The three Hindi heartland states - Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan - have rejected the Bharatiya
Janata Party (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 everyday conversations with friends. People's opinions still
matter, even when money power and fake news on social media threaten the
The recent Brazil elections
shows how 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 homosexuality among school children via sex education, rigging
voting machines, crude anti-communist propaganda and photoshopped images. The
bulk of the messaging was done using WhatApp networks that the Right-wing
candidate Jair Messias Bolsonaro had built, 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 Facebook CEO Mark
Zuckerberg and his top aides. These documents identify a host of practices that
Zuckerberg and top Facebook functionaries have been strenuously denying in
various fora after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Apart from testifying in the US Congress,
Zuckerberg has refused to appear before the British or Indian
These practices, as shown in
Facebook's internal documents, include allowing special white-listed companies
to access friends data on Facebook accounts even after 2015, tapping calls
and SMS records on Android smartphones without user consent, and using the
battery applications on phones to find out different app usages by users. The
last - tracking app usage on mobile phones - is to identify which of their
competitors were either a market threat to Facebook, or suitable for
acquisition. This is not only a violation of privacy of mobile phone users, but
is also an anti-competitive practice barred by law in most countries, including
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 function of how much money or
benefits that Facebook received from such apps.
WhatsApp, the Primary Vehicle of Fake News
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
photoshopped images. Fake and real videos circulated in WhatsApp, lynch mobs,
sectarian violence are now daily occurrences. While officially, Facebook has
restricted the forwarding of WhatsApp messages to five in India, we are unsure
of the new Business App that Facebook has released and the limits on its
virality. Or is virality beyond five forwarded messages 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 Right-wing
candidate, held with leading business houses, asking them to buy support on
digital media platforms. This helped greatly to spread his fake news campaign.
Was 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 five 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 a white-list 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, tends to
go viral more than real news. This is what gives fake news its power. As the
old proverb goes, 'a lie will go halfway around the world while truth is putting its boots on'. Add to this is our gullibility to images, which
today can be so easily photoshopped. A generation ago, we would hear that if
something appeared 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 images through simple photoshopping, 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 in 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 - allowing groups to require consent before
co-opting anybody into the group -- is not under discussion by either Facebook
or the BJP Government. Both need the virality of WhatsApp -- one for
advertising, the other for its mass reach.
How Data Brokers Make a Killing
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 Assembly elections for Rs 3-5 crore 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, gender, 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 the content is. 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 Finance Minister Arun
Jaitley's electoral 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" by
electoral bonds; a campaign that can unleash a tsunami of disinformation and
hatred on 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