In July 2018, a geek named Shivam Shankar Singh presented a provocative paper at a Bengaluru tech conference. Titled `Weaponizing Data for Politics’, the presentation elaborated on how – by analysing public and not-so-public data – political parties could profile voters and deliver targeted messages to them on their mobile phones.

What is of particular concern now is the battle of attrition between the government and social media platforms on what content needs to be used and what is pulled down. (AFP PHOTO / Representational Image)

Singh, who had then just quit from a high-profile BJP campaign team, told journalists that he had helped create constituency profiles broken down to booth levels and collated and analysed field survey data for actionable insights.

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Well, six years is a long time in politics and with India on the digital high road, the stage is now set for the shootout at general election 2024 between April 19 and June 1. It is certain that the all- embracive mobile phone, which includes posts, videos and stream-ins that can be vicious, funny, fake or contrarian, depending upon the troller’s appetite, will have a key role to play.

“There is little doubt now that the 2024 general elections will be fought on and decided by mobile phones,” says Pavan Duggal, India’s leading cyber law expert.

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Not discounting live campaigning as still the politicians’ principal tool for mobilization, there is a good reason for India’s digital pre-eminence. In 2023, the country had 1.05 billion users, who access the internet via their mobile phones. When one considers that the total number of voters registered to cast their ballot in the general elections in 2024 stands at 986.8 million, it easily works out to roughly one mobile phone per voter.

Says Nalin Kohli, BJP spokesperson and Convenor of its National Media Cell: “In a country where a majority of the population have smartphones and have adopted digital connectivity through banking and UPI and are receiving benefits directly through JAM (Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile), at the same time being connected with the social media, it is a huge opportunity for political parties to deal directly with such voters.”

Can one conclude that the BJP holds the edge over the other political parties when it comes to such virtual connectivity and technical excellence? “Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first leader to understand the power of social media and digital connectivity. The BJP as a party has certainly recognized the importance of this and adopted it into its functioning,” Kohli told this reporter.

That could well be an understatement.

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Officially, the BJP’s IT cell manages social media campaigns for the party and its members. It designs and implements social media strategy and trains party workers in using tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp. Facebook is the most used social media platform in India in terms of monthly active users (MAUs). Facebook is followed by other popular social media platforms, YouTube, and Instagram. All the content is then encapsulated in a mobile phone.

The grounds of poll propaganda, typically, are well sown. Before an upcoming rally, a party will broadcast information about it on social media platforms—such as Twitter (now X), Facebook, and WhatsApp—to mobilize lower-level party functionaries and voters. After the rally concludes, the party will select specific photographs, speech excerpts, sound bites, and displays of enthusiasm from the rally to share on social media.

“In an increasingly online world, a party must show voters real-world evidence that it has the support of other voters like them. Voters see the real-world as vital in evaluating a party’s fit with their interests. Voters also interpret physical campaigning as indicative of a party’s prospects for electoral success,” writes Shahana Sheikh, in a chapter entitled How Technology Is (and Isn’t) Transforming Election Campaigns in India in an essay in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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Of the nearly 2,000 smartphone respondents that she surveyed in Uttar Pradesh in 2022, “53 percent reported having seen photographs and/or videos of campaign rallies on their phones at least once a day in the lead-up to the state election, suggesting that voters were frequently exposed to online rally content during the campaign. This exposure to rally content has the potential to influence voter perceptions and voter mobilization, especially among smartphone users,’’ she wrote.

There is also a flip side. According to its critics, BJP orchestrates online campaigns through its social media cell to intimidate perceived government critics. Sadhavi Khosla, a former BJP cyber-volunteer in the BJP IT Cell said that the organisation disseminated misogyny, Islamophobia, and hatred. “The network of volunteers of BJP took instructions from BJP IT Cell and two affiliated organisations to troll users who are critical of BJP. Journalists and Indian film actors are also among their targets,” she told the media, a few years ago. The party subsequently denied that Khosla was a member of the BJP IT Cell.

Last week, a personal letter from Prime Minister Modi was circulated, addressed to ‘My dear family member’, which listed his government’s transformative outcomes in the last 10 years of his regime. More importantly, it urges citizens to send “ideas, suggestions, and support’’ for taking the mission of Viksit Bharat to its logical conclusion.

The letter has sparked protests, with opposition leaders alleging misuse of government databases and the messaging app for political propaganda in the days leading to the general elections.

That the BJP and the Modi dispensation has taken the public interactive interface to another level is a subject of research. While the BJP IT Cell boss, Amit Malviya, was not reachable, a party source in the know said that there were ‘several crores’ WhatsApp groups operating for the general elections. These include official BJP administered groups and an equal number of sympathisers, who had decided to push the button. While many parties have beefed up their data analytics teams and made their mark on social media, they lack the muscle, sophistication and reach of the BJP and the personal popularity of the Prime Minister.

In the November 2023 MP assembly elections, which the BJP won handsomely, the party deployed 14 senior leaders across the state’s 14 districts, forming more than 42,000 WhatsApp groups to reach out to voters, and engaging over 40 lakh booth level workers to carry out a poll strategy laid out by Home Minister Amit Shah.

In the Gujarat assembly elections of December 2022, BJP messaging was circulated across more than 50,000 WhatsApp groups in the state, on a daily basis. On some days, topics were related to the BJP’s campaigns or election manifesto; on other days, they are focused on combating the narratives being publicized by the opposition.

The BJP is by no means the sole beneficiary. In the 2023 assembly elections in Rajasthan, the Gehlot government launched the ‘Indira Gandhi Smartphone Yojana’ by distributing 1.33 crore phones to beneficiaries. The modus operandi was simple – 6,125 was given for the phone; 675 for free internet, while the state paid 900 per year for internet charges.

It helps political parties when India has some of the cheapest mobile data plans in the world; 1GB of mobile data costs about $0.04 or about Rs.13. Only Israel and Italy offer data cheaper than India. By way of comparison, people in the US pay 33X more than what people in India do.

Bridging the digital divide is the well stated objective of the Indian government and there are countless villages that do not have a wireless data signal. The plan, typically is to add hundreds of cellphone towers and give a basic smartphone to every college student and one woman in every household to connect more families to the internet and help fulfill the central government’s plan of a “Digital India.” No surprise then that telecom towers have grown by 60 percent between 2017-2022, according to the department of telecom (DoT).

In other words, WhatsApp had mutated from an intimate messaging service to a megaphone of misinformation as mobile internet plans exploded in late 2016, bringing hundreds of millions of Indians online for the first time.

What is of particular concern now is the battle of attrition between the government and social media platforms on what content needs to be used and what is pulled down.

Last month, social media platform X, earlier Twitter, complied with the Indian government’s executive orders by restricting access to certain posts and accounts within India. This is not the first time that content has been restricted on the platform in relation to government requests. In 2022, X previously withheld its account associated with the Pakistani government in India and faced similar situations in July and later months.

Parallel to the actions on X, the government has instructed YouTube to remove 45 videos from 10 channels in October citing misinformation and content promoting communal disharmony with over 130 million cumulative views.

Many of such releases relate to the ongoing farmers’ agitation, with the government not too keen to highlight discontent so close to national elections.

The damage by unverified videos can be fatal. Between January 2017 and December 2018, just before the 2019 general elections, 33 people were lynched by mobs in separate incidents fueled by child kidnapping rumours that ran rampant on WhatsApp.

Fact-checkers now fear a repeat of similar videos, which can be used to spread disinformation.

These general elections have another platform to contend with – artificial intelligence (AI). Increasingly, parties are turning to AI for novel – and menacing – strategies. On November 30 last year, voters at Telangana assembly poll booths saw a seven-second clip started going viral on social media. Posted on X by the opposition Congress, it showed KT Rama Rao, a leader of the ruling Bharat Rashtra Samiti, calling on people to vote in favour of the Congress. The Congress shared it widely on a range of WhatsApp groups “operated unofficially” by the party, which ended up on the official X account of the party, viewed more than 500,000 times! The video was fake.

Notes news channel Aljazeera: “With the increased availability of handy artificial intelligence tools, teams across India’s political parties, including Modi’s BJP and the Congress, are deploying deepfakes to influence voters, managers of nearly 40 recent campaigns told Al Jazeera. While several AI tools used to generate deepfakes are free, others are available on subscription for as little as 10 cents per video.’’

With no law against either fake news or deep fakes or for that matter, propaganda mongering, there are ostensibly, no remedies. “There is no legal framework to check such crimes. There are, at best, government advisories, which are not mandatory or binding in any sense,’’ cyber expert Duggal told this reporter.

If political leaders in the country thrive on such brinkmanship, to expect a legal deterrent would be too ambitious.


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