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Democracy and Social Media

Under fire for letting London-based Cambridge Analytica harvest Facebook user data to influence the 2016 US presidential elections, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has expressed his commitment to ensuring the integrity of elections henceforth. Grilled by 45 senators at a US Congressional hearing for about five hours, he said, “2018 is an incredibly important year for elections. Not just with the US midterms, but around the world, there are important elections — in India, in Brazil, in Mexico, in Pakistan and Hungary — that we want to make sure that we do everything we can to protect the integrity of those elections.”

Zuckerberg admitted that up to 87 million Facebook users might have had their personal data accessed by Cambridge Analytica (CA), a political consulting company. Admitting his mistake, he added that his personal data was also stolen. The question is, how far can elections be influenced by obtaining people’s personal data? It may be debatable, but the very attempt to influence voters by spreading disinformation is an onslaught on democracy.

A company called Global Science Research used a ‘personality app’, with the consent of Facebook, ostensibly for some academic purpose, and harvested data of millions of Facebook subscribers who used this app. Its claim of doing academic research was a humbug, the data was sold to CA, which was working for Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign. It has come to light that Indian political parties also approached CA to reap political dividends. Its former chief executive Alexander Nix, now under suspension, has said that his company is used to “operating through different vehicles in the shadows”. In an interview, he said without mincing words, “Things don’t necessarily need to be true, as long as they are believed.” Analytica’s slogan is: “Data drives all we do.” What the company did was, in fact, exactly the opposite – it drove data to the ends it wanted. Much like Lady Macbeth, who pretentiously said she had lost her sleep over the murder of King Duncan. She did lose sleep, but it was because of her guilty conscience. A whistle-blower has laid bare the commercial nexus between Analytica and American politicians in predicting and influencing voting preferences.

Some 123 countries have electoral democracy, only a few of them are real, vibrant democracies. Apprehensions have been expressed that information and communication technology, which had the power to strengthen democracy, may now subvert it. Rulers of countries with only electoral democracy may use it to win elections and stay in power as autocrats. It happened in 2013 in Azerbaijan’s elections. President Ilham Aliyev, in order to shore up his democratic credentials, launched an iPhone app that enabled people to know results simultaneously as the counting took place. It was bandied about as the regime’s commitment to transparency. Later, it turned out that results were posted on the app a day before; Andrés Sepúlveda is cooling heels in a high-security prison in central Bogota, Columbia. He is charged with rigging elections throughout Latin America for nearly a decade. In the Mexican presidential election, he worked for Enrique Peña Nieto, who was elected. He has admitted that he traversed the continent, rigging major political campaigns. His team consisted of hackers who stole campaign strategies, created a virtual world of support for Peña Nieto and animus for others by manipulating social media, and installed spyware in opposition offices.

Hand-wringing over distortion of facts may be justified but the phenomenon is not new. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, in their book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), showed that mass media, instead of upholding truth and justice, defends the economic, social and political agendas of privileged groups. Consent is manufactured with the help of mass media, which obfuscates facts. The term “the manufacture of consent” was first used by Walter Lippmann in his book Public Opinion (1922). Lippmann had the same complaint -- that facts are never presented accurately and completely but are often arranged to portray a certain, subjective interpretation of an event to suit private needs. The problem of fake news is as old as the hills, but its menace has grown tremendously with the growth of information technology. During the freedom movement, people used to quote Mahatma Gandhi on almost everything to buttress their viewpoint. Except, in most cases, Gandhi hadn’t said as quoted and had to often disown statements wrongly attributed to him.

Eternal vigilance is the price of democracy, but it is possible only when people are well-informed. It is well-nigh impossible to derive the truth from a blizzard of information, misinformation and disinformation. An uninformed public is not dangerous, but a misinformed public is. Lippmann has written that a very high voting percentage reflects on prevailing tension in the society. It happens in the case of misinformation and misinformed people end up taking wrong decisions. This is deleterious to democracy, but it is difficult to convince people that they can be misled so easily.

The question one encounters often is, what is truth? 

The Kenopanishad defines it: “Amayita satyam iti” — non-deception is what truth is. It further says, “Akautilyam wa manah kayanaam” — the non-distortion of speech, body and mind. There cannot be any truth if there is an element of deception. The greatest example of deception is found in the Mahabharata. Dharmaraj Yudhishthira takes recourse to a half-truth when he says “Ashwatthama hatau” (Ashwatthama is dead). He was technically right, but the purpose was to disturb Dronacharya, who went into shock that his son Ashwatthama had died. It was required to win the war. It is an example of fake news.

So, fake news is as old as the hills, but it cannot be said with certainty as to what extent it influences elections.

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