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Insecurity and Mistrust, The Huawei Dilemma

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On a fall day in 2012, Charles Ding, Huawei’s chief representative in the United States, made his way to Capitol Hill. While most of Washington was consumed with the recent attacks in Benghazi, Libya, and the death of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, within the Capitol complex, Congressional investigators were zeroing in on another issue. Ding stepped into the wood-paneled hearing room, HVC-210, before the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which was seeking to complete its report following a nearly yearlong national security investigation into Huawei and its compatriot company, ZTE.

He met a hostile audience. Congressman C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD), as ranking member, immediately raised suspicions about Huawei’s country of origin, China, “a country known to aggressively conducts [sic] cyber espionage. And add to that…the fear that China, a communist country, could compel these companies to provide it information or worse yet spy on Americans using this equipment.” After experiencing a series of evasive responses, Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) expressed frustration: “We hope that this hearing finally gives us the opportunity to get fulsome answers and resolve these doubts about your companies.”

With U.S. enforcement actions mounting against Huawei, including the most recent criminal indictment of Huwaei and Chief Financial Officer Wanzhou Meng on January 28, 2019, it seems these fears and doubts have only grown and festered; and with a critical March 1 deadline in U.S.-Chinese negotiations steadily approaching, fulsome answers on complex issues of technology, trade, and modern warfare may be in short supply.

But before moving forward, we need to look backward. Ever since its release, the Intelligence Committee’s 2012 report has shaped the policy narrative in Washington and beyond. However, as current events rapidly unfold, details of the investigation and its findings may be forgotten or otherwise overlooked. One lesson is obvious: If Washington and Beijing are to reach a near-term rapprochement, they will have to overcome the mutually reinforcing challenges of insecurity and mistrust.

Investigating the Threat

The vulnerability of telecommunication networks poses a major threat to the ongoing operations of modern American life. The goal of the Intelligence Committee’s investigation was to measure the potential security risk posed by China’s top two telecommunications companies, Huawei and ZTE, and to assess whether the U.S. government was “properly positioned” to understand and respond to that threat. Lawmakers were determined to explore the threat presented by the potential loss of control over U.S. “critical infrastructure”; the interdependent system of electric power grids; banking and finance systems; natural gas, oil, and water systems; and rail and shipping channels – each of which depend on computerized control systems. Additionally, the Intelligence Committee was concerned with Chinese motivations and their capacity to maliciously modify or steal information from government and corporate entities in order to gain access to expensive and time-consuming research and development that would advance China’s economic position on the world stage.

Because of its growth in global market power and alleged ties to a regime representing the most sophisticated espionage threat to the United States, Huawei was a prime target.  The Intelligence Committee weighed cyber- and human-enabled espionage tactics, such as efforts to insert malicious hardware or software implants into Chinese-manufactured telecommunications components and systems marketed to the U.S. Beyond the initial supply chain, Huawei also engages in management services, which could enable ongoing authorized access for malicious activity under the guise of legitimate assistance. The report cites, for example, the scenario where Chinese intelligence services recruit working-level technicians or managers to disrupt America’s critical infrastructure.

Interestingly, Huawei volunteered for the inquiry. In February 2011, in an open letter to the U.S. government, Huawei called for a “formal investigation” of the company following action by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to block Huawei’s acquisition of 3Leaf, a U.S. server technology company. The Intelligence Committee began its work in November of the same year.  In addition to the aforementioned open hearing in September 2012, Congressional investigators conducted extensive interviews with company and government officials, numerous document requests, and inspections of company facilities and factories in Shenzhen. In May of 2012, Ranking Member Ruppersberger led a delegation of Intelligence Committee members to Hong Kong to meet with corporate officials of ZTE and Huawei, including Ren Zhengfei, the founder and President of Huawei.

In the end, members of the Intelligence Committee were frustrated with the lack of cooperation and candor in response to their inquiries. The committee’s report lists a multitude of complaints about the “obstructionist” behavior of Huawei and ZTE. In sum: “Given the companies’ repeated failure to answer key questions thoroughly and clearly, or support those answers with credible internal evidence, the national-security concerns about their operations have not been ameliorated.” Congressional investigators were particularly piqued that Huawei failed to provide documented information about its corporate structure, history, ownership, operations, financial arrangements, or management. The company asserted both verbally and in writing that it could not provide internal documentation that was not first approved by the Chinese government. According to the Intelligence Committee, the fact that Chinese companies believe that their internal documentation or information remains a “state secret” only heightened concerns about Chinese government control over these firms and their operations.

Insecurity and Mistrust

The scope of the 2012 Congressional investigation provides a roadmap of themes and policies currently being pursued by the Trump administration. More specifically, the Intelligence Committee was guided by the following questions:

  • What are the companies’ histories and management structures, including any initial ties to the Chinese government, military, or the Communist Party of China?
  • How and to what extent does the Chinese government or the Communist Party of China exert control or influence over the decisions, operations, and strategy of Huawei and ZTE?
  • Are Huawei and ZTE treated as national champions or otherwise given unfair or special advantages or financial incentives by the Chinese government?
  • What is the presence of each company in the United States market, and how much does the parent company in Shenzhen influence its operations in the United States?
  • Do the companies comply with legal obligations, including those protecting intellectual property rights and international sanctions regimes (such as those with respect to Iran)?

The findings to these lines of inquiry proved troubling to the Intelligence Committee. The probe examined Huawei’s and ZTE’s ties to the Chinese state, including support by the Chinese government and connections to the Communist Party of China, and their work done on behalf of the Chinese military and intelligence services. For instance, Congressional investigators were concerned with the background of Mr. Ren, Huawei’s founder, who had links to the 3PLA – China’s signals intelligence division – and the Communist Party, such as serving as a member to the 12th National Congress. They did not find credible claims or evidence that the company was, in fact, an employee-owned and controlled enterprise or had an independent board of directors.

Instead, the Intelligence Committee found that the Chinese government and Communist Party exerted influence over and supported Huawei as a “national champion.” For example, Huawei admitted that an internal Party Committee existing within the company, consistent with Chinese law, but refused to discuss or describe the role, membership, or impact of this group on corporate decision-making.  Huawei’s failure to provide further detailed information explaining how it is formally regulated, controlled, or otherwise managed by the Chinese government undermined, in the view of Congressional investigators, the company’s repeated assertions that it is not inappropriately influenced by the Chinese government.

Huawei also refused to provide answers to direct questions about its financing and connections with Chinese state banks, nor did it provide internal documentation or auditable financial records to evaluate its claims that any financing arrangements comply with standard practice and international trade agreements. In support, Congressional investigators cited the earlier finding of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission that enterprises like Huawei rely on generous state-backed financing to make an investment project in a new market viable. To the detriment of U.S. competitors, financial subsidies from the Chinese government can enable its national champions to penetrate markets by offering products below the costs of production.

Additionally, the Intelligence Committee found that Huawei exhibited a “pattern of reckless disregard” for the intellectual property rights of U.S. companies. Congressional investigators cited Huawei’s settlement in civil litigation with Cisco, in which Huawei agreed to remove certain products from the marketplace due to violations of Cisco’s intellectual property rights. Whistleblowers – former employees of Huawei – also offered testimony that the company deliberately used the patented material of other firms. In the judgment of the Intelligence Committee, these issues with intellectual property rights raised broader concerns of Huawei’s compliance with U.S. laws in general.

Most notably, the Intelligence Committee found that Huawei failed to provide evidence to support its claims that the company complies with all international sanctions or U.S. export laws, in particular in relation to Iran sanctions. Huawei would not answer detailed questions about its operations in Iran or other sanctioned countries, and otherwise refused to provide any documents, like details of its internal compliance program, to ensure adherence to U.S. Iran sanctions. Following closure of its investigation, the Intelligence Committee referred criminal allegations stemming from its investigation to the Justice Department and other executive branch agencies.

Expanding Fallout

It is without coincidence, then, that the Justice Department recently issued a 13-count criminal indictment against the world’s largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer for alleged violations of America’s Iran sanctions, among other charges. The indictment supports the U.S. government’s extradition request to Canada for Huawei’s CFO Wanzhou Meng, which I covered in these pages earlier. The allegations involve a conspiracy to defraud U.S. banks and evade Iran sanctions through the use of Skycom, an unofficial Huawei affiliate in Iran, with which Ms. Meng had a direct and substantial role.

This action was just the latest in a series of setbacks to Huawei that build upon the 2012 Congressional report. U.S. President Donald J. Trump is reportedly considering an executive order that would bar U.S. companies from using telecommunications equipment made by Huawei and ZTE. This move would be in addition to legislation signed by Trump banning the U.S. government from doing the same. Both actions are consistent with recommendations stemming from the Congressional investigation.

The Intelligence Committee allegations against Huawei are also reflected in the basis of the Trump administration’s tariffs against China, such as the finding from the U.S. Trade Representative that the Chinese government is conducting or supporting unauthorized intrusions into U.S. commercial computer networks or cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, trade secrets, or confidential business information. The 2012 Congressional report recommended that executive branch investigate the unfair trade practices of the Chinese telecommunications sector, paying particular attention to China’s continued financial support for key companies. Similar to Congressional investigators’ focus on the Cisco case, the Justice Department has relied on civil litigation, this time between T-Mobile and Huawei, to support criminal charges that the Chinese company stole trade secrets related to a phone-testing robot.

The fallout for Huawei has continued to expand across the globe. On January 11, 2019, Polish counterintelligence officials announced the arrest of Huawei’s local sales director on allegations of spying for China, along with a Polish citizen who worked for Orange, a European cellular carrier, and who was once a senior manager in a Polish intelligence agency. European telecommunications providers like Orange have announced plans to exclude Huawei technology from their 5G systems. In addition to the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Japan have now banned government use of Huawei technology in 5G networks.

In response to the U.S. criminal prosecution of Huawei, the Chinese foreign ministry reportedly issued a statement complaining that U.S. authorities had “mobilized state power to blacken” some Chinese companies “in an attempt to strangle fair and just operations.” Beijing vowed to “firmly defend” Chinese companies from such actions, which were the result of “strong political motivation and political manipulation.”

The Huawei Dilemma

With warm words recently exchanged in Washington, following the latest round of high-level trade negotiations, there are signals that the near-term truce between U.S. and China may extend past March 1. However, the case of Huawei represents a longer term structural problem in contemporary international relations.

States have prepared themselves for the security threats posed by traditional factors such as the material resources underlying hard power and the limits of geography, like calculations involved in the so-called “Malacca dilemma.” However, in our modern networked world of interdependence – of satellites, servers, and smart phones – telecommunications have become a strategic asset par excellence. It is the backbone of our modern life and global trade. Looking forward, the combination of 5G technology and artificial intelligence holds the potential for transformative change.

At the same time, telecommunications networks are vulnerable to myriad forms of malicious intrusion that are continuously evolving – prey to the grey weapons of modern warfare. International trade increases the exposure. Governments and commercial actors across the globe are beginning to wrestle with this economic and national security threat.

Overcoming the resulting insecurity, as noted by the Intelligence Committee back in 2012, is achieved through developing a “sufficient level of trust” with the technology providers, whether equipment manufacturers or network managers. For America, that trust is ultimately found in its operating system, a free market led by private enterprise, and hardware, a constitutional democracy. But China, which comes from a separate tradition, is wired differently. For the world’s two most powerful countries – integral trade partners, competitors for technological innovation, principal great power contestants – this presents an unwieldy geopolitical challenge to overcome.

How will we solve this “Huawei dilemma”? The answer, undoubtedly, lies in the future.

Roncevert Ganan Almond is a partner at The Wicks Group, based in Washington, D.C. He has advised the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission on issues concerning international law and written extensively on maritime disputes in the Asia-Pacific. The views expressed here are strictly his own.

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Facebook Ties to India’s BJP Under Scrutiny Over Hate Speech

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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.

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.

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Lockdown Got You Down? Here’s How to Rebuild Your Mental Health

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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

Platform: iOS

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

Platform: iOS

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).

Write to Patrick Lucas Austin at [email protected].

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Does Celebrity Social-Media Activism Actually Work?

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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.

The day-long freeze, during which the celebrities ceased to share photos or posts on either platform, was organized by Stop Hate for Profit, a coalition of nine civil rights groups that are asking Facebook to make policy changes to address online harassment and conspiracy theories that spread place on the platform. By Wednesday night, according to Stop Hate for Profit, the Instagram freeze was seen by over 1 billion people. (A Facebook spokesperson told the New York Times on Tuesday that it had no comment about the situation.)

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.”

Write to Cady Lang at [email protected].



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