Vol. XLIII No. 11 March 17, 2019
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Threat to Democracy in the Age of Social or Anti-social Media

Prabir Purkayastha

THE three Hindi heartland states – Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan – have rejected the BJP in varying degrees in the elections to the state assemblies. These elections show that even with money power and its electoral machinery including its formidable WhatsApp reach, BJP is vulnerable to peoples’ discontent. People rejected BJP’s false claims of development and their hate campaign in good, old fashioned ways – through talking to each other in homes, tea shops and in every day conversations with friends. People’s opinions still matter, even when money power and fake news on social media threaten the democratic processes.

The recent Brazil elections show a tsunami of fake news powered by big money, can overwhelm the electorate. The fake news in Brazil included claims that the Workers Party was supporting homo-sexuality among school children via sex education, rigging voting machines, crude anti-communist propaganda and photo-shopped images. The bulk of the messaging was done using WhatApp networks that the right-wing candidate Bolsonaro had built, and powered by illegal contributions from big capital.

The second development is a dump by a British member of parliament, Damian Collins, of 250 pages of internal Facebook documents involving communications between Zuckerberg and his top aides. These documents identify a host of practices that Mark Zuckerberg and top Facebook functionaries have been strenuously denying in various fora after the Cambridge Analytica’s scandal. Apart from testifying in the US Congress, the Facebook CEO Zuckerberg has refused to appear before British or the Indian parliament/government committees.

These practices, as shown in Facebook’s internal documents, include allowing special whitelisted companies to access friends data on Facebook accounts even after 2015, tapping call and SMS records on the Android smartphones without user consent, and using the battery application on the phone to find out different app usages by the users. The last – tracking app usage on mobile phones – is to identify which of their competitors were either market threat to Facebook, or suitable for acquisition. This is not only a violation of privacy of the mobile user, but is also anticompetitive practice barred by law in most countries including India. 

In Congressional testimonies, Zuckerberg and other Facebook functionaries had claimed that all access to “friends” data by third party apps had been stopped on Facebook. It is clear that this access selectively continued, and was a reflection of how much money or benefits that Facebook received from such apps.

Let us take the case of WhatsApp, owned now by Facebook, which is the primary vehicle for fake news. India of course does not need Brazil’s example to know about fake news and photo-shopped images.  Fake and real videos circulated on WhatsApp, lynch mobs, sectarian violence are now daily occurrences. While officially, Facebook has restricted forwarding of WhatsApp messages to five in India, we are unsure of the new Business App that Facebook has released and such limits on its virality. Or is virality beyond five is something that companies can buy, but the ordinary user can’t?

What was disturbing in the Brazil elections was a meeting that Bolsonaro, the winning rightwing candidate, held with leading business houses, asking them to buy support on digital media platforms. This helped greatly to spread his fake news campaign. Did this money from the business houses go to buy Facebook access also? Did it bypass the WhatsApp restrictions on number of forwards (in Brazil it was 20 and not 5 as in India) and go to a much larger number because it used the business Application Interface (API)? Now that we know from the British MP’s data dump that Facebook maintains whitelist for providing privileged access, how much of Facebook’s data could be “bought” or “accessed” by political parties? These are questions that Facebook now needs to answer.

 As we have noted earlier in our columns, an MIT study shows that it is not “bots” pretending to be humans that is at the root of the problem of fake news, it is us humans who are at the root of the problem.  News that appeals to hate or is startling, tend to go viral more than real news. This is what gives fake news its power. As the old proverb says, a lie will go halfway around the world while truth is pulling its boots on. Added to this, is our gullibility to images, which today can be so easily photo-shopped. A generation back, we would hear that if something appears in print, it must be true. This veneration of the printed word might have gone, but has now been replaced by images. And we know how easy it is to convert through simple photo-shopping, a lynching in Pakistan as violence by Muslims in Muzaffarnagar.

While Facebook is relatively public, WhatsApp owned by Facebook is not. We do not know what is circulating in the closed groups that is WhatApp. Further, WhatsApp does not require users to opt into a WhatsApp group.  We can create any group we want and include anybody, if we simply know his or her phone number. This is by Facebook’s design, not accident. This allows large scale WhatsApp use for advertising, and what the business API’s will do for any entity that has money. That is why a simple tweak – allow groups to require consent before being opting anybody into the group is not under discussion; by either Facebook or the BJP government. Both need its virality, one for advertising, the other for its mass reach.

The ability of WhatsApp groups to be a means of political messaging means that if any entity – in this case a political party or a business house that supports a party – has money, it can buy phone numbers, and other data from any number of sources. These sources are data brokers who are in the business of selling our personal data.  From Aadhaar data to mobile data, all our data is now on sale from data brokers. Other data sources are credit card data, purchasing data from retail platforms, and of course Facebook data through its “user” and “friends” data. Anecdotal evidence is, mobile companies data – either from internal or external “theft” – was available for sale in these state elections for three to five crore rupees per state.

The data from multiple sources can be used to create what in marketing terms is “demographies”. This means, age, gender, urban or rural, spending power, religion and even caste data, can all be correlated to create voter profiles. With these voter profiles, it is possible to micro-target different groups of voters. This is what Cambridge Analytica did using Facebook data, and what BJP is doing using its money and organisational machine.

Once these voter profiles are sliced and diced into assembly, and even booth level data, selective messaging in WhatsApp groups can be used to influence elections. And of course, since they are closed groups, we have very little way of knowing what kind of messaging is happening: how much is hype and propaganda, and how much is simply fake news and false data.

Facebook, including its WhatsApp platform, is structured towards virality and propagation of fake news. Virality is Facebook’s business model, and if virality is helped by fake news, Facebook and Zuckerberg are not innocent victims. They know precisely what they are doing. That is why it is not self-regulation but strong regulation or making them truly public that will determine the future of our democracy.

Till now all information regarding advertising and paid news has been relatively open. Yes, there have been violations, and yes there is still a lot of paid news masquerading as news in conventional mass media. But social media – platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube – has changed the landscape completely. We neither know who is creating the content; or what is the content. Add this to the enormous multiplier that money provides. Anybody with money can buy eyeballs or support campaigns that buy eyeballs.

This is the real meaning of Jaitley’s election bonds. Making it easy and legal for BJP to get “anonymous” money from big business that can be used for social media or anti-social media campaigns. A secret campaign powered by dirty money, washed “white” as election bonds; a campaign that can unleash a tsunami of disinformation and hatred on the election day.  This is the threat to democracy in the age of social or anti-social media. This is the monster that we are confronting today.