent of the organization. By early 2014, the site changed its name to “Modi Bharosa” (meaning “Modi Trust”) and began sharing more overtly pro-BJP content. It is not clear whether Thukral was still working with the site at that time.
In a statement to TIME, Facebook acknowledged Thukral had worked on behalf of Mera Bharosa, but denied his past work presented a conflict of interest because multiple people are involved in significant decisions about removing content. “We are aware that some of our employees have supported various campaigns in the past both in India and elsewhere in the world,”
Facebook said as part of a statement issued to TIME in response to a detailed series of questions. “Our understanding is that Shivnath’s volunteering at the time focused on the themes of governance within India and are not related to the content questions you have raised.”
Now, Thukral has an even bigger job. In March 2020, he was promoted from his job at Facebook to become WhatsApp’s India public policy director. In the role, New Delhi tech policy experts tell TIME, one of Thukral’s key responsibilities is managing the company’s relationship with the Modi government. It’s a crucial job, because Facebook is trying to turn the messaging app into a digital payments processor — a lucrative idea potentially worth billions of dollars.
In April, Facebook announced it would pay $5.7 billion for a 10% stake in Reliance Jio, India’s biggest telecoms company, which is owned by India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani. On a call with investors in May, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke enthusiastically about the business opportunity. “With so many people in India engaging through WhatsApp, we just think this is going to be a huge opportunity for us to provide a better commerce experience for people, to help small businesses and the economy there, and to build a really big business ourselves over time,” he said, talking about plans to link WhatsApp Pay with Jio’s vast network of small businesses across India. “That’s why I think it really makes sense for us to invest deeply in India.”
But WhatsApp’s future as a payments application in India depends on final approval from the national payments regulator, which is still pending. Facebook’s hopes for expansion in India have been quashed by a national regulator before, in 2016, when the country’s telecoms watchdog said Free Basics, Facebook’s plan to provide free Internet access for only some sites, including its own, violated net neutrality rules. One of Thukral’s priorities in his new role is ensuring that a similar problem doesn’t strike down Facebook’s big ambitions for WhatsApp Pay.
‘No foreign company in India wants to be in the government’s bad books’
While the regulator is technically independent, analysts say that Facebook’s new relationship with the wealthiest man in India will likely make it much easier to gain approval for WhatsApp Pay. “It would be easier now for Facebook to get that approval, with Ambani on its side,” says Neil Shah, vice president of Counterpoint Research, an industry analysis firm. And goodwill from the government itself is important too, analysts say. “No foreign company in India wants to be in the government’s bad books,” says James Crabtree, author of The Billionaire Raj. “Facebook would very much like to have good relations with the government of India and is likely to think twice about doing things that will antagonize them.”
The Indian government has shown before it is not afraid to squash the dreams of foreign tech firms. In July, after a geopolitical spat with China, it banned dozens of Chinese apps including TikTok and WeChat. “There has been a creeping move toward a kind of digital protectionism in India,” Crabtree says. “So in the back of Facebook’s mind is the fact that the government could easily turn against foreign tech companies in general, and Facebook in particular, especially if they’re seen to be singling out major politicians.”
With hundreds of millions of users already in India, and hundreds of millions more who don’t have smartphones yet but might in the near future, Facebook has an incentive to avoid that possibility. “Facebook has said in the past that it has no business interest in allowing hate speech on its platform,” says Chinmayi Arun, a resident fellow at Yale Law School, who studies the regulation of tech platforms. “It’s evident from what’s going on in India that this is not entirely true.”
Facebook says it is working hard to combat hate speech. “We want to make it clear that we denounce hate in any form,” said Mohan, Facebook’s managing director in India, in his Aug. 21 blog post. “We have removed and will continue to remove content posted by public figures in India when it violates our Community Standards.”
But scrubbing hate speech remains a daunting challenge for Facebook. At an employee meeting in June, Zuckerberg highlighted Mishra’s February speech ahead of the Delhi riots, without naming him, as a clear example of a post that should be removed. The original video of Mishra’s speech was taken down shortly after it was uploaded. But another version of the video, with more than 5,600 views and a long list of supportive comments underneath, remained online for six months until TIME flagged it to Facebook in August.
It should come as no surprise to learn being stuck inside for months on end with minimal human contact is not good for your well-being. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt any semblance of normalcy throughout the U.S. and elsewhere, many people are feeling the effects of reduced employment and other disruptions of daily life—compounded by more visible instances of targeted police brutality and racial discrimination.
If you’re stressed out, exhausted by the stream of bad news, or just fell off whatever good habits you had in 2019, here’s how you can use your mobile device to get back on track. With apps that make chores fun, simple meditation tools, or services to address your mental health issues, you can, maybe, better prepare yourself for whatever else this year has in store.
Get your sleep schedule back on track with Pzizz
Platform: iOS, Android
There’s a good chance you’ve got a lot on your mind right now—which means counting sheep might not cut it when it comes to getting to sleep, and staring at your phone while doomscrolling is almost certainly even worse. And while there are a handful of apps designed to track your sleep, getting one meant to help you get to bed is just as important.
Pzizz is a sleep app that uses audio cues based on sleep research to help you fall asleep. It uses a mixture of speech, music, and audio to get you relaxed and prime your body for some down time, be it for a few minutes or a whole night. You can adjust the mix as well, leaning toward a more talkative or musical sleep aid for the allotted time period. Subscribing to the premium version of the app nets you access to a wider variety of sounds and guided sleep experiences.
Gamify your routines with Habitica
Platform: iOS, Android, Web
If you need a little motivation to get done what you need to get done on a daily basis, and don’t mind adding a little fantastical vibe to the mix, try out Habitica, a task management and to-do list service that gamifies the work you accomplish. You create an RPG-esque character, which “defeats enemies” and levels up whenever you confirm that you’ve accomplished on of your IRL tasks—whether those are daily activities, errands to run, or habits to build. You can play by yourself or team up with friends for a more social element (and to add accountability to the mix); in either case, you can obtain prizes and gear for your fictional avatar by checking off boxes on your to-do list.
Reflect for a moment with Enso
If you’re like me, and just want to practice sitting for a few minutes with no distractions, you should try out Enso. It’s a minimal but elegant iOS meditation app perfect for both beginning students or experienced practitioners. There are no voices to distract you, and no music to focus on or tolerate. Just set a timer, hit start, and wait until it runs out.
You can customize your session with multiple bells to signify prep time, sitting time, and intervals for those engaging in a more advanced meditation practice. Buying Enso’s $2.99 pro version will net you some much-needed features, like Apple Health integration, an in-app audio player for custom meditation tunes, and extra alert tones you can pick to ease yourself in and out of your sitting practice.
For some good bedtime white noise, use Dark Noise
Trying to read a book or focus on some work while the outside world honks, shouts, and distracts is no fun. That’s why white noise is so useful, drowning out other sounds with a more predictable, familiar tone. That’s what Dark Noise is for.
The app features a wide array of sounds, from white, brown, pink, and grey noises, to heavy rains and waterfalls, crickets, wind chimes, and coffee shops. With such a selection, you’re sure to find a noise to keep you distracted, focused, or drowsy—whatever you need. And there’s a timer, so you can have the app shut down on its own after you finish work (or fall asleep).
Talk to someone with BetterHelp
Platform: iOS, Android, Web
Everyone needs someone to talk to—especially now. With in-person therapy currently out of reach for many thanks to the coronavirus, those seeking mental-health treatment might want to consider BetterHelp. Using the app, you can speak to a licensed psychologist or counselor via text, phone, or video. With no insurance necessary, pricing ranges from $40 to $70 per month, and there are over 10,000 therapists and counselors—all with over three years of therapy experience—to choose from (you’ll take a quiz to see which one is the best fit for you).
The Coronavirus Brief. Everything you need to know about the global spread of COVID-19
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The world of social media was a little quieter than usual on Wednesday: Celebrities ranging from Kim Kardashian West to Mark Ruffalo “froze” their Instagram accounts for 24 hours, to protest hate speech and misinformation being spread on Facebook, Instagram’s parent company.
“I can’t sit by and stay silent while these platforms continue to allow the spreading of hate, propaganda and misinformation,” wrote Kardashian West, who has 188 million Instagram followers, in a tweet on Tuesday, before encouraging her fans to join her.
But while the boycott temporarily reshaped the Instagram feeds of the celebrities’ collective millions of followers, it was also met with criticism. The critiques paralleled similar concerns about two other major social-media activism campaigns in recent months: #BlackoutTuesday, for which Instagram users posted black squares to show support for Black Lives Matter, and #ChallengeAccepted, a campaign that involved users posting black-and-white selfies in a declaration of women’s empowerment.
For all three, a central question dogged the hashtags: what could short-term social-media action actually do to create long-term change?
In fact, argues Tia C.M. Tyree, professor and interim Associate Dean of Howard University’s Cathy Hughes School of Communications, social media-activism can have a “major impact”—if it’s done right.
“Whether it’s Black Lives Matter or the #MeToo movement, people are taking to social media to voice their opinions and really call attention to some of the issues that have been problematic in U.S. society in past years and now,” Tyree says. “They’re able to get exposure in a different light because social media is so prevalent and pervasive in today’s world.”
According to Tyree, however, that power can only be realized if the campaign also exists offline. Despite the criticism, she thinks Stop Hate for Profit has the potential to be a good example of how an online campaign can go beyond a symbolic gesture. The Instagram freeze is part of a week of action organized by the coalition, which includes clear objectives like educating people about election disinformation and asking people to register to vote.
“These campaigns give everyday people a chance to do something larger than themselves, but there has to be online and offline goals and objectives,” Tyree says. “To offer up the idea that we’re not going to utilize a platform for a day is not a goal—it’s a tactic that should be used as an overall part of a bigger campaign to evoke larger change.”
The backing of an campaign like Stop Hate for Profit is not in fact necessary to make an impact, Tyree says, but it helps to have an established set of goals and ideas to back up the posts. She points to the way the hashtag #MeToo went viral when used in a tweet by Alyssa Milano. While Milano’s tweet brought the phrase to the mainstream, the movement gained momentum because the phrase’s creator Tarana Burke had long been doing the work of empowering sexual abuse and harassment survivors.
Ultimately, however, while social media can raise money and awareness, it’s only one part of a larger puzzle—one that won’t be solved by any single campaign. Tyree stresses that while the 24-hour Instagram freeze was created to draw awareness to the hate speech and misinformation on Facebook, the bigger issue that needs to be addressed is the existence of the hate itself and the realities of the world that produced it.
“Social media is a reflection of society,” she says. “We also have to put the mirror to ourselves and understand that this is really a reflection of who we are as a society.”
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How much money are you willing to spend on a new smartphone in 2020? A few hundred bucks? A few thousand? A few weeks with two popular smartphones—the budget-friendly $349 Google Pixel 4a and the extravagant $1,299 Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G—tells a story one probably knows offhand is true: You don’t really need a thousand-dollar smartphone, but spending more confers some benefits to be sure.
The allure of a flagship smartphone like Samsung’s Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G is immediately apparent. Available in bronze, black, or white, it is indeed a real looker. Still, there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about the Note20 Ultra compared to the company’s previous flagship smartphones, like the Galaxy S20 Ultra. Instead, it’s a refinement of Samsung’s efforts to outmatch competitors with raw power, better images, and even more use cases for its built-in S-Pen stylus.
But the Note20 makes the case for dropping a grand pretty quickly, starting with its gorgeous screen. A laundry list of high-end technology is crammed into the Note20 Ultra 5G’s 6.9-inch, Quad HD+ display with curved edges that give it a slender design compared to the last Note. There’s a hidden fingerprint sensor you’ll never notice until the icon pops up, a front-facing hole-punch camera that splits the difference between Apple’s annoying (but more capable) “notch” cut-out and a thick bezel outlining the screen.
It’s a good thing fanny packs are back in style, because the Note20 Ultra 5G is gigantic. While the term “phablet” has long been used to deride large smartphones stuck somewhere between a typical smartphone and a tablet, the Note20 Ultra 5G seems to be angling for a comeback. While it’s certainly big, its size allows for that stunning HDR+ screen, its (up to two) days of battery life, and processing power that makes games run without a hitch.
The camera bump on the rear of the Note20 is a true monster in terms of size and capabilities. Like the S20 Ultra, the Note20 Ultra has a trio of cameras on the rear, along with a laser autofocus sensor for improved portrait and night mode shots. Pictures are crisp, saturated, and really pop on the AMOLED screen. The camera almost mirrors the S20 Ultra’s capabilities, but eschews the 100x super zoom function for a more modest and usable 50x zoom. Its portrait mode shots are equally impressive, though all feature the telltale aura of software manipulation to achieve the high-end DSLR look. My favorite feature from the S20 Ultra is still here: Single Take, which records photos, videos, and looped GIFs all at once for up to 15 seconds, is an influencer’s dream come true.
Are you a gamer? Then sure, the huge screen (and its 120Hz refresh rate) might make this your perfect portable entertainment device, so long as you bring a controller. And Samsung’s partnership with Microsoft, which brings the Xbox’s Netflix-like Game Pass Ultimate service to the Note20, makes it an even more capable gaming machine.
But when you just need a phone, is the cheaper option just as good? The way we consume content has changed to the point where specs once integral to the decision of “which smartphone should I buy?” are now tertiary amenities obviated by advances in how the stuff we love gets delivered to us. While a huge storage capacity was great for downloading hit songs or recording videos of your family, you don’t need a huge amount of storage space any longer if your photos are stored in services like Google Photos. The same goes for streaming music and movies; why pay extra for space you don’t really need?
I can’t think of many who do. With the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the country, and millions of Americans struggling economically, the last thing on many people’s minds is the purchase of a $1,300 phone for gaming and better selfies.
Shot on Pixel 4a and its single wide-angle lens.
The Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G’s three lenses create more saturated photos in daylight conditions.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t get a thousand-dollar phone. If you need three cameras, if you use your phone as a primary means of entertainment, if you actually do work using features like Samsung DeX or the Windows-friendly Your Phone feature, and if you’ve got the cash to burn, then go for it! The Note20 Ultra 5G is a workhorse, especially when paired with accessories like a monitor or mouse and keyboard. But frankly, I have no interest in spending over a grand on a smartphone with a single screen anymore, especially when the returns are so minor compared to prior generations. When it comes to getting the most bang for your buck, high-end smartphones may have been the answer in the past, when you only expected a single camera on the back. But now? Cheap phones are where it’s at.
The Note20 Ultra 5G’s 50x zoom function is impressive, but is still too creepy for me to endorse.
Take the Pixel 4a, Google’s newest budget-friendly smartphone. Yes, it’s just $349, which means some corners are inevitably cut. But they’re corners I can live without, especially when everything about the device is more than good enough. The best part? It actually fits in your pocket.
On the Pixel 4a, you only get a single lens, so there’s no optical zoom or ultra-wide angle capabilities. But the photos benefit from everything Google’s done in the photography department, from its use of computer vision to its awesome night mode shots.
Other Pixel 4a features are more than sufficient for the average person, perhaps even desired when compared to the higher-end alternatives. The 5.8-inch OLED 1080p display is perfectly suited for watching YouTube and Netflix videos (though you won’t get those bright, saturated colors you might enjoy on an HDR-capable screen). One fun surprise? The inclusion of a headphone jack. One understandable omission? The lack of 5G connectivity, a feature set to arrive with Google’s anticipated Pixel 4a 5G (although it will reportedly use the slower of the 5G radio bands).
The 4a’s smooth, plastic back, relatively small size, and rear fingerprint sensor make it a great fit for one hand without feeling like you’re one misplaced finger away from dropping it. The camera on the Pixel 4a? It does the job, and does it spectacularly well. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to discern whether identical wide angle shots were taken on the 4a or the high-end Note20 Ultra 5G, a surprising development considering how integral the camera is to the Note20 Ultra 5G’s appeal. Frankly, the Pixel 4a’s biggest issue is the omission of wireless charging support, a preferred method by many (myself included) when it’s time to turn in for the evening.
So, which phone should you get? Well, aside from the mind-boggling price difference between the two, the choice is ultimately a personal one that speaks to your personality as much as it does your pocketbook. In the Note20 Ultra 5G is a powerhouse of a smartphone, skirting the edges of both size and substance to bring a trio of capable cameras, a much-improved note taking experience, and a killer screen for all that on-the-go video watching and game playing you’re (not) doing. But the Pixel 4a, cheap as it is, does wonders with what it’s got: a high-definition screen, a camera that rivals the thousand-dollar competition, a fingerprint sensor, and an understated, slim design that doesn’t feel flimsy, not by a long shot. But when push comes to shove, maybe pick the one that’ll actually fit in your pants—and your budget.