Insta now has oil-fluencers

Also in this edition: New king of SaaS, More website outages, Botswana's big diamond.

Good morning! The Chinese have done to Didi what they did to Alibaba. Antitrust proceedings just before a mega IPO. Didi has to now jump through the same hoops that Jack Ma had to. Cheng Wei, the CEO of Didi, may want to take up art to unwind just like Ma.

Anyway, on to the day’s stories.

  1. Vishal Sikka is back, with Softbank money.

  2. Phuket model: sandbox for travellers.

  3. Biden-Putin Summit Was Actually About China.

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Superpower Mind-Games

The world is back in order; in a way preferred by America. The world’s largest and richest democracies are in its corner and Russia’s pre-eminence as the other geopolitical pole has been recognized. (Remember M’s famous quip to James Bond? Christ, I miss the Cold War.)

Smoothing feathers: In a single week of intense diplomacy at the highest level, President Joe Biden revitalised the US’ trans-Atlantic friendships. The frosty relationships with European nations during Donald Trump’s presidency have been warmed up. Security alliance Nato is enlivened. Biden is already committed to strengthening relationships in the Indo-Pacific region with the Quad, which includes Japan, Australia and India.

Look in the mirrors: Washington sees Russian President Vladimir Putin as an autocrat, perhaps the first among several equals in power in many countries. By holding a high-profile summit with Putin and calling him a “worthy adversary”, the President calculatedly elevated Russia to a world power that deserves to sit across the table. He also warned Putin against cyber adventurism saying the US has the capability and will to hit back and that could prove costly to Russia’s shaky economy. At the same time, Biden called out China as the threat whose activities pose challenges “to our collective security today”.

Rival of choice: “Russia’s in a very, very difficult spot,” Biden told reporters. “They’re being squeezed by China. They want desperately to remain a major power. You all are writing, not illegitimately, Biden already gave Putin what he wants, legitimacy, standing on the world stage with the President of the United States,” Biden said. “They desperately want to be relevant.” Translation: China is too powerful for the US to take on alone. Russia is manageable.


The Spotlight Is On Vishal Sikka Again

Former Infosys CEO Vishal Sikka announced that his new company, Vianai Systems, has raised $140 million from SoftBank. The company says it is working on building a human centred artificial intelligence (AI) platform. To simplify, human-centred AI is a system that learns from non-machine input and collaboration.

According to Sikka, this system has delivered value to several organisations across the world.

Curiously, when Sikka was ousted from Infosys, the core strategy of the company was that ITeS firms would have to automate to move forward. In an interview with The Economic Times in 2016, he said, “We have to embrace AI and with that improved productivity, we have to outpace the downward spiral”. Sikka and Masayoshi Son have embraced that future. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.


Big Oil is Slidin’ Into Our ‘Grams

Instagram is inundated with pictures of travel, puppies, sunset, and the good life. There’s a new (old) kid on the block that’s vying for social media attention: big oil companies. Shell has influencers posting on the gram about them. Another Fortune 500 oil biggie, Phillips 66, has been at it since at least 2018.

‘Grammable oil: Cherrie Lynn Almonte, a lifestyle influencer with 192,000 Instagram followers, has a profile that’s interspersed with images of fueling up at Shell gas stations. It’s ironic how Almonte posted about road-tripping in October 2020 while cautioning followers about the biggest fire season in California. Shell has forayed into different campaigns with multiple influencers in the past, all that can be found under the hashtag “#ShellPartner”. Some are obvious, glaring ads while others are aspirational.

Shell isn’t the only one. Houston-based Phillips 66 has also launched several campaigns in association with Instagram influencers. As Geoffrey Supran, a researcher at Harvard University, puts it, “The oil industry has been essential to the invention and perfection of propaganda techniques for 100 years”. Get ready to see more gas-y pictures on your feed that look like goodwill and the good life. Will you buy into it, though? 

The Signal

Polluting energy companies have been trying to polish their image forever. Over the years, they’ve spent millions in advertising and awareness campaigns to convince people that they’re trying their best to be more eco-friendly and reduce carbon emissions. Pressure began to mount even more after the Paris Agreement recognised the urgency to tackle climate change and took a stern stand against fossil fuels. Energy companies needed to amp up their game. Young people are now aware that the generations that came before them have caused severe damage to the Earth they inherited. Legacy polluters recognise that they have to not only clean up their act but also be seen to be reforming to remain relevant to these future consumers. What better way to do it than social media? With a user base of ~1 billion, Instagram is a great platform to slip into people’s minds.


Thailand Wants You To Travel

If you are fully vaccinated, not from a high-risk country, and want to take a long vacation Thailand wants you. It plans on opening the island of Phuket on July 1. The Phuket Sandbox plan, as it is being called, aims at allowing quarantine-free travel.

While European countries like France and Spain have been allowing vaccinated tourists without quarantine, the slow vaccination rollout in Asia has proved to be a major hindrance to travel reliant countries like Thailand. In December last year, it recorded just 6,556 foreign tourists, a 99.8% fall compared to December 2019.

Under the plan, vaccinated tourists have to stay in Phuket for 14 days before travelling to other destinations within the country. The island with its high inoculation rate has reported only six new cases over the past week. While only a few hundred visitors are expected in the month of July, if the country shows a steady rise in arrivals, it would demonstrate confidence ahead of the high tourist season and set an example for other tourist hotspot nations to follow.



How to go full crypto: Earlier this month, El Salvador became the first country to adopt Bitcoin as a legal tender, coming a long way since the government ban of 2017. But this is the backstory of how the “Bitcoinfication of El Salvador” actually happened, as told from El Zonte, a surfing village, where everything runs on Bitcoin. Salaries, the Salvadorian flatbread Pupusas. Everything. It even has a Bitcoin beach.

The Kodak story: Everyone, it seems, has a Kodak story to tell. One that begins with a sense of nostalgia, then learning about the company through the ages, and marvelling at what was once an American technology giant. This detailed story does all of that, tracing Kodak’s journey from a prosperous company in the manufacturing town of Rochester, New York to a now struggling, wait for it, pharmaceutical manufacturer, and a meme stock juiced up by Redditors.

The island of cats: Somewhere in Brazil, there’s an island inhabited by cats. It’s called Ilha dos Gatos or Island of the cats. The kitties, hundreds in number, have been abandoned by their owners who were unable to bear the costs of keeping them because of the pandemic. As the cat population grows, Brazilian officials are faced with the dilemma of avoiding animal cruelty while maintaining ecological balance.

Airbnb’s woes: Until recently, Airbnb was seen as one of the more compassionate Valley companies. The anti-Uber if you like. A fairytale brand, some would say. Not anymore, as two recent investigative stories revealed. The first, in Bloomberg Businessweek cast a light on how Airbnb’s “black box” safety team responded to a rape at one of its New York apartments — by writing the survivor a $7 million cheque in exchange for her silence. The other story, in Morning Brew, details how Airbnb failed its own anti-discrimination team, and how its smart pricing algorithm further widened inequities.

Green energy vs rare bird: An endangered bird is blocking India’s green energy aspirations, says this Bloomberg story. The Great Indian Bustard (GIB) is a big, poor-sighted bird that is often felled by power lines. The bird's habitat has now shrunk from 11 states to the flat grasslands of Rajasthan which are also best suited for wind and solar power projects. The Supreme Court, in a bid to save the GIB, has ordered that transmission lines be buried. That will cost power companies an additional $4 billion.


What Else Made The Signal?

King of SaaS: BrowserStack has become the most valuable Indian SaaS firm with a valuation of $4 billion following a fresh fundraise of $200 million.

Not again: Websites of many financial institutions, government agencies, airlines, and more suffered a temporary outage yesterday — the second such incident in as many weeks.

Dancin’ to the bank: TikTok-owner ByteDance’s annual revenue for 2020 more than doubled its 2019 figure to $34.3 billion. Profit rose 93% to $19 billion.

Three, four, five, liftoff: China launched three astronauts into space aboard its Shenzhou 12 spacecraft, the first crewed liftoff in almost five years. They successfully reached the space station seven hours later.

Biggest bling: Botswana can now boast that it has one of the world’s largest diamonds in its collection. A 1,098-carat stone of the third largest "gem-quality" was discovered in the Jwaneng mine earlier this month.

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