The marriage of civilian open-source data with political disinformation campaigns has the potential to unjustly affect electoral outcomes, as seen with the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Such tinkering within the Indian electoral system could lead to the deepening of existing social discord, loss of civic trust in the electoral system, and the compromise of basic democratic principles.
Recent allegations against data mining and analytics firm Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook users’ data to the advantage of the Trump campaign raises questions about how parties may follow similar tactics in India to influence the upcoming 2019 general elections. Deliberations over social media sites between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress party have focused attention of late on topics of disinformation, fake news, and accusations of populist tactics. On March 22, the Times of India reported that Rahul Gandhi and members of the BJP have accused one another of having links to Cambridge Analytica. On March 27, Christopher Wylie, former director of research of Cambridge Analytica, testified to a British parliamentary committee that the Congress party was a client of the company in India. Concurrently, reports emerged of the BJP’s alleged ties to SCL Group, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, in the run-up to the BJP’s electoral victory in 2014.
Regardless of the truth behind these particular claims, any political campaign fought using targeted disinformation and data mining from social networking sites would target the adversary’s electoral vote bank and attempt to exploit certain political cultures which may be more vulnerable to disinformation. Such strategies would invariably exploit existing social problems such as minority rights, religious nationalism, caste politics, and poverty – the further politicization of which would do more harm than good.
Fake News and Indian Political Culture
The use of disinformation campaigns and fake news are not new for Indian politics. Indian political parties have a culture of denigrating opponents, which makes it much easier for disinformation campaigns to be successful. Politicians or parties perpetually label one another as liars, or accuse opponents of spreading false information. For example, at the end of 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi allegedly urged members of his ruling party not to be swayed by disinformation campaigns started by the opposition Congress. Rahul Gandhi has on a number of occasions accused the BJP of spreading fake news as well.
The point here is that the political culture in India allows for not only the dissemination of disinformation, but also accusing others of using disinformation tactics without being held accountable for these claims. As the prominent Indian political psychologist Ashis Nandy wrote in a 1989 paper on “The Political Culture of the Indian State,” the modern Indian electoral “cycle became a sort of iron law in the early 1970s, when elections came to depend more and more on populist slogans and promises and when, through opinion engineering in mass media, the rise and fall of regimes and reputations began to be brought about and, at times, stage-managed.”
The resounding relevance of this statement today is a reminder that disinformation campaigns are not a new phenomenon. The contemporary means with which the campaigns are spread, however, have colossal potential to cause harm. Even the most critical of thinkers can be influenced subconsciously by disinformation campaigns, because messages may reach them from unsuspicious sources, on various media platforms. This political culture may encourage citizens to rely on political parties to shape political narratives, which can prove dangerous if parties instigate contentious public sentiments for electoral gain.
Irony of Democracy
In any democratic context, freedom of speech and expression ensures that political parties have the space to conduct fair political campaigns. However, this democratic system relies on public opinion and votes. On one hand the democratic system protects free and fair campaigns and elections, but on the other, the very voters who make democracy possible are not always ensured complete and true information. It is ironic that the very democratic principles that ensure free and fair speech are compromised when the same principles allow for the spread of disinformation.
Contentious issues in India currently include violent expressions of Hindu nationalism, Islamist radicalization, and the economic effects of demonetization. If a political party decides to employ a firm like Cambridge Analytica to run its campaign, which may have access to millions of data profiles, then the psychological engineering of masses becomes much easier. More importantly, disinformation campaigns based on the issues listed above can be targeted toward supporters of the opponent party.
For example, before Modi became prime minister, there were images circulating on social media of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange praising Modi – which Assange eventually refuted and labeled fake. If such images had been targeted at specific groups of people as a result of deliberate data mining, they could have possibly contributed to Modi’s popularity and eventual victory.
In a recent interview with CNN on March 21, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg mentioned the responsibility Facebook has toward ensuring fair elections in India, among other countries, and made a commitment to work toward safeguarding its platform from being abused for electoral success. As governments continue to hold Facebook accountable for existing and potential breaches of data privacy, they should also focus more attention on educating civilians on data laws, data privacy, and the impact of targeted disinformation campaigns. The question of accountability, however, is problematic as foreign adversaries have used innovative ways to influence countries’ domestic politics for centuries. The only difference now is that methods of collecting critical information are faster, cheaper, and easier.
Burden on Citizens
Disinformation, fake news, and its variants have become buzzwords in Indian political rhetoric, such that voters are potentially swayed not only by fake news itself, but the attribution of fake news to parties’ respective adversaries. This burdens the Indian citizenry in two ways. First, they have the responsibility of unraveling the truth in terms of the content of the information being discussed, and second, they must also determine the integrity of political parties – who may very well be inaccurately accusing adversaries of spreading disinformation for the purpose of painting them in an unethical and immoral light.
Voters have to be better equipped to distinguish between political propaganda and disinformation campaigns as the two often overlap. In the current Indian political climate, disinformation and fake news has become politicized to the extent that it is hard to distinguish whether something is actually fake or is simply labeled as fake. In the case of the latter, the boundaries of truth are still blurred. In the lead up to elections it is common for Indian political parties to resort to disinformation to instigate communal and caste tensions (often leading to violence) to sabotage political opponents.
Even as voters may be oblivious to certain strategies, as with the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook case, the burden eventually falls on individual citizens to recognize and call out disinformation campaigns. Disinformation erodes civic trust, and if it is something that people must grapple with on a daily basis in terms of choosing their leadership, there is a risk of them becoming disenfranchised with the system. The Indian general elections next year will provide an important test case in this regard.
Juhi Ahuja is a Senior Analyst with the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.