I may have invented the web, but you make it what it is. And it’s up to all of us to build a web that reflects our hopes & fulfils our dreams more than it magnifies our fears & deepens our divisions”.
– Sir Tim Berners-Lee Founder of World Wide Web on his Twitter Handle on March 21, 2018
India’s Prime Minister Modi has 40 million followers while the US President Donald Trump has about 20 million followers on his personal page. These are not just numbers but a new way applied by democratically elected leaders to get connected with the people. By the end of 2017, the number of Facebook users went up to 2.2 billion, a community larger than any other national population.
Not surprisingly, for individuals and groups Facebook along with other social media platforms has become an important tool for political activism. Till now we were listening to bots, the dummy followers created to give traction to a leader through false perception of popularity. Now political parties are using the same data to manipulate the public opinion. The Congress Party allegedly hiring Cambridge Analytica for political consultancy has put the national political discourse to the peril of international actors.
The Symantec Internet Security Threat Report (ISTR) of 2017 says, “The targeted attack landscape shifted considerably during 2016, with several groups
emerging from the shadows and engaging in more public, politically subversive activities.” This was a clear warning to democracies like Bharat, the Cambridge Analytica controversy has just proved the threat right.
This data manipulation for political purposes has three dimensions that should concern us. Firstly, the privacy issue. The social media platforms ask your permissions to access your personal information and we generally click on ‘accept’ button without bothering much about the repercussions. The misuse by not just private agencies but even anti-national forces to manage our perception is a reality and we need to address it Secondly, as was widely debated in the US Presidential Elections, the ability of external actors to wage a war against a country without even firing a bullet has become a reality. The changing nature of security threats in this scenario is glaring and individuals addicted to social media usage are more susceptible to cyber crimes. We with higher number of social media users through smart phones can be easy victims of this new kind of organised criminal act.
Thirdly, what has happened in this specific case is the surfacing of sophisticated consulting agency that has been assisting a political party by misusing the data. Recently, we have seen many agitations that created social divides and social media trending played a certain role. Creating fake account with nationalist symbols and creating dissent and divisions within society through them is the new trend in Bharat.
The tools like Facebook or Twitter were created to connect people and not to divide them. As Sir Berners-Lee after founding the World Wide Web warns, “Fake news, which is surprising, shocking, or designed to appeal to our biases, can spread like wildfire.” This apprehension is a lesson for all of us who consume and collate the data and put it in use for various purposes. Tampering of data or a cricket ball, it is a mindset. Should we allow such mindset to thrive or by putting collective concerns above our individual impulsive reactions we should use tools for the purpose they have been created is the fundamental question. Of course, political parties who are allowing misuse of this data should be questioned. The companies providing this personal data for manipulative purposes should be legally cornered and additional security measures should be employed while using the social media platforms. But ultimately, it is the restrained use of social media platforms at the individual level which is the key to address this menace of data manipulation for divisive purpose.