Sunday Spotlight: Not nationalist? Expect ‘influencers’

No government takes to criticism kindly. But the current one had a bizarre brainwave to deal with it.

In April this year, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting floated a tender asking for bids to create a Social Media Communication Hub (SMCH) for the Government of India. As stated in the tender, the objective is to track conversations across topics online, conduct sentiment analyses of the mood of citizens towards the government, crawl the internet for datamining and even to do predictive analysis of news headlines!

The SMCH is to “support easy management of conversational logs with each individual with capabilities to merge it across channels to help facilitate creating a 360-degree view of people who are creating buzz across various topics.” It doesn’t end there. The tender also states what this 360-degree profiling would be used for: ‘crisis management’ through ‘influencer activation’. The document also states that the Hub should have the capability to ‘listen’ to personal email, apart from chatter on social media.

After reading the document, it’s easy to imagine this scenario: if a person expresses negative opinion against the government, he/she will get flagged by the SMCH and an alert will go out. Pro-government influencers will then be activated to deal with this flagged individual and neutralise the “crisis” situation. In a more extreme scenario, the government might come down on this person using legal weapons and silence him/her. Keep in mind that the “crisis situation” mentioned in the tender is from the perspective of the government, not from that of the person being targeted.

This move by the government comes dangerously close to creating a surveillance engine with the sole purpose of targeting individuals who are critical of it. Even if social media posts are public, even if the person has willingly put out information and opinions, the government has no right to analyse that information and form conclusions about the citizens’ intentions in the larger scheme of things. Period.

To get an idea of the intentions sample this: the proposed Hub is supposed to chronologically go backwards to collect data about a person and merge information across platforms, including email, to create a digital profile.

It’s strange how a party that came to power through a very effective use of the freewheeling nature of the internet is now so afraid of it that it feels the need to monitor and control it.

Social media has become a tool for everyday free-form expression. It is a place where people can unabashedly express their opinions about the performance of the government and ask for accountability from their elected representatives directly. That is possible because people, in general, understand the free and democratic nature of the platform. But when any kind of authoritarian surveillance and personal profiling is activated, it will have a chilling effect on the public. There will be this constant underlying feeling of being watched by the authorities, which will force people to self-censor themselves.

Think about the reality show Bigg Boss house for a minute. When a camera is trained on the inmates 24x7, even if nobody is really watching the feed, the inmates change their behaviour to please their audiences. They want to win the show, want to garner votes, so they will peacock around, get into random fights and make sure everyone is paying attention to them and only them.

Now, think about the government watching these inmates -- a government that has the resources and the power to act against the inmate if he/she steps out of line. The inmate will then end up changing their behavior to be non-critical -- like avoid complaining about the living conditions in the house, lest the authorities watching take offence – and they go about their business quietly.

In a scenario such as this, while others are self-censoring themselves and behaving like they are expected to behave, those who are brave enough to be openly critical will stand out like a sore thumb. In a real-world scenario, influencers will be activated to deal with this problematic fellow. This is where the capability of the proposed Hub to do predictive analysis of news, that too in multiple languages, would come into play.

India currently ranks 138 on the Press Freedom Index out of 180 countries. The reason for that is that journalists are methodically silenced using archaic authoritarian laws like defamation and sedition to force them to stay in line. In extreme cases, like that of Gauri Lankesh, they are killed for exposing some fault lines.

The government, regardless of which party is in power, does not take kindly to journalists who expose their failings. So, when you give that very government the power to make a 360-degree profile of a journalist, to pinpoint accurately whether they are pro or anti-government, whether their reports are finding resonance with the public or not, and even pinpoint the exact location where they are active, it just adds to their capability to quickly silence journalists and other whistleblowers in a methodical manner.

The irony is, the government is using taxpayer money to implement a system of surveillance over the taxpayers. It’s a bizarre move, because on one hand this government is trying to get more people online, to enable easy access of various services it provides, constantly reminding us how technology is the solution to all
ills big and small, but at the same time,
it is trying to control how we use this medium.

With a year to go for general elections, it is scary to think how the proposed Social Media Hub will be used to influence voter behaviour, silence critical voices and inflict a chilling effect on every Indian online. This draconian idea should raise red flags in every right thinking citizen’s mind.

Brace yourself critics, 2019 is coming!

(The writer is a Delhi-based policy analyst and columnist)

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Sunday Spotlight: Not nationalist? Expect ‘influencers’

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