Ahead of general elections, the possible role of social media in influencing poll outcome has become an issue with our lawmakers. This could shape up into a politically divisive issue, as it has been in the US. The parliamentary standing committee on information and technology has already summoned micro-blogging site Twitter, posing some tough questions and seeking compliance with guidelines of Election Commission.
Policy heads of social media platforms Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram too will be appearing before the panel next week to explain how they plan to address concerns about ‘foreign interference’ in Lok Sabha elections in April-May. With the EC set to announce poll dates soon, there are growing concerns about social media bias, if not active interference, that could vitiate free and fair polls. During the discussion with Twitter representatives, the parliamentary panel is also learnt to have sought details about ‘clarity and transparency’ in advertisements and sponsored content on the platform.
However, hardly one-third of lawmakers in the panel turned up for the meeting, with some opposition MPs reportedly asking who will be presented with its report when the parliament is not in session (the current parliament’s term being over). This is nothing but evasive nitpicking, because it is only at the end of a legislature’s term that elections are called for — and the panel’s initiative is to ensure that the polls are not compromised. Partisan politics has crept in, because the parliamentary panel summoned Twitter representatives following a BJP protest of alleged ‘anti-right wing bias’ on its platform. The opposition will surely see it differently. But after what is believed to have happened in the 2016 US presidential elections, this is an issue with wider ramifications for the country’s democratic polity.
In the US, top executives of social media sites have been summoned by the Congress to answer not just about user privacy safeguards, but also political influence through their platforms. These are part of the ongoing investigations over alleged Russian interference in the 2016 elections to help elect Donald Trump while derailing his opponent Hillary Clinton’s campaign. An astonishing picture is emerging of a vast, organized Russian effort in political disinformation that has divided American society bitterly since the months leading to the election.
This was accomplished via manipulation of social media platforms on enormous scale, which is likely ‘to continue in the foreseeable future’. What is ironic is the thoroughness with which Russian operators took over quintessentially American platforms like Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram, as revealed in two reports recently released by the Senate intelligence committee. One report by researchers at the University of Oxford shows how different messages were sent to different groups, like discouraging black voters from going to the polls while stoking anger among right-wing voters. “These campaigns pushed a message that the best way to advance the cause of the African-American community was to boycott the election and focus on other issues instead”, while at the same time, “messaging to conservative and right-wing voters sought to do three things: repeat patriotic and anti-immigrant slogans, elicit outrage with posts about liberal appeasement of ‘others’ at the expense of US citizens, and encourage them to vote for Trump” — said the report.
While major entities like Facebook, Google and Twitter have been cleaning up ever since the Russian activity was discovered, smaller platforms still have sizeable numbers of accounts linked to Russian operators like the Saint Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA).
The studies have found that IRA began targeting Twitter with posts back in 2013, focusing on local and current issues and making use of pop culture references; later on, IRA’s activity evolved into a multi-platform strategy, with its Facebook posts revealing “nuanced and deep knowledge of American culture, media and influencers in each community targeted”. Fluent in American trolling culture, the IRA also used memes profusely to attract younger social media users. Such troll farms are still working ‘to divide Americans by race, religion and ideology and erode trust in institutions’, says the US Senate panel investigating Russian activity on social media.
This activity percolated into smaller sites; infiltrated internet games, browser extensions and music apps; connected with and recruited users with merchandise bearing specific messages, follower requests, job offers and help lines ‘to unknowingly disclose sensitive information that could later be used against them’. Experts warn that most social media users are unaware how specially designed algorithms actually filter the news reaching them, based on their likes and dislikes — so that their platform essentially functions like a ‘echo chamber’ of the users’ own views! The 2014 general elections in India was remarkable in at least two ways — the ‘presidential’ style of campaigning and the widespread use of social media.
With the middle class estimated to be already one-third of the population and heavily immersed in social media, political discourse over such platforms will doubtless increase manifold in the coming elections. India is yet to have a data privacy law, so it is all the more difficult to prevent harvesting of users’ data for wrong ends, including electoral manipulation. If it could happen in the US, a country with robust privacy laws, where Facebook users’ data was allegedly mined by British firm Cambridge Analytica to swing the elections for Trump, there can be no ground for complacency here. Not when the very integrity of the electoral process is at stake.