Time to rein in social media during elections

The amount of information we have voluntarily submitted for the data miners through our social media accounts is humongous.
For representational purposes
For representational purposes

It is said that Indians often vote for their caste rather than cast their votes. It had always been easy to sway a huge section of voters by unscrupulous politicians using caste, language, religion and ethnicity. However, what has changed in recent years is the extensive use of data analytics in swaying the voter’s preference.

Politics is no longer just the game of transporting masses in trucks for mega rallies and processions, pasting a few posters and graffiti on compound walls, bribing voters with hooch and money or capturing polling booths.

Big data has changed the way how elections are fought in India. Now professional agencies handle major political parties' back-end office, and they cleverly manipulate public opinion using social media and astute PR work.

Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi politician and Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany, had shown the world how a country could be hypnotised by controlling the news media, arts and information. But the tools he had at that time and the information he could assess about Nazi Germany's citizens were limited.

The amount of information we have voluntarily submitted for the data miners through our social media accounts is humongous. Almost 60 percent of Indian voters have Facebook and WhatsApp accounts. Elections are now won using algorithms that feed you the political opinion you want to hear.

The data analysts employed by political parties know you better than your spouse, parent, sibling, lover or yourself know about you. They know which sites you browse when no one is looking; they know what you purchase, where you go and spend time with and what kind of movies you see and books you read. The era of mass communication is over.

You are manipulated using personalised feeds in the shining brick in your hands that you cannot take your eyes off. From 2012 onwards, Big Data has influenced how you think. Have you observed how political opinions become more biased, prejudices have thickened, and views hardened? That is because your newsfeed gives you news to which you were already biased. There is no space for a differing opinion.

Without the diversity of views, there is no democracy. The bots feed you what you want to hear. The data analyst analyses your behaviour and fine-tunes the political campaign to make you believe whatever they want. Depending on who hires them, they can convince you that their opponent is a fool or a particular leader is a demigod or vice versa.

The scale and depth at which this is done now are breathtaking. If Goebbels had a fraction of these tools, the rest of the world may be perhaps living as a colony of the Third Reich and believing it to be heaven even while their neighbours were being marched to the gas chambers. Maybe that is the future staring at us. Democracy works with proper checks and balances.

However, most of our existing rules were made for a different world that no longer exists. Take the laws like the ban on campaigning for 48 hours before the polling dates, the limit on money spent for campaigning or no campaigning within 100 metres of the polling booth on an Election Day etc.

When campaigning has moved to social media, how can it be audited for the amount spent? How can the Election Commission enforce the time limit for stopping campaigning before polling dates? Ghost advertising, mass-manufactured fake videos and forwards, and paid news are relentlessly pursuing the voter’s mobile devices, influencing his decision.

The game is now won by the political party with the deepest pockets and willingness to pay data consultants well. Alan Turing, the father of modern computing, was convinced that human code breakers could never break the German messages encrypted using the machine Enigma.

He succeeded in decoding the high-security messages only after his team made the first computer for the same and won the Second World War for the allies. India's Election Commission cannot ensure free and fair elections with old laws that have no teeth. The bots of social media giants are shaping the opinion of the public and chocking democracy.

It is time to force the social media companies to have bots that would feed diverse views and news, at least during the election period. Or, social media could be banned during the election period for a free and fair campaign. Else, we would sooner or later be living in an Orwellian world, with the big brother always keeping a watch on us. 

(The writer is author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy and can be contacted at  mail@asura.co.in)

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