Is social media ‘Weaponized’ in India?

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Voters in India (Reuters file photo)

As controversy rages in India (and U.S.) over use of privacy data to influence democratic elections, some Indian-American observers and IT experts call for more regulations

The electoral systems of the world’s biggest and the most powerful democracies – India and the United States — are in the throes of a crisis of credibility, wracked by allegations of  foreign-based consultants, Big Data, and political party dirty tricks swaying voters unfairly, and, likely, illegally.

Just as in the US, politicians, the activists, technologists, and voters are examining the info-age’s threats to their proud democracy with levels of voter turn-out that are the envy of many nations, and looking at how to meet the challenge.

Foreign involvement in elections is not new to India and other emerging economies note American academics and IT experts, but the potential for control has scaled up manifold in recent years; Accusations against the KGB and CIA manipulating information during the Cold War in emerging countries like India, are today overshadowed by the fear of mind-bending algorithms and artificial intelligence potentially determining a country’s future.

The latest is the unfolding controversy over the purported use of Facebook privacy data by Strategic Communications Limited, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica (CA), and its India partner, in various Indian elections over several years. New Delhi has demanded that CA and Facebook, give it answers by April 7, on whether personal data of its citizens was misused.

“It’s ‘weaponized’ social media,” Silicon Valley IT expert and analyst Vivek Wadhwa told News India Times. “It shows the breadth and depth of spying that’s going on, on us,” Wadhwa asserted. “Facebook has data and is enabling companies like Cambridge Analytica to use it for evil.”

For a high-performing democracy like India, where the 2014  general election had the highest voter turnout, 66.4 percent of the electorate (female- 65.30; Male-67.09) or almost 554 million people (of the 834 million electorate) casting their ballot (Election Commission),* it becomes a matter of deep concern privacy data is being mined by foreign or domestic companies. Juxtapose that with the prolific use of social media by Indian consumers, who by-and-large are not wary of inputting personal information on their accounts. Facebook alone has 250 million followers in India.  Add to that, the development and use of AI by Facebook, to recognize people in photos posted by users, has massively increased the number of people about whom information could and has been gathered. In the wrong hands of “bad actors” it could and has been used for nefarious purposes, analysts and experts like like Wadhwa warn.

Furthermore, in the context of the impact on Indians, Wadhwa says that AI is being spread to mobile devices used by hundreds of millions of that country’s citizens, who innocently click ‘Yes’ on questions of access to information.

However, former Chief Digital Officer of New York City and social media consultant Sreenath “Sree” Srinivasan, tells News India Times, “None of what is happening is surprising.” At this juncture in the evolution of the Web, social media is learning how to function, including companies like Facebook, “how potentially dangerous it can be.”

“It means one has to be very careful in all of the elections coming up because it seems authoritarian government are very keen to use these kinds of materials to stay in power,” Srinivasan said, “Everyone does use this data but authoritarians have more power to control things,” he qualified.

Kriti Sharma, vice president of AI at the leading software company Sage in U.K., warns in a Public Radio International podcast about human biases in AI. “Despite the common public perception that algorithms aren’t biased like humans, in reality, they are learning racist and sexist behavior from existing data and the bias of their creators,” says Sharma, a ‘civic leader’ also working with the Obama Foundation, who is committed to building ethical and unbiased AI.

Artificial intelligence, says Wadhwa, is “serious stuff” and has become “a major surveillance device,” one where a user is basically “ratting on your friends” even as you post pictures of a party you attended or anything.”

Srinivasan however, blames traditional media as well if not equally, for the way it is influencing public opinion. “For example, the unlimited space media gave to (presidential candidate) Trump,” he noted. Similarly, “In India, elections can be influenced by data, but media is also to be blamed,” he said.

Wadhwa has a darker forecast, concurring with the whistleblower Christopher Wylie, a Canadian, formerly with CA, who called the SCL/CA operations in India “modern colonialism” in his Twitter post. Wylie also put pictures of some of the sales pitches made by SCL about its achievements in India showing extracts from literature on how SCL conducted  behavioral research and polling in numerous elections at the state and federal level in India between 2003 and 2012. In his testimony before the British Parliament, Wylie also said the Congress Party had been a client of CA.

Even as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the opposition Congress Party trade charges about misuse of personal data, the former Indian partner of SCL Avneesh Kumar Rai, told The Washington Post that documents tweeted by Wylie “misrepresented” SCL’s activities in India; that his (Rai’s) business venture with CA in India, “never took off”; and that SCL had made false claims about India operations to win contracts.

According to The Washington Post, “It is not clear from the documents whether the data the company used was acquired through Facebook and whether the company misused private data.”

Whither Open Internet?

Ramesh Rao, professor of Communications at Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia, contends much of the problem with Big Data and its use in India (and elsewhere) lies in how ubiquitous and seemingly underground and unregulated it is. From a situation where intelligence agencies of various countries may have wined, dined and invited politicians, academics, journalists, and potential opinion-makers in a bid to affect public opinion; where even government Census data gathering could be designed to bring out divisions and mined politically, you now have an unrestrained Web that was expected to be benign but instead is dangerous, and harvested for political and economic gain.

“This is the challenge,” Rao said. “In India, communications were government regulated and a few people set the agenda. There was some gate-keeping.” Now it has the potential of violence, and the ability to split society, he contends.

“The issue here is not that parties have not used information to create division,” Rao says. Rather what we have are more sophisticated actors who can create mischief and do good. “Data could be benign but also very, very dangerous,” Rao warns. “We need to exert more control over these social media giants, but then the question arises, who would exert this control. And how, especially when you have 33-year olds worth tens of billions of dollars who have no real clue of the effects.”

Wadhwa says the government needs to regulate what information can be collected and how it can be used. “people must have the option of opting out of collection; there need to be limits on what type of advertising is allowed, for example, political advertising should be banned….”

In a talk on MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports, California’s Indian-American Congressman Ro Khanna went so far as to say, “We need a digital bill of rights to protect Americans’ dignity and privacy from bad faith actors like Cambridge Analytica, who use social media data to manipulate people. Self-regulation will not work. Congress must act in the public interest to protect consumers and citizens.”

Srinivasan however, is optimistic. “I’m confident that companies like Facebook are working on it,” he said, and gave as an example, the victory of the current French President Emmanuel Macron in November 2016,  who one despite a fake-news  onslaught by hackers in the last days of his campaign.