Social Media and Subversion of Democracy

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Y Kiran Chandra
General Secretary, FSMI

 
The months of November and December 2018 were abuzz with political discussions and discussions all over the social media very intensely in the states of Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Rajasthan and Telangana. These elections were considered to be the semi finals to the General Elections to be held in the first half of 2019. Soon we shall see intense political discussions and discourses in social media across the country. It is important for us to see if this is going to be another tool for the subversion of the democratic process?
In India we have witnessed certain methods pursued by a large section of the political parties that consistently subvert the electoral process to ensure their victories. The conventional methods included distribution of money to voters, unleashing violence, polarising people based on caste, religion, region etc. Now political parties are betting big on the usage of social media, atleast the two mainstream political parties at the national level. The ruling party is far ahead with infrastructure in place, having an IT wing and a troll army comprising of their activists. The president of BJP has even claimed publicly that they are now in a position to trend whatever they decided to trend! Is it just because they have the numbers to do it? The answer to this question is not trivial and just having the troll army or the numbers isn’t sufficient enough to become influential in dealing with the new avenues of technology and fresh ways of utilizing media such as instant messaging, micro-blogging and social networks. These platforms themselves, in social medium also facilitate this process for a cost. This is a key aspect in which the subversion of the electoral process is going to be in 2019.

In hindsight, when we look at the General elections of 2014, they were very different from the preceding elections. It was for the first time that internet as a medium was also crucial in deciding the fate of the contestants in at least 160 parliament seats. The availability of the “smart phone” in the 2014 elections was limited to the rich, urban middle class and rural elite. In-spite of this limitation, the number of interactions among people was staggering. According to Facebook, “From the day elections were announced to the day polling ended, 29 million people conducted 227 million interactions (posts, comments, shares, and likes) regarding the elections on Facebook.”

The 2019 elections will see an exponential increase in these interactions. The interactions in 2014 were mainly through Facebook and Twitter, while the usage of WhatsApp was relatively less. With the advent of Reliance Jio and the falling mobile data rates, internet penetration has almost doubled now and we have close to 40 Cr smart phone users in India today. The total number of WhatsApp users in 2014 May was close to 5 Cr while now it is above 25 Cr. Now the total user base of WhatsApp supersedes any other platform. However Facebook owns WhatsApp and it is evident that Facebook holds most of the information. The consequence of this increase in number will have an impact on the interactions and will be staggering. All the interactions on these platforms reside in the servers of these platforms even if the user removes it. The behavioural patterns of the users has been profiled by these platforms and are being sold for advertisers as audience by these platforms. Forbes estimated that WhatsApp’s total revenue will be $5 billion and the average revenue per user to be $4 by 2020. As of February 2018, WhatsApp had over 1.5 billion users and sees 60 billion messages sent per day, according to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a Q4 2017 conference call. Billions of dollars of revenue comes to these platforms by the selling the information generated by the users in these platforms.

People have used these social media to come together and organise themselves into communities with various profiles. Facebook and WhatsApp are the platforms in which such categories exist largely followed by Google, Twitter and more. People are organised into groups which range from, school, college, association, caste, family, neighbourhood, workplace, hobbies, passions etc. Facebook already has the information of people’s behavioural aspects, including their spending patterns, their caste and the class to which they belong. All the documentation and analysis of people is done using automation and techniques of artificial intelligence. The algorithms of these platforms consistently update the profiles of these individuals from the day one has got on to these platforms. They gaze the moods of people, analyse the shift in thinking patterns etc. Google today is able to predict an epidemic even before the WHO or the ministry of health in various countries based on the keywords people search for on the health issues they are facing. While such instances help in solving the issues faced by mankind, the real issue is - are these platforms solving the problems of mankind or are they crossing the limits and intruding into the privacy of individuals? The key question is what Facebook, WhatsApp and other platform algorithms have learned in the last five years and how these giants leverage the information they have?

With the ownership of large amounts of data, WhatsApp and Facebook can change the perceptions of people towards a particular political regime. Cambridge Analytica, a British Political consulting firm, was involved in inappropriately acquiring information of more than 50 million Facebook users while working on Trump's presidential campaign. It was involved in influencing the voters to vote in favour of one presidential candidate in the US. It is important to note that in India also this firm was also involved in aiding both the Bharathiya Janata Party and the Indian National Congress in the 2014 General Elections in India. According to Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham) report of 2014, political parties typically spent close to 30% of their expenditure on advertising. This would be nothing less than a few hundreds of crores, and such a huge amount was spent in 2014. The general elections of 2019 will only see an amplification in the amount spent by these parties. This expenditure is directly by the political parties as advertisements.

All this is just about political parties and their expenditure. There is no limit when companies and corporations want to favour political parties directly or indirectly, this is in addition to the election bonds that the political parties are getting. It is here that we need to see what are the features that these social media platforms offer to the corporations. WhatsApp has announced in January 2018 that it is continuing to open itself to business use. WhatsApp launched a business app for smaller companies. On 1 August, the WhatsApp Business API for larger companies has been launched and is being used by companies such as Amazon, Netflix, Uber, Booking.com, KLM and Singapore Airlines. These corporations send advertisements based on the user profile data accumulated and analysed by these corporations. The advertisements or information is sent to the user based on the probability of he/she consuming a particular product based on his/her behavioural pattern.

There is a restriction that has been put up by WhatsApp on the pretext of stopping the spread of hate messages that lead to wide spread violence and lynching. The number of forwards for a message that an individual can send is 5 in India and 20 in other countries. However it is important to note that this doesn’t stop businesses or organisations or political parties that can spend money to stop from having such messages broadcast at a large scale. More than stopping hate messages, Facebook, the owner of WhatsApp, has used it as an effective argument to monetize its services making it harder for individuals who fight the PostTruth.

From the documentation of the Application Program Interface (API) of WhatsApp, it is evident that there is every possibility of WhatsApp messages being broadcasted to people. When campaign is done by large and small scale businesses the API allows them to

  • send and receive messages
  • send and receive attachments – videos cannot be sent, but they can be received
  • click-to-chat buttons for websites and Facebook
  • real group chat
  • simple opt-in process, but users must consent to the communication
  • incoming messages can be replied to within 24 hours, after this time this is only possible with additional restrictions and subject to a fee
  • new concept of message templates – must be approved by Facebook
  • the templates support placeholders (e.g. for customer numbers) and multiple languages (depending on the origin of the user)
  • own landline number can be used as a WhatsApp phone number
  • no broadcasts – individual sending with a limit of 15 messages per second
From the API documentation, it is clear that WhatsApp can send large scale broadcast messages. With the availability of the behavioural patterns of individuals and their profiling, now a targeted message broadcasting to the individuals based on caste, religion, region etc is possible. The concern is the lack of any effort from the Election Commission to monitor or check these methods that would only entail in subverting the democratic processes. Facebook claims that they are in touch with Election Commission and are going to be partners in the campaign of making people vote. The same feature where individuals have marked safe during natural calamities can be used to make people vote. Here is the question: Is Facebook not going to take money from political parties or corporations to ensure that such pop-ups appear to voters who probably might vote for a particular party? The very business model of Facebook, Google and other social media is to sell the behavioural patterns of individuals and even their private aspects for advertising. We should recall the incidents when Mark Zuckerberg has extended his support to Digital India. Facebook said it has facilitated people to express their support for Digital India through a special page http://fb.com/supportdigitalindia. However, the source code of the page makes a reference to certain terms which hint at a malified intent. On introspection there is a reference to “XinternetOrgProfilePictureController”. The controller code is what executes on server side, to which end users will not have any access or knowledge about. There is another suspicious class name “_internetOrgProfilPicture_prideAvatar” which is further assisting javaScript code. This could be sufficient to suspect code being invoked to support InternetOrg. Facebook has earlier given users' a provision to support 'celebratepride'. The source code of the respective support page didn't have any reference to such suspicious code. Even during the campaign led by FSMI against FreeBasics, users who were campaigning against free basics saw the wrath of Facebook. The features of the users were restricted, there were continuous pop-ups asking people to unsubscribe from Free Software Movement of India’s Facebook page. Despite 3 lakh people discussing about the campaign, the reach of the posts was deliberately curtailed.

The bottom line is that these giants have the technology to subvert the Indian elections to favour a political party and relegate the reach of any other party for a cost. Is the Election Commission clear on how to deal with this new situation is the key question. Considering the role of election commission in the recently held elections in five states, the EC has been engaged in warning people from using abusive language in the social medium. The measures to deal with the digital platforms were just absent.

To stop subversion of the democratic process the Election Commission of India should setup infrastructure to monitor misuse of Digital platforms and apps in subverting the electoral process. Any app or digital platform created/used by or for political parties and candidates should also be audited and monitored for the above purpose. With digital platforms and apps playing an increasing role, both in our social life as well as elections, we need to see that expenditure of parties should be a) digital expenditure reported as a part of election expenditure of parties and b) if limits exist, included in such limits. Ensure that Facebook and digital platforms should not target communities based on caste, religion, region or in any other way that violate the code of conduct of elections. No app or digital platform created/used by or for political parties and candidates should target communities based on caste, religion, region or in any other way that violate the code of conduct of elections. Election Commission to reveal the details of discussions with these digital platforms that concern the electoral process. In the name of studies or experiments, Facebook and other digital platforms should not be allowed to influence the electoral process in any way.

This article was originally published in the quarterly journal of the Democratic Alliance for Knowledge Freedom (DAKF)

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