Sunday, 24 May 2020

Living with Disinformation

Updated: February 7, 2019 11:31 am

Famous journal “Foreign Affairs” has recently published an insightful article, “Deepfakes and the New Disinformation War”. The article is not only timely but also highly relevant to understand many of the issues that are projected to be “burning” in India, particularly under the Modi-government.

Authors Robert Chesney and Danielle Cirton warn through their article that  “Thanks to the rise of “deepfakes”—highly realistic and difficult-to-detect digital manipulations of audio or video—it is becoming easier than ever to portray someone saying or doing something he or she never said or did. Worse, the means to create deepfakes are likely to proliferate quickly, producing an ever-widening circle of actors capable of deploying them for political purposes. Disinformation is an ancient art, of course, and one with a renewed relevance today. But as deepfake technology develops and spreads, the current disinformation wars may soon look like the propaganda equivalent of the era of swords and shields.”

Worried that deepfake services have already appeared in the open market, the authors say that the spread of these services will result in a number of positive as well as negative applications. While positive applications could be very handy in the health and education sectors, negative applications will be used for darker purposes. For instance,  deepfake  technology can be employed “to insert people’s faces into pornography without their consent or knowledge, and the growing ease of making fake audio and video content will create ample opportunities for blackmail, intimidation, and sabotage.”.

However, Robert Chesney and Danielle Cirton find it “most” frightening that applications of deepfake technology may well be in the realms of politics and international affairs. “There, deepfakes may be used to create unusually effective lies capable of inciting violence, discrediting leaders and institutions, or even tipping elections”, they argue.

And then they add, “Deepfakes have the potential to be especially destructive because they are arriving at a time when it already is becoming harder to separate fact from fiction. For much of the twentieth century, magazines, newspapers, and television broadcasters managed the flow of information to the public. Journalists established rigorous professional standards to control the quality of news, and the relatively small number of mass media outlets meant that only a limited number of individuals and organizations could distribute information widely. Over the last decade, however, more and more people  have begun to get their information from social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, which depend on a vast array of users to generate relatively unfiltered content. Users tend to curate their experiences so that they mostly encounter perspectives they already agree with (a tendency heightened by the platforms’ algorithms), turning their social media feeds into echo chambers. These platforms are also susceptible to so-called information cascades, whereby people pass along information shared by others without bothering to check if it is true, making it appear more credible in the process. The end result is that falsehoods can spread faster than ever before.”

As it is, we all know how there have been serious allegations about Russia’s attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election—spreading divisive and politically inflammatory messages on Facebook and Twitter. There were similar allegations that on the eve of the French election, Russian hackers tried to undermine the presidential campaign of Emmanuel Macron by releasing a cache of stolen documents, many of them doctored.

The point that emerges is that social media is becoming a fertile ground for circulating deepfakes, with potentially explosive implications for politics. Likewise, deepfakes are also proving to be useful l to non-state actors, such as insurgent groups and terrorist organisations. As we see in Kashmir these days, the terrorists, through social media  depict their adversaries—including government officials—spouting inflammatory words , shooting civilians or discussing a plan to bomb a mosque, thereby aiding the terrorist groups’ recruitment, and more important, galvanising maximum impact on their target audiences.

And what is more worrisome, now that we are on the eve of general elections in India, one is witnessing the worst manifestations of the deepfakes. Just three instances will suffice.

Take the recent case of a self-proclaimed cyber expert of dubious background, US hacker Syed Shuja claiming in London last week, that too in the presence of the high profile Congress leader Kapi Sibal, that  veteran BJP leader and Union Minister Gopinath Munde was killed because he ‘knew about EVM hacking’ in 2014. Syed Shuja said that the EVM machine was modified in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. He also further claimed that after that, it happened in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, and Gujarat elections.

This issue of EVM-hacking has always been raised by the political parties, particularly after they lost polls from time to time. It is understandable therefore when an anguished Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora goes to file a FIR against Suja and assert that the election Commission will not be intimidated into giving up Electronic Voting Machines and returning to ballot boxes. Two of his predecessors – Navin Chawla and Shahabuddin Yaqoob Quraish – have written opeds in two national dailies last week how all the challengers to the EVM have failed to “prove” that EVM machines can be hacked when given chances by then Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi in 2017.

In fact, the EVMs, now accompanied by VVPAT, have ensured the free and fair voting during elections in true senses of the term. If anybody is against the EVM machines, it is actually the vested interests who think that returning to ballot papers is the only way they can win and mould elections comfortably by capturing booths in the name of the caste and religion and under the display of muscle power.

The second instance of deepfakes dominating the national political scene of late is the Modi government’s decision to purchase Rafale fighter jets from France.  There are unending allegations that the deal is marked by overpricing and crony capitalism. “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth”, is a law of propaganda often attributed to the Nazi Joseph Goebbels. This is exactly the case now with the so-called Rafael scam. In fact, I now see that many hardcore supporters of the Modi government and many BJP loyalists, including MPs, even believing that the Modi government has done “something wrong” in the Rafale deal.

The fact of the matter is that the procurement of 36  medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) Dassault Rafale fighter jets, as concluded by the Modi government in 2015, was decided when it was not possible “to conclude a deal’  between the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL)  and the Rafale manufacturer Dassault Aviation, the L1 or lowest bidder, during the UPA raj.  What was agreed between these two in 2012 was based on this L 1 provisions (which were offered sometime in 2007). But subsequently, the HAL and Dassault could not agree on the final deal that would have talked of the price and other terms and conditions.

In fact, Dassalut was not convinced of HAL’s competence to deal with the Rafale technologies and hence was not prepared for the responsibility of the quality of the 108 Rafales that were to be manufactured at HAL. Besides, Dassault could not agree to the astounding labour cost that the HAL quoted, which it thought was more than what it would cost in France. In fact, had Dassault agreed to the price the HAL demanded, it would have lost the L 1 status!  So it is really absurd to hear Congress leader Rahul Gandhi saying that prices decided upon under his government were much lower than what Modi agreed for. There was no agreement on final pricing of the aircraft under the Manmohan Singh government. So what is the basis of the comparison?

In essence, opponents of the present deal raise five issues with the deal that was officially signed on September 23, 2016, though it was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in April 2015 at Paris during his visit to France. One, the deal did not undergo established official Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP). Two, the Modi government violated  and bypassed the interests of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), which was supposed to co-produce the fighter planes as per the original Agreement in 2012, as made by the Congress-led UPA government. Three, while the Modi-government signed the $8.7 billion deal, costing each plane Rs 1570 crores, as per the UPA negotiated price, the cost of one plane was Rs 526.1 crores.  Fourthly, the deal seems to have been made not to benefit the Indian Air Force (IAF) but the “crony capitalist” Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence. Rahul Gandhi finds it intriguing that “while India signed the $8.7 billion deal on September 23, just 10 days later, on October 3, 2016, Reliance Defence Limited entered into a joint venture with the French fighter plane maker Dassault” without any clearance from the government.

Of course, all these apprehensions have been negated by none other than the Supreme Court of India. Procedurally, the government has a point when it clarifies that the approval from Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) was taken before signing of the final agreement in September 2016. As the Prime Minister, Modi did have the prerogative of taking a broad decision on it earlier by taking the then defence minister Manohar Parrikar into confidence. In any case, the union cabinet has endorsed the Prime Minister’s decision in Paris, after five rounds of subsequent discussions between the two governments.  Here, it is important to note that the decision was by two governments of India and France, which are to be accountable to this “inter-governmental” deal, whereas the earlier one in 2012 between the HAL and Dassault was a “commercial deal”. And when it is a government-to-government decision, there is no scope for any corruption or scam as such (it will be preposterous to say that the then French President Hollande bribed Modi to clinch the deal).

As regards the role of the Reliance Defence, the fact of the matter is that the latest deal has unusually(and it is to the great advantage of India) made the French vendor to invest in Indian defence industry as high as 49 percent of the deal-price as offset provisions as against the standard 30 percent requirement. And in this, Dassault itself is a partner of the Reliance to maintain the technological edge. The joint venture between Reliance Defence and Dassault is between two private entities and as Reliance Defence has said, the Modi government didn’t have a role.  “Government policy issued on 24 June 2016 allows for 49% FDI in the Defence Sector under the automatic route, without any prior approval. No approvals from the Union Cabinet or CCS were required for the formation of the aforesaid Joint Venture Company under the automatic route.” Of course, one can ask as to why Dassault chose Reliance as a partner in India, but it is in the realm of speculation that the French company was “coerced” by the Modi government on its choice of partner in India.

Now comes the crucial issue of pricing-difference between what was the case in 2012 and that in 2016. The latest one will cost India about Rs. 58000 crore or so (Euro 7.8 billion) for 36 off-the-shelf Dassault Rafale twin-engine, fourth generation multirole fighter aircraft, 15 percent of which will be paid in advance.  MBDA Missile Systems of France will supply the weapons package, and that country’s Thales Group will be responsible for the fighter jet’s avionics. It is also understood that the first Rafale warplanes are slated to be delivered roughly within 18 months of the signing of the final contract, during which suggestions of the IAF for any customised version of the aircraft, including modifications and reconfigurations to allow the installation of Indian-made and commercial-off-the-shelf systems and weapons, will be taken into account.

The deal also envisages the conclusion of an accompanying offset clause,  according to which France will invest 30 percent  of the Euro 7.8 billion dollars in India’s military aeronautics-related research programmes and 20 percent into local production of aircraft  components( not necessarily that of the Rafale) along with its Indian partner. Besides, French defence contractors will supply radar and thrust vectoring for missiles technologies.  In addition, the French are believed to be willing to invest 1 (one) billion Euros to revive the Kaveri engine project, according to media reports. They are also ready to share engine technology, by keeping Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” mission in mind.  This will help enormously our indigenous LCA (Light Combat Aircraft) Tejas project. Dassault, the manufacturer of Rafale, has also shown its willingness to partner with a private Indian company to manufacture structural parts for its Falcon executive jets.

In other words, the deal has to be seen as a package, not exactly on the basis of cost to a single aircraft per se. Open military sources say that the latest cost includes not only the 5 percent inflation over the 2012 pricing ( which was actually the L1 pricing declared by the vendor in 2007) but also additional programme costs of simulators, training, infrastructure and India-specific modifications in the aircraft(like Active Electronically Scanned Array or Aesa radar and helmet-mounted sight. The 2007-price was based on the pricing of all the 126 aircraft, bulk of which was supposed to be produced in HAL (108); thus, the pricing per unit was bound to be lower at a first glance.  On a close scrutiny, however, things were different.

If the 2102-deal under the UPA government was not formally clinched by the time Modi assumed office in 2104, it was essentially because the deal was completely deadlocked with Dassault refusing to certify key components of the jet which were to be built HAL unless a series of conditions were met. As mentioned above, the two fought also over the manpower costs. Reportedly, HAL said that manpower costs would be nearly three times higher in India and so it would cost more to build the Rafale jets here, which was disputed by the French company, which said it wouldn’t. They could not reach an agreement.

As my friend noted defence analyst Abhijit Bhattacharyya says, “ The inevitable fall out of the protracted negotiation and the consequential adverse effect on the forces appear to have had inflicted an invisible cost overrun in another front. Delays of Rafale procurement compelled the IAF to extend the operational life of its ageing and vintage air assets, well beyond their retirement date/life. Understandably, successive Air Chiefs were upset and expressed their concern. And rightly so, because old machines mean more time on ground (aircraft on ground) and less time in the air. Its logistics, spares, maintenance and technical personnel, all become more expensive and at times scarce. It simply compromises with the quality of operational preparedness as well as training of the flying and technical crew. It is a nightmare and a potential failure on and off the air.

“What then was the course of action available to India when the Indian delegation, led by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, faced a stark reality in Paris in 2015? Rafale had been chosen but the final contract was in deep freeze. Almost 30% of Air Force operational squadrons were virtually non-operational owing to under-strength fleet. Cost escalation had reached alarming proportions. Defeated (vendor) rivals were up in arms to make another desperate attempt to push out the Rafale. Foreign ambassadors were giving audacious press statements castigating the Indian choice of an ‘inferior’ flying machine.

“Cancellation of the Rafale contract would have put the clock back! Again another “request-for-proposal” to “selection” of the aircraft would mean an additional 4-5 years! And by that time Indian Air Force would emerge as a “force on paper” and with a prominent foot note of history book chapter describing it as “the glorious air force that was”? Not a very pleasant situation to be faced by any Indian Prime Minister when his foreign visit is meant to be for capital infusion, trade collaboration, favourable investment environment and industrial co-development. Undiplomatically speaking, it was an unthinkably adverse climate. ‘Now or never flight envelope’ of the Indian Air Force compelled India to go for a deal which is bound to be raised by critics and cynics alike in future. All the more, by those who had a high stake (legal or illegal) for the continuation of the original “deal” which had begun 2007. Hence, though the present outright purchase of 36 aircraft (which means 2 squadrons) tactically (in short term) and technically possibly cannot be faulted, the strategic (long term) acquisition needs urgent overhaul.”

It is true that 36 Rafale are not enough to feel the void. That was why the original requirement was 126. This is a powerful argument cited by the critics against Modi. But then the fact remains that 36 were the bare minimum that the IAF needed to keep its fighting edge for the moment. It needs more and that is why the Modi government has recently floated a new tender inviting  vendor interest for supplying 110 MMRCA fighter aircraft. In other words, stage has already been set for MMRCA 2.0.

In any case, the  biggest misinformation through deepfakes that is being spread systematically is that the Anil Ambani Group has replaced HAL in the Rafale deal and that Ambani’s company would be getting Rs 30,000 crore of contracts. But then as strategic analysts Pathikrit Payne points out, “ First, Reliance Defence has not replaced HAL. Rafales being procured by the Modi Government would be built in France and not in India. Therefore, there is no question of them being made by Reliance. Second, of the Rs 30,000 crore worth of offset and local component sourcing obligation of Dassault and its tier-1 vendors, namely Safran and Thales, the biggest beneficiary is DRDO.

“Recently, a television channel graphically explained how DRDO would get Rs 9000 crore worth of offset benefits through collaboration with Safran, which would help it in reviving the stalled Kaveri engine programme. The remaining Rs 21,000 crore worth of offset obligations are to be split among around 90 odd companies which are proposed offset partners of Dassault, Thales and Safran. Out of those 90 companies, Reliance has one joint venture each with Thales and Dassault. The list also includes other companies like the state-owned BEL, Samtel, HCL, Mahindra Aerostructures, L&T, IBM India, TCS, Tata Advanced Systems, Godrej & Boyce and Wipro Infrastructure Engineering to name a few. As per media reports, the total offset contracts accruing to Reliance Defence may be just over three per cent of the Rs 30,000-crore offsets in the offing.

“Incidentally, it was during the UPA era that a  policy decision was institutionalised which stated, “The OEM/vendor/Tier-I sub-vendor will be free to select the Indian offset partner for implementing the offset obligation, provided the IOP has not been barred from doing business by the Ministry of Defence.” This is as per Section 4.3 of the ‘Defence Procurement Procedure-Revision of Defence Offset Guidelines’, approved by the Ministry of Defence on July 23, 2012. In other words, it was the UPA which created the policy of allowing the foreign defence manufacturers to decide their Indian partners for offset obligation fulfilment. If Rahul Gandhi had no problem with this policy during the UPA era, one wonders why he has a problem with Dassault’s selection of offset partners now?”

The third major worrying instance  of deepfakes doing great damage to the country’s image and reputation is the systematic campaign by quoting unsubstantiated number of mob-lynching by the protectors of cows(Gau-Rakshyaks).  The numbers, statistics and comparisons on mob lynching one sees in the media, both national and international,  are mostly  from political activists. . Based on an online portal’s data, media houses claimed that 63 Indians had been killed in beef-related mob lynching since 2010. In the absence of official records, the data is unreliable, simply because even those who compiled it have noted the limitations.

This is not to suggest that no cow-related lynching has  taken place. There have been cases and that is to be condemned. But to exaggerate the incidents and give them the communal colour  by deepfakes is something very dangerous.  It is usually said that the victims of these lynchings are all Muslims and Muslims under Modi have been deprived of one of their principal businesses of beef exports. But they are devoid of the truth. For instance, take the case of the most sensationalised episode of seven men being  lynched in two separate acts in Jharkhand on 18th May, 2018. First, these lynchings did not take place because of cows, but because of the suspicions that the deceased were child-lifters. And secondly, of the seven people murdered, four were Muslims, and three, Hindus. So Muslims were not the chosen targets because of their religion.

But deepfakes view  every law-and-order-related incident through the red-tinged lens of identity politics and that has  become all too common since the 2014 general elections. The same is the case with the lies over beef export. India continues to be the number two after Brazil in export of beef under Modi. In fact, latest official statistics  – a report by OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook- shows that  beef exports from India to the developed nations have doubled under the Modi government. “India exported 1.56 million tonnes of beef in 2017”, it says .

The same is the propagation of myth that after Modi came to power in India, Muslims are being denied eating beef from time to time , particularly during Hindu festivals. First, it is to be noted that this politics of ban on meat consumption during festivals did not start with the Modi regime. As it is, technically the critics are wrong when they abuse Modi on the matter as the bans are imposed by the state governments or municipal corporations, not the central government, which, at the moment, is being led by Modi. But let it pass. It was 1964 when the practice of banning meat sale during the Jain festival started in Mumbai, the city, which is at the centre of the present controversies. That time, there was no BJP, or for that matter, even no Shiv Sena. It was the golden period of the Congress party, which ruled almost all over India.

Since then it has been issued and reissued many a time. Interestingly the ban order was reissued both in 2003 and 2005 when the state of Maharashtra (thus Mumbai) was under the rule of the Congress-NCP coalition. These contradictory approaches have been true in other states as well in some form or the other.  And since these states have been ruled by various parties from time to time, there are no merits in blaming the BJP or for that matter Modi for the beef-controversy. It is instructive to point out here how the Bangalore municipality imposed ban on meat for a day or two for the Ganesh festival in the city  every year, despite having a Congress government.

Secondly, there are serious inconsistencies in taking recourse to the logic that there cannot be any restrictions on the food habits of the people., I have no problem if this principle is uniformly implemented. But the reality is different. I know for sure that some institutions which are leading the anti-Modi movement today on the subject themselves are very strict that only vegetarian food is available in their premises. Why are they silent on the laws that prohibit the consumption of meat in towns like Hardwar and Rishikesh? Will they approve of the availability of pork in restaurants near famous mosques? I have heard some overzealot “secularists” like Mani Shankar Aiyar not wearing “the sacred thread” of a Brahmin and eating beef as symbolic demonstration of his secular credentials, but can he ask a Muslim to share the dining table with someone eating pork?

Thanks to the deepfakes ,brazen and continuous lying by noted members of the media have eroded the credibility of the entire mainstream media in India like never before. As a result,  what we know to be “reality” in our media or public discourse is often nothing more than interpretation driven by beliefs, values and attitudes. The “truth” here is nothing more than the familiar expression of habit, which, in turn, is because of things repeating themselves. And what is more, the habit is so strong that we do not even wonder “what if?” or “what else?” or “why not?” As a result, we unthinkingly categorise some politicians or analysts as communal, casteist and reactionaries or Left radical, anti-nationalists and anarchists. Accordingly, we treat what they say with utter contempt. As a result, what we are told to be “realities” actually becomes a roadblock to our own growth.

If one analyses carefully the nature of our public discourse these days of deepfakes,  it is increasingly becoming obvious that people tend to challenge the character or motives of a person who has said some something or floated an idea, rather than the idea itself or what he or she has said. This is what is called argumentum ad hominem. Here, we malign the character of a person we do not like, even if he or she speaks the truth. It is also argumentum ad hominem when someone’s arguments are discounted merely because he or she is supposed to benefit from the policy that he or she is advocating. We get suspicious when a Brahmin argues against the reservations or a Yadav argues for reservations or a Muslim opposes the idea of a uniform civil code. The correct way in all these cases should be to judge the merits of the argument and not who makes the argument.

There is also an extreme version of this phenomenon when people tend to put words into mouth of the person they do not like by saying the person has said something, which in fact was not said. In most of such cases, they justify their version of what their targeted person has “said” on the basis of their own interpretations. But then interpretation is not a fact; although by repeating it many times this interpretation is eventually made into a “fact”. This is called argumentum ad nauseam (argument to the point of disgust; i.e., by repetition). One may give two prime examples in this regard.

One is Prime Minister Modi’s much-talked about interview to a foreign news agency in 2013 (then Chief Minister of Gujarat). While asked on whether he was sorry for the communal riots of 2002, Modi had said , “Another thing, any person if we are driving a car, we are a driver, and someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind, even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will be painful or not? Of course, it is. If I’m a chief minister or not, I’m a human being. If something bad happens anywhere, it is natural to be sad.”

But this was interpreted by Modi’s political opponents and a section of intelligentsia that he compared Muslims to dogs. “For Modi, the life of a Muslim is not more than a life of a puppy”, so ran the news headlines. And this “interpretation”, repeated consistently, became a “fact” in the global media.

The other example is that of Minister of State of External Affairs General VK Singh. Asked persistently by a news channel on what the central government was doing after two Dalit children were killed in a village of Faridabad in  October 2015, the minister apparently had said that it was a local matter, that it involved a property dispute, that the caste angle should not be cited, and that the state government was doing what was necessary to punish the guilty. But that did not satisfy the reporter and the minister was again asked about the role of the central government. To this General VK Singh had replied, “The Centre cannot be blamed if somebody throws a stone at a dog.” He explained that he did not intend to draw an analogy between the Faridabad incident and stoning of a dog, but that was precisely what the critics piled on. In fact, the Opposition demanded that a criminal case be registered against the former Army Chief, under the Prevention of Atrocities on Scheduled Castes Act as he has said that “Dalits are dogs”!

Viewed all this, one cannot but agree with Robert Chesney and Danielle Cirton that deepfakes erode severely  democracy; these are bring used to stoke social and ideological divisions and create a “liar’s dividend”.

What then is the way out? The victims, of course, can go the court and occasionally  win legal victories against the creators of harmful fakes, as has been the case with Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal who had to apolosise to Union Finance Ministers Arun Jaitley and Nitin Gadkari. One also expects that  major social media platforms will gradually get better at flagging and removing fraudulent content.

But more important is what Robert Chesney and Danielle Cirton say, “ Democratic societies will have to learn resilience. On the one hand, this will mean accepting that audio and video content cannot be taken at face value; on the other, it will mean fighting the descent into a post-truth world, in which citizens retreat to their private information bubbles and regard as fact only that which flatters their own beliefs. In short, democracies will have to accept an uncomfortable truth: in order to survive the threat of deepfakes, they are going to have to learn how to live with lies.”

By Prakash Nanda

(prakash.nanda@hotmail.com)

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