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The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Crew Dragon spacecraft is launched to the International Space Station with astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley onboard,from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Nasa/Bill Ingalls
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Crew Dragon spacecraft is launched to the International Space Station with astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley onboard,from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Nasa/Bill Ingalls

Can positive news do the world a good turn?

  • We have evolved to respond to negative news first, but there may be a market out there for uplifting stuff served by a compassion bot

We are all in the same storm, but in different boats. Coronavirus has been a great leveller. It has spread across the globe, crossed every country (without a visa) and every political ideology, touched the rich and the poor, the sick and the healthy, the famous and the unknown, in equal yet varying degrees. You cannot buy yourself out of this crisis—though some people still tried to become rich by short-selling shares as stock markets crashed. And some even bought their own ventilators, just in case.

Every crisis brings out the best and the worst in human beings, maybe more of the latter. Unfortunately, the news cycle amplifies the negative news, an overdose of which leads to anxiety and depression. This intensifies when people are confined to their homes. The aftereffects of covid-19 on our mental health will remain way longer than the virus itself. Our basic instincts of hugging or kissing our loved ones, of shaking hands with strangers, will forever be altered. There’s a lot of negative energy on steroids going around—from television, social media and WhatsApp. The question is how do we break the cycle?

A few of us have been working on this challenge for years now, on a voluntary basis. We never thought it would take a virus for us to release our beta version to everyone, albeit abruptly, because we felt the need is right now. Karunavirus.org is a portal powered by the compassion bot (Note: Karuna is a Sanskrit word that could be translated as “compassionate action"—any action that is taken to diminish the suffering of others).

There have been many studies to find out why there’s so much bad news. One reason goes back five million years, when humans in the African Savannas were surrounded by severe and immediate danger. To deal with its constant presence, our ancient brains evolved a section of the temporal lobe called the amygdala. It scans everything we see and hear for signs of danger, on sensing which it puts us on red alert. Our amygdalas make us pay more attention to negative than positive news, and therefore every news source caters to this bias. Negative stories tend to capture our attention, which leads to advertisement revenue.

The findings of a study published in 2019 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences hint that this human bias toward negative news might be mainly what drives negative news coverage. But the results also revealed that this negative bias was not universal, and some people even had a positive bias—a sign that there may be a market for positive news. Particularly during the pandemic, Google Trends shows searches for “good news" at an all-time high.

How do we encourage the positivity bias? Can we amplify positive news? Many “good news" sites already exist, and celebrities like The Office star John Krasinki launched the "Some Good News" video series that has now reached over 100 million viewers. What is new value addition can we offer? What is our business model?

For a start, we are experimenting with an entirely commercial-free operation. No ads, no solicitations, no promotions. It’s for the sake of good. We feel this will increase trust with readers and create a stronger feedback loop for a generative community. Moreover, we are piloting some technological innovations. In particular, a compassion bot. A machine-learning enabled algorithm that will learn the nuances of compassion, beyond sympathy and empathy. Initially, it will scour the web for good news, but we anticipate numerous further applications for it.

Science fiction writer and technologist Alex Lamb believes that if we don’t break our current behaviour patterns, we will not exist as a civilization by 2050. He has built a plan to save the world—The Roddenberry Plan, named after the famous creator of Star Trek, a television show that created an explicit, positive vision of what the future could be. Lamb hopes to saturate social media with content that encourages compassion, rationality, and hope without taking an overt political position. In effect, we take the tools already in use to spread fear and disinformation and use them instead to create a cultural scaffold to help us become better people. These “digital angels", as he calls them, will help us lean into our best selves and reverse the current trend by using AI. And that’s what a compassion bot does.

Stuart Soroka, a political scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, says that news outlets could shift the ratio of bad news to good and still maintain an audience. “It’s not the case that most people want mostly negative news all the time," Soroka said. “And knowing that, I think, opens up other possibilities where news is concerned." And so the compassion bot is here, to spread good vibes and stir the best within us.

VR Ferose is senior vice-president at SAP based in Silicon Valley

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