India’s so-called Left-Liberals are still not reconciled to the victory of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the just concluded general elections. And some of their anger has been directed at the growing social-media, particularly, the Facebook, Twitter and the WhatsApp applications. Two such Left-Liberal journalists – Cyril Sam and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta – have brought out a book, titled “The Real Face of Facebook in India”, in which they have accused the Facebook of ceasing to be a social media network and becoming a political network of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) that has huge resources to spend on disseminating its propaganda, thereby harming the cause of the other parties and making the political rivalry in the country one-sided.
In the process of venting their venom against Modi, these critics find the very platforms of social media, whose recent innovation, they argue, has added to the ills of capitalism as a politico-economic system in the world. For them, social media platforms, like capitalism, are nothing but evil. In their opinion, these devices or innovations make the strong stronger and the weak weaker.
It is estimated that in India, WhatsApp and Facebook have 230 million and 210 million subscribers respectively. With more than 300 million Indians now owning smart phones, WhatsApp and Facebook applications are ubiquitous presence , with their subscribers receiving messages in continuous and never-ending process. According to a study, in 2018,Indian users spent nearly 47 billion hours on the country’s top five video-streaming apps. WhatsApp, of which India is the biggest market, with 200 million users, has revealed that its users spend more than two billion minutes each day on its audio and video calls. And it is precisely here that there seems to be a problem.
It is being argued that in its initial days, the social media acted positively by disseminating positive and empowering information to the users or consumers. But of late what has happened is that the platforms are used for “influence operations” in many shapes to manipulate public opinion – from selective leaking of information, to fake news, to distorted views. The idea here is to leverage the reach of the social media, given its hyper- targeted nature. This is all the more useful when the attention span of the general public is very short( no cross-checking the authenticity of the information).
Politically, such dubious use of the social media has helped some political parties and harmed some. We all know how in the 2016 US Presidential elections, the emails between Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager and media organisations were leaked to promote the narrative that the media was attempting to favour a Democratic Party- victory outcome. It was also alleged that Russia used Facebook’s hyper-targeted advertisements to spread inflammatory messages on race and immigration to further polarise the American electorate that eventually benefitted the Republican candidate, now President , Donald Trump. Russia tried, it is further alleged, to interfere similarly during the last French elections, but failed.
China, like Russia, is believed to manipulate the cyberspace very effectively. Though its interference in other nations’ electoral processes has not come to the light so far, it is well known otherwise that the country specialises in what is called “cyber crimes” by hacking the internet and manipulating information systems in countries( which, in turn, affect your banking systems, vital security installations and create social disharmonies) what it considers to be adversaries.
In other words, unfriendly countries can use, or are using, social media platforms and applications to achieve political ends, disturb constitutional processes or rules and regulations, encourage political and social divisions, incite ethnic violence and promote campaigns to distrust vital institutions like the investigating agencies, statutory organisations like the Election Commission and Comptroller and Auditor General office and what is worst the judiciary of the country. Of course, in this, some domestic actors aggravate the situations by buying or believing in such disruptive game plans. We have seen recently in India how some NGOs, so-called intellectuals and a leading political party have challenged every vital organ of the Indian State, be its judiciary(tried even to impeach a Chief Justice), Army, Election Commission, CBI and CAG.
There are also some anti-social and psychopathic elements who misuse the social media to indulge in rumour mongering and character assassinations of the people they do not like. For instance, in 2018, over 30 people were lynched by mobs in many parts of India over suspicion that they were child-lifters. Even otherwise, we do come across doctored videos and images on facebook and WhatsApp platforms of people to create sensations and chaos in the country.
The fundamental question that arises from the above mentioned problems is whether or not the social media should be regulated. Here there are two issues that seem problematic. One, as in many cases the source of the information is based beyond the frontiers or jurisdictions of the authorities of a given country( say living or based in China, Russia, Pakistan or any other foreign country), it is difficult to take the mischief-makers to task in reality as there are no accepted international laws on the subject as yet and you cannot wage a war to capture the guilty in a foreign land.
Secondly, in a democracy that India is, the issue involves fundamental right of freedom of expression and other privacy-rights. As a result, we do not have adequate laws to deal with the menace of abusing social media, though as in K S Puutaswamy v Union of India(privacy case), Justice S K Kaul has called for a solution. As he said, “ As we move from becoming a digital economy and increase our reliance on Internet-based services, we are creating deeper and deeper digital footprints – passively and actively…..these digital footprints and extensive date can be analysed computationally to reveal patterns, trends and associations, especially relating to human behaviours and interactions, and , hence is valuable information. This is the age of “big data”…Thus there is an unprecedented need for regulation regarding the extent to which such information can be stored, processed and used by non-State actors”.
As of today, surveillance in India is regulated by two laws. One is the archaic 1855 Telegraph Act that broadly permits the interception of private data on “the occurrence of a public emergency, or in the interest of public safety”, ‘if it is necessary or expedient to do so in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, or public order, or for preventing incitement to the commission of an offence”.
The other law flows from the Information Technology Act , 2000, which empowers the government to intercept, monitor or decrypt Internet data for “defence of India”, “the investigation of any offence”, and “enhancing cyber security”.
It is however to be noted that whenever the State has applied these rules to control the social media, there have been a lot of hue and cry by the users and activists(both political and social). See the recent arrests of a journalist and media channel owner and editor regarding their sharing of some objectionable material on Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. In fact, in recent years , West Bengal and Karnataka governments have arrested many for sharing not exactly palatable information against Chief Ministers Mamata Bannerjee and HD Kumarswamy and their families.
The Kamal Nath government in Madhya Pradesh went even to the ridiculous extent of arresting a College professor for astrologically predicting in Facebook that the BJP under Prime Minister Modi would easily win the (last) general elections. Similarly, our so-called Left-Liberal intelligentsia and opposition parties led by the Congress party go hyper whenever the government in Jammu and Kashmir restrains the social media and stops internet facilities to control the mindless violence sponsored by the secessionist fundamentalists in the valley at the behest of their patrons in Pakistan.
In my considered view, the most fundamental question is why a technology or technological application that has given birth to social media should be blamed for people or users misusing these applications. If such is the case, then no scientific or technological discovery or inventions in the history of mankind should have any rationale to exist. Take the simplest examples of a kitchen-knife and paperweight in our households. Should we ban their use just because some mad man or criminal uses a kitchen knife to stab someone or throws the paperweight to smash one’s head? Should we ban the use of car or a bus just because a driver runs over someone?
Exactly the same way, why should we blame the Facebook or WhatsApp or the twitter just because there are people who misuse them? Let us see, what these applications have given us, despite the present negativity surrounding them. First, there is simply no doubt that it has given people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. People use applications like Facebook and WhatsApp to stay connected with friends and family. and share and express what matters to them. They are the perfect platforms where we can connect and converse with our friends and family who are spread out all over the world. They help us discover the long-lost friends and former classmates. They let us share and find out about births, celebrations, deaths and tragedies in the flash of an eye. In other words, they have given us a universal communication platform. They have made the world smaller and more accessible. And most important, it is free.
Secondly, Social media is also being used widely for learning. The learning App provides educational content for students of Class IV-XII, trains students for various competitive examinations.
Thirdly, social media applications are particularly helpful for marketing products and services, or for staying connected with customers, employees and business partners. This is particularly useful for small and micro businesses, which cannot afford the costly advertisings. This medium provides them tools literally free to find new customers in far distant places without middlemen and commissions.
On Facebook, businesses can deliver their marketing messages directly to the people who most need and want what they offer. This is accomplished by using data that Facebook collects from users, such as interests, gender, age, etc. Some may consider it intrusive, and some brand this as capitalist exploitation by the Application-owner to mint money by sharing the data with established brands. But then the fact remains that the whole exercise is voluntary. Nobody forces you to give your data. And still if you give your preferences, it also helps you in getting to know the brands and products and their prices, of things that you are looking for to be delivered at your footsteps. As regards the Facebook making money in the process, what is wrong in it? Why do you want people, who have spent money and time in developing the applications, to deliver them free to you?
As regards the role of social media in influencing political choices, it is a matter of how one looks at the things. Before the advent of the social media, we had heard of how the intelligence organisations like the KGB and CIA were interfering in the political processes, including elections, of other countries to install the governments of their choices. Ultimately, everything depends on how firm-rooted the democratic roots of a country are.
In India, we have often heard of the role of money and muscle power during elections. These were there very much well before the advent of the social media. In fact, one may argue that if all the political parties and candidates run their campaigns only through social media, elections in India will cost much less, contrary to what critics say. Here I would like to cite the example of Smriti Irani, the Union Minister, quoting extensively from a piece that appeared recently in “exchange 4 media”. She won the Amethi parliamentary seat, an erstwhile bastion of the Gandhi family , in this Lok Sabha elections with a margin of 55,120 votes by upping her ante on social media to create the right kind of buzz that got her trending on timelines.
“The 43-year-old leader has the sixth oldest account among the ministers @smritiirani. The Twitter handle was created by the Woman and Child Development Minister on the 6th of April in 2010. “By July 2, 2014, she had 5,06,324 followers and in June 2019 the figure reached 9 million. This means, on an average per day 4K+ accounts started following her. It is amazing to see how Irani has used the social media as a platform to create an influence on social media users. She appears in the top-10 list of all social networks in terms of both likes and followers,” said Ponnurangam Kumaraguru, Associate Professor at IIIT Delhi and IIIT Hyderabad.
Kumaraguru has also put together a social media report card based on the minister’s social media performance. A little over 12 per cent of her feed was put out in 2019 alone to get on to the election wave on the social media. According to data shared by the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi, of the 29,000 tweets that Irani has posted, 3,600 were done from January 1, 2019. Of this, 1,895 have media content in them (image or a video), 506 of these are original tweets, 1,358 are retweets and 31 are quotes.
Among the 3,600 posts, 1,000 are original tweets, 2,535 retweets, including replies, and 77 are quotes. While 275 of Irani’s tweets had Amethi mentioned in them, only 3 of Rahul Gandhi’s tweets spoke about the key constituency.
Irani also reportedly set up a special team in Amethi that sent out videos and pictures, especially designed around the constituency, on WhatsApp groups and Facebook. The same team also created a buzz on Twitter through numerous temporary handles and sent out text messages to not just the people of Amethi but across the country to keep the chatter going.
According to experts, the tech-savy minister won the hearts of new voters with her quirky and well-informed social media feeds. “This was the second wave of digital election and the first one to be fought on mobile phones. In 2014, people were beginning to get a hang of how the political battle was also being fought on social media, but in 2019 it became a fully developed battlefield. Irani used to be an artist and still hones her communication skills which she backs up with data. The fact that she puts up posts backed with information makes her a good social media communicator. This helped her grab the attention of the 12 to 15 million Gen Z population who also happened to be first-time voters,” said Anup Sharma, independent political strategist.
It is true that the BJP under Narendra Modi has always led others in using the social media to influence the voters. Facebook has helped Modi develop his online presence to ensure that he has more followers on the social media platform than any other leader in the world.. According to a study called “World leaders on Facebook” by Burson Cohn and Wolfe, in May 2018, Modi had as many as 43.2 million “followers” on the platform with US President Donald Trump coming a poor second with 23.1 million followers.
It is also true that any other party in the country, it is the BJP that has a large number of WhatsApp groups in the country. But is that the fault of the Facebook and WhatsApp? They are there for everybody. They did not prevent other political parties from using their platforms. All said and done, more than the money, it is the attitude to change along with the time, interests in changing oneself and one’s strategy and maintaining a friendly mindset for the technological advances that makes the so-called conservative BJP and Modi different from the supposedly progressive Congress and its leaders.
In any case, after the poll debacle in 2014, the Congress did re-invent itself on social media with Rahul Gandhi scaling up his visibility on Twitter and Facebook as he led the party’s campaign against Modi. The Congress’ social media team, led by actress and former MP Divya Spandana in Bengaluru, regularly posts memes and spoofs mocking the Modi government and its policies. And in creating mischief and fake news by tinkering with photos and videos, she is said to have surpassed even the best in the team of Modi. As Pratik Sinha, co-founder of Alt News, an online platform which debunks fake news, says, “If you notice our stories, you’ll see there is now more misinformation from the non right-wing side as well, especially pages and accounts that seem to support the Congress,” adding, the change in patterns has become more evident in the past few months. Sinha cites a recent example when photograph of a Sardar Patel statue erected in 2008 went viral with Congress supporters circulating it as that of the world’s tallest statue unveiled in Gujarat recently. It was after Rahul Gandhi said Modi’s pet project was ‘Made in China’. It is to the Spandana’s “credit” that under her leadership the Congress disinformation on the procuring the Rafale fighter aircraft and the controversial death of Judge B H Loya literally shook the Modi-campaign in the initial days.
Take a typical example of how Congress social media head Divya Spandana once flirted with fake news, something I picked up during my research for this article. She shared a story on her Twitter handle from a website ‘IndiaScoops’ which has had a history of peddling questionable content.
Rafale Deal: Technical HODs at Dassault Aviation claim Reliance Defence was never the first choice, decision to drop HAL was taken by CEO Eric Trappier at the last minute! #ChorPMChupHai Read 🏽https://t.co/IbK9SOQLcd
— Divya Spandana/Ramya (@divyaspandana) September 24, 2018
The story ‘quotes’ two top technical heads at Dassault Aviation who claim that the entire technical staff team at Dassault Aviation were unhappy with the move to drop Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd and go ahead with Reliance Defence Ltd in the Rafale deal between India and France.
In reality, the website, however, did not name the ‘two top technical heads’ nor did it provide anything to substantiate the explosive claim they purportedly made. But, no sooner was the article published than it was shared by many people, including Gujarat Congress leader Arjun Modhwadia and lawyer and professional complainant activist-lawyer Prashant Bhushan.
All this is not to overlook the deleterious impacts of the information flowing through the social media. The point that remains debatable, however, is whether State-interventions through hard laws and banning or coercing the social media applications or platforms are going to be effective. We have noted above how State interventions have their limitations, particularly in a democracy like India. We are not China.
In any case, companies such as Facebook and Twitter have set up elaborate schemes on their own to moderate commercial and provocative comments such as reporting tools, human moderators and automated systems. But their basic point is that information on their platforms is user-generated, and attempting to control it would make them the “arbiters of truth” and impinge on the users’ fundamental right of free speech.
The best solution, therefore, for us, as Samir Saran and Bedavyasa Mohanty suggest, is to create counter narrative mechanisms that dispel disinformation. “The close coordination between fact-checkers, official channels and the mainstream media can render many sources of disinformation unviable. Companies are already exploring ways in which the identification and flagging of coordinated fake news campaigns can be done by artificial intelligence(AI). While this is unlikely to be a silver bullet, automating the process can significantly arrest the spread of malicious content. These pieces of content, flagged as unverified or false, can make users second guess themselves before disseminating it further. These active measures can be combined with strong penalties that can act as a deterrent against wilfully and maliciously sharing content that has a clear link to violence and public harm”.
By Prakash Nanda