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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 19 New Delhi April 27, 2019

WhatsApp Democracy comes to India !

Monday 29 April 2019

by L.K. Sharma

The expanding virtual universe of the 21st century began by featuring intimate personal relations among human beings, replacing face-to-face contact with Facebook messages. In this world, the women and men could safely say the unsayable things.

The virtual world now dominates national and international affairs and lets its citizens say the unsayable things. It lets political rivals trade false allegations and distort history. It incites violent groups to commit violence. Its virtual force influenced the US presidential elections and brought Donald Trump to power. WhatsApp Democracy in India has brought the oldest and the largest democracies closer.

The virtual world makes no distinction between truth and falsehood. It validates the key Hindu belief—Jagat mithya, this world is a big lie, Mayanagri—a city of illusions! Its leaders and citizens freely propagate and consume lies, especially during an election season. The virtual world gives them powerful tools to influence voters. Millions of WhatsApp groups and automated “likers” and “dislikers” sprout in an election season. A resourceful political party declares the strength of its information technology cells and the Army of trollers. Its rapid response force strikes 24 hours on the TV screens.

India has more than 1.14 billion mobile phone connections and at least 200 million people have WhatsApp accounts. Almost half-a-billion people in India are online. It is estimated that Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram account for 95 per cent of social communication app usage in India.

In the ruling party’s poll campaign, the smart-phone-armed “cell phone pramukh” is a key player. Around 900,000 of them, one for each polling booth, are driving the party’s WhatsApp-based election campaign, circulating specially designed video, audio, text, graphic and cartoons. The party has a list of voters having smart phones. The newspaper reports describe the party’s “war room”.

The BJP President, Amit Shah, told the party activists that the party cannot win the election unless they became very active on social media. Apart from hiring IT workers, his party registered more than 1.2 million social media volunteers. They are constantly busy browsing and posting, copying and pasting, sharing and trolling, and tweeting and re-tweeting! Experts monitor which hashtags are trending and how many BJP leaders are retweeting what the Prime Minister is tweeting.

One reads about the weaponisation of the mobile phone. The data crunchers sit gazing at the computer screens tracking the rising and falling stocks of the political parties! Contractors won contracts through impressive presentations titled “Weaponising Data for Politics”.

It is not that the older technologies such as nuclear lost relevance in this poll campaign. Prime Minister Modi, promoting religious nationalism, did not shy away from declaring that India’s nuclear bomb was not made for Diwali, the festival of lights! This warning to Pakistan got the desired response from the cheering audience.

But information technology is playing a central role.The data analytics companies created constituency profiles broken down to the booth level and identified talking points in order to “maximise return on investment”. The electoral rolls, telephone and electricity bills and such other collections are sliced and diced to create the social and economic profiles of the voters. The mining of data helps in customising the messages to the voters. Needless to say that the most valuable data relates to the voter’s religion and caste. Within a year of winning the 2014 elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched his own NaMo App. Many political leaders gathered millions of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube followers but Modi’s numbers exceed those of all others put together.

Indian political parties are not only the major users of the free services offered by the American social media companies but also contribute significantly to their ad revenue during every election campaign. India does not lack IT skills but it has no entity to rival the American Facebook family of companies. This means the remote for operating a WhatsApp democracy in India is controlled by a foreign hand.

A foreign watchdog monitors the Indian elections and it is not an NGO safeguarding and promoting democracy. Facebook shows off its “war room” in California where natural-cum-artificial intelligence purges India’s poll campaign of all rumours and fake news. The hi-tech room, with arrays of computers and human faces, looks like a Star War command centre. It tracks and shoots down verbal missiles fired in any Indian language.

A WhatsApp ad campaign asks Indians to “spread joy, not rumours”! Rumours popularise social media whose DNA is characterised by fake news. These companies unintentionally promote rumour-mongering for entertainment. So, social media asking its clients to shun rumours is like Sharon Stone selling hijab.

Facebook has opened a 24-hour channel of communication with the Election Commission in India. Forty Facebook experts at the India monitoring centres in California, Dublin and Singapore keep a day-and-night watch. The company can deploy as many as 30,000 employees belonging to its safety and security team.

An Indian TV reporter was invited to California to see Facebook’s India “war room” and to hear buzzwords such as machine learning, data science and automated translation system. A gigantic brain translates every Indian language into English. No Indian should think that Facebook would not know what he posts in Telugu! If someone conveys his voting preference to his Facebook friends in Gujarati, the company would know. WhatsApp claims that its messages are securely encrypted.

A Facebook official describes how its experts “protect” Indian elections. Who says the USA has declined? This private company’s remote policing operation proves that if America sneezes, the world would catch cold. If Facebook’s 40 watchdogs were to get drunk on a Friday night, India’s electorate, drugged by fake news and rumours, would gladly vote for a scoundrel. Mark Zuckerberg may have pasted a poster at the entry of his war room: Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Democracy.

Mark, the young American Facebook founder, has no vote in India but he moves millions of votes in an Indian election. His Facebook runs ad campaign financed by Indian political parties. The voters are influenced by fake news and rumours circulated on Facebook by automated bots and living humans. Millions of Indians get news and views from Facebook and WhatsApp and YouTube.

Facebook exercises political influence far greater than the tabloids that cover the breasts of the Page-3 girls with political slogans. Mark is no Murdoch. He does not unleash a reporter to heckle a political leader and bar his way to 10 Downing Street. Mark is a true democrat committed to the freedom of expression. His global Republic with 2.2 billion registered citizens is free of discrimination.

Mark’s platform welcomes all—the White Supremacists, Islamophobics, Hindu Nationalists, environmentalists, Communists, neo-Fascists, anti-Semitics, anarchists, dissenters, cultists, dictators, spiritual Gurus, carpet-beggars, friendship-makers, soulmate-seekers, victim-chasers, gold-diggers,wronged wives, abandoned girlfriends, vengeful ex-boyfriends, feminists as well as anti-feminists, minorities of religious, cultural, linguistic or sexual kind and sellers of snake-oil and of ideas whose time will never come. The firing in the New Zealand mosque was streamed live by the terrorist killing Muslims.

Facebook and WhatsApp make friends and family members keep in touch. They reignite dead old flames and discover long-lost friends and enemies. They have taught millions of Indians to write vernacular abuses in the Roman script! Mark, the brilliant technologist, has restructured social and personal lives and changed the nature of personal and political discourse. The Facebook-addicted lonely wife is featured in films.

The critics of social media only count what they call the Facebook murders, Facebook divorces and Facebook election results. It is like blaming mobile telephony for destroying the character of pious Indian women. Can Oppenheimer be held responsible for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? The world has always been a violent place. Had Facebook not been there, the cow protection vigilantes would have used pigeons to spread their message.

The Europeans are envious of Mark’s vast business empire spawned by his creativity. Their official institutions are hostile to his Facebook. They also dislike the dominant market shares acquired by other social media giants such as Google, WhatsApp and Twitter. Their intellectuals criticise Facebook for “undermining our basic freedoms”. They use a derogatory phrase such as “Juck Sucks”.

It is reported that Facebook was complicit in the spread of fake news and foreign interference in democratic elections and is partly to blame for the rise of political polarisation through its echo chambers and filter bubbles. Facebook has been selling the private data of millions of users around the world to select companies—most notoriously Cambridge Analytica, who used the information to meddle in the US presidential elections, Britain’s EU referendum, and Indian elections.

A British House of Commons Select Committee blames Facebook for behaving like “digital gangsters”. Its chairman says Mark had wilfully misled lawmakers over fake news and data malpractice. Mark is told his company is based on an unethical business model. As if ethics was ever essential in foreign policy or in business practices!

The anti-Mark movement is not confined to Europe. American activists and lawmakers attack this young man who did in his college days what every American student aspires to do. The lawmakers are concerned about the use of social media by White nationalists to spread hatred. A surge in racism and anti-Semitism on the Web was recorded following Donald Trump’s election. The grilling of Facebook and Google by Congressional lawmakers is forcing the social media companies to police their platforms for stopping online hate speech and videos promoting violence.

Social media’s role in the US presidential elections came under a scanner since studies suggested that Trump owed his election victory in 2016 to ‘fake news’. Trump, the alleged beneficiary, now attacks Facebook, Google and Twitter for promoting hatred against those who won the elections! His opponents, like the political Opposition in India, have also learnt the social media tricks! So, Trump is threatening to regulate social media. Some other countries have already taken steps to do that.

India is one of the major clients of Mark.Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself popularised Facebook as a tool of propaganda and even governance. Mark cherishes the memory of a warm embrace by Modi during the latter’s America visit. Modi graced his headquarters and held a townhall meeting with him. Mark made a special mention of Modi in his Facebook vision post. “In India, Prime Minister Modi has asked his Ministers to share their meetings and information on Facebook so they can hear direct feedback from citizens,” he said.

Following the lead given by the BJP, the Opposition parties began to use social media. So, this time some official noises were heard against social media. A parliamentary committee expressed its concern. The Election Commission of India entered into a dialogue with Facebook which now gets from the commission complaints about fake news and rumours.

Mark is trying to avoid closer scrutiny by lawmakers and regulators. A business magnate has to be as sensitive to public opinion as a politician. His company helped polarise societies and nations but Mark wants to see all united in praising Facebook ethics. He has to take the election-related complaints against Facebook seriously because democracy enriches him. A dictator does not need Facebook and he can ban it! Mark earns substantive ad revenue from election campaigns. He does not want to be blamed in India for the victory or the defeat of Narendra Modi. Thus, he has emerged as a protector of Indian democracy!

The massive investment on the India war rooms was also needed to protect the ad revenue because rumours and fake news work as free advertisements against the rival parties. This hits the company’searnings. Elections in India are profitable for Facebook, with the ruling BJP and its supporters contributing most to its ad revenue.

While detecting and deleting fake news, rumours and violent videos, Facebook is also collecting valuable data about the country’s social and psychological profile and about the nature and interests of its communities and their political preferences. The proportion of deleted posts will indicate the level of mental pollution in a country. This data will be of great interest to an enemy nation inciting sectarian violence and to companies targeting consumers for their products.

Facebook may open its massive data archives to mass psychologists with research interest or sign a lucrative contract with a prestigious academic journal to publish the precious data every quarter. The business potential is limitless and the expensive Facebook war rooms established to fight for truth will start paying for themselves.

Mark may be an idealist as his defenders claim, but what prevents the stooge of a Prime Minister or a President making a friendly or hostile take-over bid and turn his company into the mouthpiece of the ruling party. What happens in the TV and newspaper empires can also happen in social media.

Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube cannot sacrifice commercial success. If the service of detecting and deleting posts of a certain kind is offered, many political parties will be willing to pay for it! A rogue company may offer to purge social media of the stuff posted by the BJP or by the Congress. A new revenue model will emerge, compounding the crisis. The service of deleting posts as well as that of countering deletion will be in great demand by politicians. External agencies may develop counter-measures to suit those politicians who would want Facebook polluted! This is a problem to which there is no technical fix.

Facebook and WhatsApp perhaps also want to fight ignorance by regulating fake news. It is an uphill battle because they are up against human nature. Truth remains confined to scriptures; mendacity gallops in life. Social media addicts revel in rumours. Men are thrilled to troll women without being exposed. The “WhatsApp University” has done a great job in the field of universal education by popularising versions of history to suit every strange belief. Challenge a rumour-monger and he would say he read it on WhatsApp! Earlier, he used to say he heard on the BBC. Falsehood does not matter to those who believe ignorance is bliss. Political pornography has a vast clientele. Fakebooks on history are more popular than pure fiction.

Political strife, like cockfights in the TV studios during an election season, makes life exciting. Friends constantly play the game of ‘unfriending’ over a political leader. Social media addicts selectively stop sending and receiving posts. Indian train journeys become enjoyable when travellers share YouTube videos claiming that Nehru was a Muslim. A woman with a post-graduate degree declares that Indira Gandhi was married to a Muslim! Those taking a political line under someone’s influence grab the customised “facts” floating in the cyberspace. Mark Zuckerberg is trying to lock the stable after the horse has bolted!

As an American commentator notes, “social media has created for us a new life. We don’t just create political strife for ourselves; we seem to revel in it.” He attributes this partly to the most combative online presence of a candidate for President in modern history. In the Indian context, the same can be said about its Prime Minister.

New challenges emerge as the integrity of Indian elections becomes a private business. Will the thousands of fact-checkers deployed by Facebook catch the lies told by the leaders during a poll campaign? Will Facebook keep a record of Indians posting the largest number of statements inciting sectarian violence? Will it share this data with the Government of India? Will New Delhi ask for this information to file criminal complaints just as it asks the Swiss banks to disclose the names of the numbered-account holders? Will the Election Commission disqualify a candidate misusing his authentic Facebook account? During this campaign many candidates including the Prime Minister have made public appeals based on religion and commented against a minority but the Election Commission has not been able to do anything to deter them.

Politicians blame businessmen for corruption but armed with the Facebook data, businessmen may ask politicians not to tell lies. If the public-private partnership comes into play, a data-rich foreign CEO maybe able to topple an unfriendly Prime Minister who wins by telling lies certified by Facebook. Unless, of course, that Prime Minister opens the womb of his nation for the free entry of his company! Will the Indian TV channels run a daily Facebook Report on Facts? Will the Election Commission give a lucrative contract to Facebook for “protecting” Indian elections?

Millions of tweets and spam accounts already shape the political discourse. The competition between truth and lies is set to intensify. The automated tweets and bots will record an explosive growth. “Bots are not mild-manner judicial critics”. Snarky political leaders will have more volunteers and paid workers to exploit social media. Polarisation will grow sharper. The outcome of an election will be decided in the virtual world.

Human ingenuity enabled Facebook to first muddy the election scene and then to fight fake news. It will also frustrate its elaborate policing plan. Both social media and democracy have proved that it is easier to degrade human nature than to upgrade it! Mark Zuckerberg will be hugged and reprimanded by politicians but the link between democracy and social media will get stronger with every election. Many fear that Facebook,YouTube and WhatsApp will lead to the death of democracy. Millions will then gleefully share an Instagram image of a gravestone with Democracy engraved!

(Courtesy: Open Democracy)

The author is a senior journalist and writer who worked in India and abroad (notably Britain) in several major newspapers. Now retired, he is a free- lancer.

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