The Empire Strikes Back — On Social Media

by Rajeev Srinivasan - Feb 12, 2019 08:48 PM +05:30 IST
The Empire Strikes Back — On Social MediaProtest march against Twitter India (Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
  • The promise of social media has been hijacked by a few malign actors. Moreover, there are no checks over the capturing of Indian consumer data by social media platforms.

I find it a little ironic that I have been asked to write a critique of social media. In 2011, I wrote a piece in DNA, “India is finally seeing the birth of alternative journalism?”, wherein I suggested that, at last, the stultifying far-Left group-think of the mainstream media was being challenged by a new set of citizen-journalists not beholden to anybody. (Incidentally, the great Amitabh Bachchan himself liked my piece and recommended it: an unexpected bonus!)

I noted then that Twitter, in particular, levelled the playing field for those interested in national affairs, because it allowed them to interact on an equal basis with high-and-mighty media types, who had hitherto been able to censor them via editorial privilege. It was a breath of fresh air that would illumine the dark corners of the Indian enterprise that the usual suspects in power would rather ignore.

My model was South Korea’s OhmyNews, a small independent newspaper, which was instrumental in toppling the last strongman in that country. Freed from the clutches of influence peddlers (as in the Radia tapes) and the vendettas of star journalists (you know who they are), I hoped that journalism without agendas would flourish in India as well.

The results, a few years later, are mixed. On the one hand, social media did play a significant part in the mobilisation of the young and the nationalistic. Narendra Modi was the obvious beneficiary, and his mastery of social media in 2014 was a factor in his ability to break the stranglehold of the powers-that-were. Thus, my hopes about an OhmyNews-style revolution were fulfilled.

In addition, a whole slew of mostly Internet-based outlets are challenging the facile narrative of the entrenched power-brokers.’s humiliating recent take-down of a badly-researched, deeply-flawed, scientifically invalid BBC narrative on ‘fake news’ was a landmark: they caught the mighty Beeb with its pants down, and forced it to recant. Similarly, other feisty, independent outlets are allowing bold new voices to flourish, surely a great improvement to the status quo ante.

But on the other hand, the evil empire has struck back. After initial bewilderment at the empowerment of average netizen, the glitterati have figured out how to manipulate them. They too have started many online outlets that spew clever propaganda.

These are well funded (as compared to the shoestring citizen sites), run by recognisable faces from the old cabal, and have figured out how to create and legitimatise fake news. Given their Goebbelsian training, it is no wonder that some of these ‘fact-check’ sites are the biggest purveyors of manufactured tropes.

Technology is often first adopted by the dubious and the criminal-minded (eg, the pioneers in every new medium such as VCRs, CDs and the Internet were pornographers), so I await with bated breath what these people will do when ‘deep fakes’ (fabricated videos and audios indistinguishable from the real thing) become commonplace shortly. Already, WhatsApp forwards have been blamed for various lynchings and other mayhem. People believe video.

Of particular note is the baleful influence of foreign Internet entities. The most obvious instance was the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal, in which user privacy was compromised and used to manipulate elections. These techniques will be used in the 2019 elections by political parties; indeed, one major party had hired Cambridge Analytica to do just that. The demise of that company has not put the genie back in the bottle: its principals have reappeared under a different moniker.

There is also persistent bias in social media, and almost all of that is at the expense of conservatives. In early December, the US Congress grilled Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google, about alleged leftist bias in selecting stories. Even though Google, Facebook, Twitter, and their Chinese counterparts all assure us that neutral algorithms select stories, it is hard to take them at face value. For one thing, even the training data sets used by artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms are subject to selection bias, and the data sets are chosen by people, and influenced by their own biases.

There is anecdotal evidence of bias in social media, partly because the Silicon Valley tech giants are full of people with strong allegiance to the Democratic Party in the US, and animosity towards Donald Trump. Similarly, their employees in India seem to have strong allegiance to the Congress party, and animosity towards Narendra Modi.

Twitter is a particularly good example. One of Twitter India’s senior employees was a separatist sympathiser. Others have been accused of severe leftist bias, to the extent of instituting shadow-banning, whereby an individual’s tweets simply disappear.

Furthermore, they appear to punish people differentially for similar offences: a leftist may get away with a slap on the wrist, but a conservative may get the account suspended for offences that look more or less identical to a neutral observer. For instance, a handle named @TrueIndology, which quotes authentic sources from Indian history, has been frequently harassed and forced to hide its account.

There is also the phenomenon of mass-blocking. There are apparently lists of people blocked wholesale by others. I have been victimised by this. Several times I have found that I could not read tweets by certain people. I was blocked by them. Since many were people I had never heard of, I was initially surprised. Then I realised there were mass-blocking lists of conservative Twitter handles; I was in those lists, and was automatically blocked. There was a pattern: the blockers were usually leftists. So I learned how it is to be a social pariah to lots of people whom I didn’t know from Adam.

Bullying, trolling, stalking, rape and death threats, attempts to get a person fired, are all standard leftist tactics on social media these days. Chaitanya Kunte springs to mind: he was terrorised into quitting social media by a media prima donna, who is often seen extolling free speech. A particularly odious troll has written a book ironically accusing others of being trolls. Twitter is no longer a safe space.

Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter, committed an act that, technically, he could be arrested under Indian Penal Code sections 295a and 153a: for hurting the sentiments of a group of people, or causing disharmony among different groups. He was seen in a widely circulated photograph flanked by known leftists and a known Church fundamentalist, holding a placard that read “smash Brahminical patriarchy!”.

In addition, Dorsey’s contrasting body language when he, separately, met the Prime Minister and the president of the Congress party, was a dead giveaway of his preference for the latter.

Thus, social media is no longer a neutral provider of communication and entertainment. WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc are now apparent players with political agendas. I have long suspected that the US Deep State considers India a target, along with its conversion-hungry evangelists, fronted by the Orwellian US Council on International Religious Freedom. This shows up in many ways.

There appears to be a political preference for the Congress party and animosity towards Narendra Modi and a nurturing of Lutyens PLUs (people-like-us), the primary interlocutors of the social media giants’ operations in India. Just as the mainstream foreign media such as The Economist, The Financial Times, The New York Times, and The Washington Post are unremittingly hostile to India, it is a fair bet that the ‘new media’ (for that’s what official social media has become) is also the same.

Coupled with the issues about privacy, the Cambridge Analytica scam brought to the fore, the concern that money might be changing hands is also causing people to become disenchanted. A number of users quit Facebook (me included), for it was creepy knowing how much it knew about one, and it didn’t feel good being packaged up and sold to advertisers. After the Dorsey episode, I criticised him, and I figured that my Twitter days were numbered. So I put my account into suspended animation.

What we are seeing in social media is a variant of the influence operations that the Chinese are conducting in many countries to manipulate policy and public opinion. Of course, others have tried to groom future influencers through such programmes as the Fulbright and Rhodes scholarships, but the Chinese are particularly egregious and lavish in influence-peddling. In India, a famous newspaper has become a veritable arm of China’s Xinhua propaganda agency. This is repeating itself in social media.

A recent report from Stanford’s Hoover Institution titled, “Chinese Influence and American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance” lays out in some detail the level of Chinese penetration into universities, think tanks, media, politicians and government not only in the US but also in allied nations such as Japan, Australia, Canada, Singapore and the UK (India is not mentioned in the report).

Thus we have Americans, Chinese, and several other vested interests attempting to mould the discourse to benefit them: it’s a Wild West free-for-all in the ideas market in India. Recent state elections show how the Congress has also learned (no doubt with a little help from their friends abroad) how to make friends and influence people through sustained social media campaigns. For instance, the tweetstorms over Rafale and about compromised electronic voting machines (EVMs) ebbed mysteriously as soon as the election results were announced.

As in allegations about Russian interference in US elections, this sort of subverting of the public’s will through propaganda is bad enough. But there’s more. It’s in the massive capturing of Indian consumer data by social media platforms, especially as they are all beginning to offer e-commerce.

Our searches, emails, SMS and social media posts are full of nuggets of information that are useful to advertisers. Very quickly, the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Google, Twitter and others have built up a comprehensive database about Indians.

In the absence of a comprehensive privacy act comparable to the General Data Protection Rules that have gone into force in Europe already, there are concerns about where our precious data is going. Giant data sets have practical benefits. It is because China shielded its citizens’ data behind firewalls and kept out Facebook, Google, etc that Alibaba, Tencent, etc have become big players in a short while.

Meanwhile, India’s equivalent data is being plundered by all and sundry. All of us have had the eerie experience of clicking Amazon or Google or Facebook ads and then finding that ads for related products are following us wherever we go on the Internet. They know us too well.

For instance, consider financial data. Paytm is more than 60 per cent owned by Alibaba. Therefore, all the financial data on individuals that use Paytm is available to Alibaba. Consider how this will enable Alibaba to collate information from diverse sources to arrive at a composite credit score for many Indian citizens. This may well be enough incentive to get off the Paytm platform; but you’re out of luck, because CIBIL, which has consumer credit data, is owned by TransUnion, a US credit reporting service.

This can, alarmingly, go further. There is the ‘social credit’ system that China is rolling out. The Chinese government has so much information about its citizens that it can micromanage them: bad social credit means you will not get a job, be able to board an aircraft or buy real estate.

Now that’s bad enough for the Chinese. How would it be if the Chinese government were to be able to do this to Indians? Well, in effect, that’s what the leakage of data from India will lead to, as personal political, financial and medical data will all be crunched to arrive at a ‘score’ for a person. This is a nightmare Big Brother scenario, largely enabled by poor policy decisions by India.

There are broad ethical issues. Continuous snooping cripples the very soul of a society, as seen in the moral dilemma faced by surveillance expert Gene Hackman in the brilliant Cannes-winning 1974 film The Conversation in the wake of Watergate; or in the old idea of a panopticon, where society is a jail where every inmate is at risk of being watched at any time by the jailer, thus destroying all notions of civilisation, privacy and intimacy. It’s just easier to do now with smartphones and social media.

The promise of social media has been hijacked by a few malign actors. It is no longer a bastion of freedom of expression as it once was. A number of stalwarts like @sandeepweb have left; others, such as the famous @barbarindian, are pale shadows of their former selves. The mainstream media has captured social media. We have met the enemy, and by god, it is us!

Rajeev Srinivasan focuses on strategy and innovation, which he worked on at Bell Labs and in Silicon Valley. He has taught innovation at several IIMs. An IIT Madras and Stanford Business School grad, he has also been a conservative columnist for twenty years.

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