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Insights into Editorial: In political micro-targeting, the vulnerable Indian voter

Insights into Editorial: In political micro-targeting, the vulnerable Indian voter

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Context:

In recent, there was a massive outcry against the hiring, by Indian political parties, of Cambridge Analytica, a data mining and analytics firm.

The episode highlighted the need for regulating social media platforms by way of a comprehensive data protection law which takes issues such as political micro-targeting seriously.

With the recently introduced draft of the data protection law, the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, the debate has again resurfaced.

Although the digital revolution is being celebrated everywhere, the regulatory efforts regarding different spheres of its influence have only been reactionary.

Dark side of Social Media Platforms:

  • Fake news is often created and circulated for gaining electoral currency and political gains.
  • Often government’s own party and agencies (through the undisclosed purchase of political ads and IT cells) may be involved.
  • It is a rising trend seen in many countries led by China and Russia where internet manipulation and control are very high.
  • Misinformation and disinformation spread in media is becoming a serious social challenge. It is leading to the poisonous atmosphere on the web and causing riots and lynching’s on the road.
  • In the age of the internet (WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter,) it is a serious problem as rumours, morphed images, click-baits, motivated stories, unverified information, planted stories for various interests spread easily among 35 crore internet users in India.
  • There have been many instances of online rumours leading to killings of innocent people. In some cases, ministers have deleted tweets after realizing the fake news which they shared earlier.
  • In the recent Karnataka Assembly elections (2018) fake news about rival parties and candidates flooded the media.
  • It may not be a coincidence that India has the highest number of selfie deaths (person dying while trying to take a selfie) in the world (76 deaths out of 127 reported globally between March 2014 and September 2016). Use and abuse of mobile and internet remain a concern.

Unregulated zone:

The informational autonomy of the voter is under serious threat because the entire business of collecting personal data continues to remain unregulated and is also proprietary in nature.

It is extremely difficult to trace the methods used by such firms to scrutinise the personal life and intimate details of the individual.

This threat becomes imminent in light of the rising number of political firms which are making most use of the right to freedom of speech and expression.

The status of this right is near absolute with regard to political speech in most countries such as the U.S. It is but obvious that this can be misused by political entities. Profiling the potential voter has become a thriving industry.

Therefore, there are extremely well-crafted techniques when it comes to electoral campaigning.

Need for regulation on social media:

  • The speed and reach of social media have meant that subversive rumours and fake news get aired with impunity.
  • This has resulted in serious law and order problems. In India, this phenomenon has assumed dangerous proportions. Fake news on WhatsApp has led to lynching’s and communal flare-ups in many parts of the country. This menace needs to be curbed.
  • In the Internet age, any data protection law must be alive to the potential impact of social media companies in shaping public opinion.
  • The current draft empowers the Central government to notify social media intermediaries as significant data fiduciaries if their user base crosses a certain threshold and whose actions are likely to have an impact on electoral democracy.
  • This provision merits serious discussion to ensure that digital tools are used for enhancing democracy through citizen engagement, and not for harvesting personal data for voter targeting.
  • There is serious harm to the country’s democratic nature resulting on account of loss of informational autonomy.
  • The liberating and anti-establishment potential of the Internet are considered as a promise for the health of a liberal democracy.
  • At the same time, it can have serious ramifications if this potential is used by demagogues to spread fake news and propaganda.

While innovators have continued to develop more advanced technologies, the regulators have never been able to catch up with it. There are infinite contours of this information age;

Hence, the scope of a data protection framework also needs to be sensitive towards the magnitude of a variety of data usage.

Conclusion:

Any conversation on additional regulation of social media brings up concerns about privacy and surveillance.

Therefore, any bid at regulating expression online has to be proportional and concrete with adequate redressal mechanisms and without any blanket provisions.

Any future legislation to curb fake news should take the whole picture into account and not blame the media and go for knee-jerk reactions; in this age of new media anyone can create and circulate new for undisclosed benefits.

Controlling fake news is a tricky issue: not controlling trolls could lead to national and international instability while doing too much to control it could harm democracy.

Countering content manipulation and fake news to restore faith in social media without undermining internet and media freedom will require public education, strengthening of regulations and effort of tech companies to make suitable algorithms for news curation. Italy, for example, has experimentally added ‘recognizing fake news’ in school syllabus. India should also seriously emphasize cybersecurity, internet education, fake news education in the academic curriculum at all levels.

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