Under fire for technology firm Cambridge Analytica having harvested Facebook user data to influence elections, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder CEO of Facebook, has expressed his commitment to ensuring the integrity of elections. Grilled by 45 Senators in a US Congressional hearing for about five hours, he said, “2018 is an incredibly important year for elections. Not just with the US midterms, but around the world there are important elections – in India, in Brazil, in Mexico, in Pakistan and Hungary – that we want to make sure that we do everything we can to protect the integrity of those elections.”
Onslaught on democracy
Earlier, Zuckerberg admitted that up to 87 million Facebook users in Britain might have had their personal data accessed by Cambridge Analytica, a London-based political consulting company. Admitting his mistake, he added that his personal data was also stolen. The question is, how far can elections be influenced by obtaining personal data? It may be debatable but the very attempt to influence voters by spreading disinformation is an onslaught on democracy. It is being apprehended that as the thirty years war ended the overlordship of the Pope and ended up in the signing of the Westphalia Treaty which gave birth to sovereign states, social media may punch holes in democracy itself.
A company, Global Science Research, used a personality App, with the consent of Facebook, ostensibly for some academic purpose, as it claimed, and harvested data of millions of Facebook subscribers who used this App. Its claim of doing some academic research was humbug as it sold the data to Analytica which was working for Donald Trump’s presidential election. It has come to light that Indian political parties also approached Analytica for reaping political dividends. Its former chief executive Alexander Nix, now under suspension, has said that his company is used to ‘operating through different vehicles in the shadows.’ This is a big shocker which clearly indicates that some bigger operation is going on the sly. In an interview, he said without mincing words, “Things don’t necessarily need to be true, as long as they are believed.”
Analytica’s slogan is: ‘Data drives all we do.’ It has vindicated the slogan in an irony of situation by actually driving data like Lady Macbeth who pretentiously said that she had lost her sleep because of the murder of King Duncan, and she actually lost her sleep because of guilty conscience. A whistleblower has laid bare commercial nexus between Analytica and American politicians in predicting and influencing voting preferences. 123 countries have electoral democracy and only a few out of them have real, vibrant democracy.
Hijack of election system
Apprehensions have been expressed that information and communication technology which had the power to strengthen democracy may now subvert it. Rulers of countries with only electoral democracy may use it to win elections and stay in power as autocrats. It happened in 2013 in Azerbaijan’s elections. President Ilham Aliyev, in order to shore up his democratic credentials, launched an iPhone app that enabled the people to know results simultaneously as the counting took place. It was bandied about as the regime’s commitment to transparency. Later, it turned out that results were posted on the app a day before. Andrés Sepúlveda is cooling heels in a highest security prison in central Bogota, Columbia. He is charged with rigging elections throughout Latin America for nearly a decade. In the Mexican presidential election, he worked for Enrique Peña Nieto, who was elected. He has himself admitted that he traversed the continent rigging major political campaigns. His team consisted of hackers who stole campaign strategies, created a virtual world of support for Peña Nieto and animus for others by manipulating social media, and installed spyware in opposition offices.
Hand-wringing over distortion of facts may be justified but the phenomenon is not new? Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, in their book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), have shown that mass media, instead of upholding the truth and justice, defend the economic, social and political agendas of privileged groups. Consent is manufactured with the help of mass media which obfuscate facts. The term “the manufacture of consent” was first used by Walter Lippmann in his book Public Opinion (1922). Lippmann had the same complaint that facts are never presented accurately and completely but are often arranged to portray a certain, subjective interpretation of an event to suit private needs. The problem of fake news is as old as the hill but its menace has grown tremendously with the growth of information technology. During the freedom movement, people used to quote Mahatma Gandhi for almost everything to authenticate their statements that Gandhiji said so. In most cases, it was not true but he was cited and he had to contradict whenever he came to know of it.
Eternal vigilance is the price of democracy but it is possible only when the people are well-informed. However, it is well-nigh impossible to derive the truth from a blizzard of information, misinformation and disinformation. An uninformed public is not dangerous but a misinformed public is. Lippmann has written that a very high voting percentage reflects on prevailing tension in the society. It happens in case of misinformation and misinformed people end up taking wrong decisions. This is deleterious to democracy but it is difficult to say that people can be misled so easily.
The basic question is, what is truth? Kenopanishad defines it: “Amayita satyam iti.” (Non-deception is what truth is.) It further says, “Akautilyam wa manah kayanaam.” (The non-distortion of speech, body and mind.) There cannot be any truth if there is an element of deception. Its biggest example is found in the Mahabharata when Dharmaraj Yudhishthira is forced to take recourse to half-truth when he says “Ashwatthama hatau” (Ashwatthama is dead). He was technically right but the purpose was to disturb Dronacharya, who went into shock that his son Ashwatthama was dead. It was required to win the war. It is an example of fake news. So, fake news is as old as the hill but it cannot be said with certainty to what extent it influences elections.