An electorate trapped in digital excesses

Big data brokers with information on user behaviour and demographics help political parties sway large numbers of unsuspecting voters

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Today, more and more voters are digitally empowered. Nevertheless, the excesses of personal data mining and mapping are a worry. How ethical, transparent and legal the digital political messaging really is, with reference to facts, raise alarming questions. The dubious role of entities like NaMo TV notwithstanding.

If elections are to be a true and transparent reflection of a people’s will, digital media’s part in mobilising the masses calls for a thorough scrutiny. A recent study by the European Parliament’s research panel draws attention to this conundrum.

“The advent of digital technology has led to more personalised experiences, potentially narrowing the diversity of information accessed by individuals,” says the study published in March, titled ‘Polarisation and the use of technology in political campaigns and communication’.

“Over the last decade, this has prompted scholars and pundits to suggest that social media feedback loops could be trapping us in ‘filter bubbles’ or ‘echo chambers’, where users are only exposed to opinions they already agree with and never come across challenging content (Pariser, 2011),” the study adds.

Digital reach

In Bengaluru, we have seen a candidate’s preposterous position too, imposing a gag on free and fair reporting, which was later lifted by the court. Candidates largely are uninterested in the flaws of digital messaging and fear traditional media’s credibility. That they themselves don’t see social media as a credible source is bizarre and perplexing while they expect the voters to believe whatever their outfits rant online.

“Data from inquiry platforms show 237 million Indians are digital savvy. This is to be 290 million soon. In Uttar Pradesh 67% voters use social platforms. In Hubli-Dharwad digital penetration is at 76%. People have more leisure time to engage in online interactions,” political commentator Harish Ramaswamy tells Metrolife.

Ramaswamy believes lessons on digital media should start from primary schools, considering the tremendous reach and potential. “There is much self learning at play. People need training to contextually grasp the scope and gravity of digital tools, urban and the rural voter alike,” he adds.

Fledgling big data brokers and social media allies like Facebook - firms that deal with large chunks of data on user behaviour and demographics - help political parties sway large numbers of unsuspecting voters often to their advantage. The Cambridge Anaylitica scandal is a case in point.

Politic and the politician have always rode the media’s power to persuade. However, the unprecedented shift in a comparatively short span has resulted in a transparency fiasco in framing proper digital law and policy, subsequently failing to catch up and rein in the excesses during political campaigns.

“Digital platforms reinforce existing beliefs of political outfit’s supporters. However, in our society, people primarily believe traditional media,” says political analyst Sandeep Shastri.

Misuse of medium

Of late, politicians and influencers have been caught sharing content that can deliver irreversible societal damage -- content that is intentionally criminal. After digital platforms failed to pull down the Christchurch mass shootings video, the clip was used as a call of sorts to white supremacists, and a polarising tool at the hands of authoritarian leaders like Turkey’s Erdoğan. Once what was possible only through legal and regulated traditional marketing channels, is now at the individual’s mercy.

“The speed and reach makes digital a potent tool. BJP gets this. Congress hasn’t been able to amplify itself and rise to the occasion. People tend to ignore the many candidates, when the rhetoric is focused on a single individual. Quite what the BJP wants,” notes Ramaswamy.

In 2017, there were 8.4 billion connected devices in the world. It is estimated to grow to 30 billion by 2020. A sizable number of these devices are in India. More money, resources and strategy are employed by political outfits in digital campaigns, in an unregulated and rapidly evolving territory. At a crucial juncture like the LS election, a legal and policy framework seems essential.

“Earlier connecting with voters wasn’t as direct as now. There is no fact checking in social media. Voters can be influenced with fake claims,” cautions Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw.

Algorithms that manipulate user behaviour from big data that a country like ours would generate in these times can be dangerously vulnerable, that too when it has a definitive bearing on the future course of our democracy.

“Gossip has always been around. It is part of image building in politics. Now, technology is driving that personalized gossip,” feels Narendar Pani of NIAS.

Analyses and reports call it the ‘information asymmetry’ among groups in the electorate. “Complex information infrastructures are vulnerable and prone to design failures which can be readily exploited by bad actors – both domestic and foreign – for political and economic gain,” the EU research warns.

This information asymmetry needs to be further analysed, if we are to salvage democracy as it were, in the age of political mobilisation funded by electoral bonds and blatant politicisation of the armed forces, that diminish the level playing field for the gains of a single player. “More and more citizens are staying away from online toxicity. Politics cannot be reduced to likes and dislikes,” says athlete Ashwini Nachappa.

Whatever the outcome of this election, interactions on digital platforms and its impact on our political discourse remain largely overlooked as opportunists stand to benefit.

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An electorate trapped in digital excesses

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