Author : Sushant Sareen

Originally Published 2018-03-30 06:34:52 Published on Mar 30, 2018
Trying to influence elections using tools like targeted messaging, fake news and negative campaigning have for long been part and parcel of politics.
Why Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal shouldn't concern India
The trepidation being expressed in India over the Cambridge Analytica (CA) scandal is at one level as vacuous as the “March For Our Lives” protest in Mumbai. Many of the fears being expressed in India are a case of tilting at the windmills. There are broadly two sets of issues involved in the entire Facebook (FB) and CA controversy. The first set of issues is related to the legality or otherwise of collecting and mining data, issues of breach of privacy and/or contractual obligations on data sharing, etc. The second lot of issues relates to how the data is used for gaining an advantage over political opponents in elections.

Fear and outrage

Much of the debate and controversy over FB/CA has conflated these two sets of issues. While the legal side of the debate involves a smorgasbord of issues which countries, companies, consumers and civil society organisations are trying to grapple with, the political side of the debate is in many ways as old as politics itself. Most of the questions being raised, outrage being expressed, fears being aired, aspersions being cast, accusations being hurled and indeed challenges being faced on the political side of the controversy are not new. In one way or another, these very same things — trying to influence elections by managing the campaigns of parties or candidates and using tools like targeted messaging, fake news, negative campaigning, etc — have for long been part and parcel of politics. The only difference is that while earlier the same things were happening in an analog world, today they are happening in a digital world. That technology has made political skulduggery and spin-doctoring more insidious, intrusive, inexpensive, effective and perhaps efficient in terms of reaching out to a target audience is something that everyone needs to get used to. If anything, it is as overhyped as Prashant Kishore’s ability to ensure victory at the hustings. At best these political consultants and companies can sex up a campaign, create a buzz around a candidate or party, use data analytics to come up with suggestions and examine the efficacy or otherwise of a particular policy or political strategy. Cut through the clap-trap, and electoral politics is all about impressing and influencing, even manipulating, people to vote in a particular way. That is what politics is and what politicians do. In the analog era, this stuff was done using newspapers and pliable and ideologically motivated journalists (many of whom pretended to be objective but stealthily backed one party or another in their news reports and op-ed pieces). Only it was done less scientifically and more intuitively. That activities in the digital world alone cannot determine the outcome of an election should be evident to anyone who cares to objectively evaluate the "achievements" of these companies. For instance, as long as the CA was believed to have been used by the BJP in Bihar in 2012 or even insinuations that it might have been used in 2014 general elections, the narrative that the outcome of an election can be manipulated gained traction; but the entire thesis starts to fall apart the moment it is revealed that it wasn’t the BJP but the Congress that might have hired CA.

Hiring pollsters

In any case, hiring the services of a CA is no different from hiring pollsters, marketing survey companies, even journalists and newspapers, or for that matter public intellectuals and NGOs — remember the entire intolerance debate which erupted before the Bihar elections and disappeared as soon as polling was over? The bottom line is that what the newspapers — remember the entire paid news controversy? — did in the bygone era, digital platforms do today, probably cheaper and better. In the old days, the fake news was called rumours and even back then it spread as fast as lightening — remember when Ganesh idols all over India were drinking milk? Back then, among other data sources, electoral rolls and telephone directories were used for data mining; today social media makes data mining so much easier.

Campaign tools

Only the processes, tools and technology of campaigning have changed, the politics remains the same. So if CA breaks down caste configuration, community demographics or religious polarisation and analyses the data for political mobilisation and consolidation of support, it isn’t as though it has dug up something new and unique that none of us was aware of. There is, of course, some concern about foreign interference and influence on Indian elections. Here again, what’s new? The erstwhile Soviet Union not only funded political parties but also helped stitch up post-poll alliances; Western-funded NGOs and activists often try and tilt public opinion in a particular direction; we have had newspapers, TV stations and even magazines that were funded by foreigners or by other very shady characters. Somehow our independence and the electoral choice wasn’t threatened by all these dubious entities, but Facebook and Twitter now endanger democracy in India! Our paranoia of a data-driven digital world is partly a function of our fear of something new, and partly a function of our defensive mindset. Why else do we only think about how data can be used against us, and not of how we can use the same data against our enemies and for advancing our objectives?
This commentary originally appeared in Mail Today
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Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. His published works include: Balochistan: Forgotten War, Forsaken People (Monograph, 2017) Corridor Calculus: China-Pakistan Economic Corridor & China’s comprador   ...

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