Narratives manipulate voters, and in the coming months, more fabrications will be floated on social media.
Manipulation of the voters ahead of the national elections of 2019 must be prevented.
For the last 18 months, Democrats and other groups on the Left in the United States have toiled hard to attribute President Donald Trump’s victory to the Russian interference. While rigging an entire election is impossible in the US, given how decentralised, localised, and verified the entire process is, it has not stopped media and the Left from raising the issue repeatedly. The indictment of 12 Russians in the investigation last week has not resulted in any major breakthrough.
In India, a similar trend is being witnessed. Post-2014, Congress and its allies in the political, intellectual, and art spectrum have been blaming their repeated election defeats on electronic voting machines (EVMs). From opinion pieces to prime-time debates, EVMs have been blamed for Congress’ loss. Policies, voter priorities and preferences, or the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi have seldom been discussed. The hackability of EVMs has become the hot topic and everything else irrelevant, until Congress won a couple of by-polls.
Free and fair elections are one of the foundations of any democracy. Any threat to this process must and will invite critics from all political ideologies. However, in India and the US post-2014 and 2016 respectively, the critics have based their apprehensions on fabrications and not facts. The criticism has been driven by hate for the leadership, the hate being apparent in most instances.
While rigging is not even a distant possibility, there is every chance of manipulating the voters.
Online Indian Voter In Numbers And Their Vulnerability
The Indian voter is gullible. For decades, he/she has valued his/her vote based on caste one belongs to, or the freebies that are made available. Ideally, policies must drive politics. In India, unfortunately, it is the other way around. Today, as politicians learn that caste and freebies no longer lure voters, they have started investing in narratives. To aid their investments is the increased digitisation in both urban and rural areas that encompass 500 million Indians.
To put things in perspective, here are a few numbers. Today, the number of internet users in India exceeds that of both the European Union and the US. users, India is second to China, with the latter having over 750 million users online. Facebook has over 270 million active users in India, the highest for any country. WhatsApp has 200 million while Twitter has a mere 30 million users in India. Smartphones constitute close to 35 per cent of the 700 million phones sold.
Indians love the social media. As cited in one of the on Swarajya, 60 per cent of the smartphone users, or close to 160 million users spend in excess of 150 minutes on their smartphones each day. In excess of 85 per cent of these 160 million users spend time navigating the social media. Taking the convergence in the above numbers into account (common users across Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp), we have at least 140 million users whom political parties, fringe groups and foreign interests can reach out to via social media.
In the context of our population count that exceeds 1.3 billion, 140 million may appear to be too small a number. However, here are some more numbers. In 2014, the number of eligible voters was 815 million, a jump of 100 million from 2009. Against 410 million in 2009, the voter was 550 million in 2014. Some 171 million went to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and 106 million were garnered by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Against 500 million today, the number of internet users in 2014 was 250 million.
Assuming we have 900 million eligible voters for 2019, we will have a minimum of 150 million voters whose voting preferences would be driven by social media. In the context of 2019, this proportion might not alarm some, but come 2024, the number could be in excess of 350 million.
Fake News, Fabricated Narratives
After the US elections of 2016, there has been a lot of talk about fake news, but the problem lies in the narratives that have their origin in fake news. For instance, the share prices of a food and beverage company shall dip sharply if a fake report about their beverages or meat being contaminated is released. In financial markets, the share can regain its previous price. In the context of media, fake news can be withdrawn, not the narratives or the damage they cause.
Lately, social media has been used to peddle fake narratives, the most recent being #TalkToAMuslim, which was a shabby attempt by promoters of the opposition to show how alienated Muslims have been under the NDA regime. From placard activism on Twitter to fabricated forwards on WhatsApp, social media has become a headache for regulatory bodies.
Even the most renowned media outlets have faltered. In 2017, The Hindu carried out a story of a dying woman being molested in Mumbai. Within minutes of the story going out, a narrative around women safety in India was in play. Turns out, the woman was being helped by the very men the newspaper claimed were molesting her.
In Hyderabad, two techies were lynched because the villagers mistook them as child lifters, based on some random message they had received on WhatsApp. A similar incident occurred in Assam. Across India, incidents of lynching have been reported due to rumour mongering on WhatsApp.
For politicians, both in the government and in the opposition, incidents like these offer fuel for outrage. Debates follow, opinionated pieces are published, but no sincere effort is made towards curtailing the incidents. In the end, exaggerated narratives displace factual discussion. In many cases, fabricated stories are created to aid the spread of the narrative, for it offers a political incentive.
Who owns these narratives? The answer is relative, for it depends on who one votes for. However, the bigger question is, who can own these narratives in the run-up to 2019? The answer: anyone.
A mob can be held accountable for the lynching, yes. However, if an entire election is manipulated through a series of fabricated narratives, who do we hold responsible? A person or a group can be arrested for murdering someone for carrying beef or an inter-religion marriage, yes. However, if an entire district is encompassed by communal riots ahead of a polling day, who do we hold responsible?
Demand Accountability, Not Censorship
Contrary to popular opinion, the problem does not lie with technology. Government or the voter cannot attribute the emergence of fake narratives or resulting violence to WhatsApp or Twitter. The web is what we make of it, and in the context of 2019, some are and many more will use it to manipulate the voters.
The solution does not lie in policing WhatsApp, Twitter or Facebook. In a democracy, people have the right to say what they feel, irrespective of the credibility of the fact they present. The idea of policing via setups like ‘Social Media Communication Hub’ is not wise, to say the least, as it conflicts with the fundamental rights as well.
Both, the precaution and the solution lie in demanding accountability from the social media giants. A lesson here can be learned from the European Union (EU). Summoning Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg, lawmakers from EU asked tough questions pertaining to data protection, privacy, and regulation of content. Earlier this week, they slapped Google with a fine in excess of $5 billion for antitrust violations. While the scenarios in question are different, EU must be credited for taking a strong stance against these tech giants.
Making Social Media Great Again
Accountability must come with some form of transparency. Firstly, paid campaigns pertaining to any central, state and local election on any online platform must be listed clearly on the relevant page. Users scrolling through their timelines must be able to differentiate between paid, sponsored and organic content. Secondly, pages affiliated to political parties, political ideologies, leaders, politicians and religious groups must have a weekly spending limit on their pages during the election season.
Thirdly, Twitter and Facebook must ensure that accounts and pages relating to a single cause are merged. For instance, a party’s state unit should have a single page or handle, or else they shall be in a position to defy the second rule. Also, a single verified source of information will help both the promoters and the subscribers of the page/handle.
Fourthly, the government must work with Facebook and Twitter to curb hate speech, fake news and communal provocations. The government cannot impose what it thinks is right on these companies and hence should invite suggestions from experts across industries (media, analytics, data mining, politics, and so on). For starters, Facebook and Twitter must revise their guidelines on what constitutes as hate speech, have all pages and handles above a threshold number of subscribers agree to it to continue publishing.
Moving forward, publishing bans ranging for a few hours to months must be introduced. Let users have the right to object to it, present a case (as Facebook currently does), and if the ban goes through, have the page/handle publish a public report as to what led to the ban before they can post again.
Lastly, all WhatsApp forwards, even the ones that contain wishes for a crackerless Diwali must come with a stamp that denotes their origin. One, this will enable less of those excruciating forwards, and two, people shall be far more responsible while sharing it. WhatsApp should be made to consider options for blocking numbers that indulge in spamming. Telecoms must be dictated to do the same for numbers that spread information via short message service (SMS). Already, WhatsApp is considering imposing a limit on forwards in India.
Contemplating Foreign Interference In The Elections
What if Chinese decide to get a little adventurous ahead of the elections? For one, they have data of millions of Indians through the cheap devices they have floated in the market. Two, their companies are not bound by any law pertaining to data protection and privacy law, since India does not have one.
Given how they love pumping money into foreign markets, the Chinese might buy data from cash-strapped startups, existing loss-making food, travel, utility online brands, and may use of it to influence voters with relevant ads. At this point, the Chinese can conduct a data scam that will make Cambridge Analytica disclosures look like a pickpocketing incident. India is not prepared, not even remotely.
India needs a data law. It should have had one by now, but the lack of intent on the part of the government is unforgivable. A data law scrutinising how every company handles user data along with other aspects is needed urgently. Threatening to summon Zuckerberg before a dozen reporters is not going to help, especially if the present ruling bloc ends up in the opposition.
Preparing For The 2019 Elections
Narratives are manipulating the voters already. In the coming months, more fabrications will be floated on social media, and ahead of polls, who knows what might happen.
In an ideal world, elections must be fought on policy and not propaganda. In the same world, information should lead to knowledge. Sadly, most Indians online have missed this trick.
The government, tech giants, experts from different industries, and the voters must clean up this mess in their respective capacities. Follow a thousand fabircations with the truth, no one shall buy the truth. Follow a thousand truths with a fabircation, and all shall buy the latter. The dilution of knowledge and informed facts through excessive peddling of information must stop before we can’t tell the difference between fabircations and facts.
Manipulation of the voters ahead of the national elections of 2019 must be prevented.