Digitally manipulating democracy for populists

Published: May 3, 2019 - 17:52 Updated: May 5, 2019 - 12:05

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi


On the way to Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, at a roadside restaurant, four young men with quiff hairstyles and totally oblivious of their chaotic environment, are focused on their smart phones. The young men seem straight out of Tiktok, the fastest growing Chinese video-sharing app. “We watch Tiktok, but most of our time goes in playing  PUBG,” informed one of them without taking his eyes off the screen of the phone. “We play 6-8 hours every day.” 

With most of the waking time of this smartphone generation spent on creating videos for Tiktok and playing PUBG, an addictive South Korean war game, political parties -- mostly BJP-- are busy trying to find ways to entice the 90 million first-time young voters. PUBG allows players to communicate with fellow players who are on the digital platform. Party strategists are diving into PUBG to convey their political messages through their supporters. They are also using other smartphone games and apps to influence the voting behavior of the yo

BJP also created a NAMO app, which has seen some 10 million downloads and it is the aggregator of alleged fake news. This app also serves as a platform for sharing videos and unsubstantiated information. BJP also uses it for mobilising support and crowds.

There are scores of Tiktok accounts that have Narendra Modi’s image and it is used for showing images of his rallies and his interactions with people. Similarly, on Instagram, another social media platform, Modi and other politicians loom large. The impact of social media is palpable on the ground.

In western UP, where the first round of voting took place in the first phase of polls on April 11, there was bewilderment about who the new demographic would have preferred – BJP or the ‘mahagathbandhan’. According to an activist of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), the leading farmers’ organisation in the area: “We don’t know for which party the smart phone types have voted as they are mostly engaged with Whatsapp and other apps.” 

Anecdotal evidence suggest that many of them, described as the ‘time-pass generation,’ which is jobless and busy playing games, still seem to be under the cast of Modi. “The old don’t know where we will vote,” claimed a young man. His ideas are obviously different from what some middle-aged elders have been suggesting as the mood in their community.  Quite evidently, old caste and religious loyalties are coming under strain from narratives disseminated through Whatsapp and other social media platforms. 

“We do not know what they read on Whatsapp all the time,” said another BKU activist. Plenty, it would seem. BJP has a majority of 50,000 Whatsapp groups that are used for spreading their propaganda, their version of history and why the opposition is ‘anti-national, untrustworthy and pro-Islamic’. BJP IT cell endeavors to have 25,000 Whatsapp groups in each of the states, with each group having 250 members. BJP claims that they have 1.2 digital volunteers for spreading their messages through different platforms. According to this campaign, the opposition should not be voted to power. Most of the young do not make up their minds by listening to their elders, reading a newspaper or magazines, watching TV, or, after an informed debate in dhabas or tea shops. As the smartphone engagement is a lonely activity, they are deeply influenced by the messages and organised propaganda. All their structure of norms and voter-choice now takes place in a different ecosystem.

In the Brazilian presidential elections, a Right-wing ultra-nationalist, Jaira Bolsonaro, contrary to most of the surveys, won the polls by using the Whatsapp platform. Money-bags, who wanted the Left-wing Workers’ Party to be defeated, funneled millions of dollars to buy expensive mass forwarding software to disseminate the content of Whatsapp which has huge penetration in Brazil. This helped Bolsonaro to win. In Brazil, unlike India, Whatsapp did not introduce a bar on a message being forwarded five times.

 This victory threatens to change the course of this Amazonian country. It may reverse its environmental laws and cast aside the humane, pro-poor and progressive policies of the Workers’ Party under former presidents Luiz Inacio Lula and Dilma Rousseff. The obvious gainers are all those who were merrily forwarding Bolsonaro’s fake news Whatsapp forwards.

 Can the experiment in Brazil be repeated in India?

 This is a wrong question. Much of what has happened in the South American country has already taken place in India. Unlike Brazil, the quantum of Whatsapp users may be more in India, but Internet penetration is just 30 percent. That means that political parties have to craft different strategies for diverse groups. It’s here that the Indian government’s digitisation programme becomes a tool; this includes Digital India, Aadhar, demonetisation, GST etc. This has helped create a database that is being used to ascertain consumer behavior.

Data is the new life-blood of politics. Political parties like the BJP and Congress are using traditional brokers for providing consumer data and using analytics to build a model on voter behavior.

Expectedly, there was huge resistance from the civil society about making biometric cards or Aadhar compulsory for use in fair price shops and other services that the State provides. Citizens were expected to align their bank accounts and mobile phones with Aadhar, raising fears of intrusion in privacy by the State. Aadhar linkage, activists claimed, could provide a ‘Surveillance ‘State access to a 360-degree profile of anyone. This means that government agencies would know everything about a person, besides his political and consumer preference. If this is not profiling, than, what is?

  The Supreme Court, which had declared the ‘right to privacy’ as a fundamental right in a judgment, dispensed the need of Aadhar for opening bank accounts and buying mobile phones. However, the SC insisted on those accessing fair price shops to link their ration cards with Aadhar as it agreed with the government’s argument that it was saving them from fake ration card-holders and thereby ‘saving subsidies’. Subsequent probes revealed that the ‘saving subsidies’ claim was pure fiction.

 Many jurists criticised the Aadhar judgment of the Supreme Court for discriminating between those living in the rural areas who use the public distribution system and those who live in the cities. Later, the government brought in an ordinance to again make the alignment of biometric card number with bank accounts mandatory.

 Aadhar and subsequent imposition of GST has digitised the entire 1.3 billion Indian population which has a biometric card and their unique numbers and other details, which are supposed to be stored in a safe computer. The Attorney General of India promised to the Supreme Court that the computer and data was safe behind high walls.  

What the Aadhar authority has done is to link -- without consent -- the voters’ list with the biometric identity number. It has used all kinds of software and algorithms to align the voter identity card with Aadhar, for ostensibly purifying the list of bogus voters. Hundreds of thousands of voter ids were removed without even by your leave of many people. Till the time the Supreme Court intervened, this alignment, which was presented earlier as mandatory, 300 million voters were linked in the space of three months. Another 500 million are due to be aligned in the next few months.

 The Election Commission claimed to have returned to the original list, but it seems it did not, if the controversy around voter deletion is anything to go by. Though the EC claimed that it has delinked the Aadhar number from voters, it does seem that the impact of its unauthorised ‘purification drive’ to purge bogus voters persisted much longer. There are also allegations that people of a certain profile were removed from the voters’ list. What is also disturbing is that it purged hundreds of thousands of women voters.

 To undo some of the damage caused by this drive, the EC announced that the voters, as a matter of abundant caution, should verify their names online or through a dedicated phone number before going for voting; it is clear that many did not follow this suggestion.

 In Telangana, during the assembly elections in November 2018, it appears that 3,000,000 voters’ names were deleted. The Chief Election Officer of the newly formed state acknowledged that the voters’ names had actually got deleted, but there was nothing he could do except say sorry. What is worrying is that the difference between defeat and victory in Telangana was actually around 30 lakhs or 8 per cent of the total votes.

 The same story is playing out in other states where polling to the Indian Parliament is taking place. In western UP, scores of voters were seen complaining that their names were not in the list. These voters were mostly women or belonged to either the minority community or were Dalits. Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh saw a plethora of similar complaints with the EC veering between bureaucratic cussedness and helplessness. These deletions can drastically alter the final results, but the political opposition has been strangely stoical about it. Their concerns seem different.

 Some of this data generated through Aadhar and other means has found its way to traditional brokers who were allowed to ingress into the new, evolving architecture that the country has created. Political parties have used it to their advantage to build algorithms that will suit their ad campaigns to bend and manipulate minds.  

 A similar strategy was executed by harvesting Facebook data and tailoring content to fit different demographics and beliefs by the disgraced Cambridge Analytica -- a political data analytics company that was deployed to sway opinion in favour of Brexit in the United Kingdom and also help Donald Trump to win the US presidential elections. Elections are no longer simple, innocent affairs where people’s vote is based on the performance of the party in power. Now it is a complicated exercise where Right-wing leaderships routinely refuse to relinquish power. They use surveillance technology, manipulate EVMs, peddle fake news and subvert the social media to change the minds of the gullible.

 Social media companies like Facebook, Whatsapp and twitter, cognizant of the harm their manipulation have done to their reputations after the Cambridge Analytica expose, the Brazilian elections and even the 2014 Indian elections, have built filters and algorithms to prevent the spread of fake news and hate-based messages. As elucidated above, Whatsapp allowed five forwards of its messages, but clever administrators of these groups have mastered it by forwarding the messages either through a foreign phone number or from one group chat to another. For that reason, Whatsapp remains the most preferred messaging platform for political parties with about 300 million users.

 All those who have no time to read newspapers and have forgotten their history books, have been influenced by new, unverified interpretations of history. The favorite targets of the supporters of BJP are mostly members of the Nehru-Gandhi family, particularly India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. He has been vilified as a man who sold off India’s national interests. As this messaging is mostly one-sided, most of the salacious stuff on Nehru is apparently swallowed hook, line and sinker.

His grandson, Rahul Gandhi, is also not spared. He is presented in these highly derogatory Whatsapp forwards as ‘mentally challenged’ and ‘Pappu’. Some vicious Whatsapp messages allegedly show him as a coke head who was caught with drugs and a sackful of dollars at Boston airport.These messages never attract defamatory notices as they are snapped up in closed groups, but they have the potential to influence voter-choices. During the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls of 2019, many people have been shown expressing helplessness by repeating the same cliché: “If not Modi, than, who? Surely, not Rahul Gandhi.”

The question has been presented in a manner as if every other option to Modi is inadequate. Much of this trajectory of thought process can be attributed to Whatsapp. Now filters are being put up to prevent fake news and messages.

 Twitter, too, which is not used widely by the young, is still used for the dissemination of fake news. Twitter has culled many accounts and has tried to remove fake news through changed algorithms. Despite being in the midst of the elections, it is not clear whether all the steps taken by Whatsapp, Facebook and twitter are impacting their content and consequent voting behavior. Those who are used to consuming Whatsapp or Facebook content would not go to a newspaper or magazine to verify issues if they are confused. Social media companies believe that they will rely on fact-checking companies and websites like Altnews and boomnews. Studies show that people trust fake news more than factual and unbiased information.

 Indeed, the ongoing parliamentary elections in India will hold important lessons for many countries that will also be holding their polls in the days to come. If electoral democracy and the right to vote are manipulated by dubious Right-wing politicians with sinister intent, and who want to hold on to power at any cost, surely, the idea of a secular and plural India as conceived by our freedom movement and the Indian Constitution will be seriously threatened. The damage will be irreversible.

May 23, therefore, will decide the destiny of India.



Editor of Delhi's Hardnews magazine and author of Bad Money Bad Politics- the untold story of Hawala scandal.

Read more stories by Sanjay Kapoor

This story is from print issue of HardNews