Fighting elections on social media threatens democratic processes

India is preparing to celebrate the “Mahaparv” or the biggest festival of democracy—the elections. Free and fair elections are always seen as the backbone of any democracy. Interestingly, the way social media today is being employed in the election fanfare is worth watching.

It has made all individuals campaigners promoting the objectives of a particular party via social media. The idea of the secret ballot has been lost in the war of words. Code of conduct is not applicable to social media where the parties continue to forward their agendas.

The social media age has entirely overhauled the concept of traditional means and mechanism of elections.

The social media agenda

Social media was never created with maturity; it was not a domain that was envisaged to bring about social change. But, today, it has become the voice of the common man. And politicians are exploiting it equally.

The onset of smartphones, in particular, has given access to social media anytime and anywhere. Politicians use it to raise funds, mobilise their supporters, and reach out to their constituency, while the common man uses it to promote the agenda of the party s/he supports or to directly engage with the politicians.

Such a multipronged approach is supposed to strengthen the integrity and transparency of the electoral process and enrich the fabric of democracy. Ironically, the very means could also be misused, in ways that may affect election results and undermine confidence in the integrity of democratic processes.

Hand in glove

In the last couple of years, elections have become hot targets of interference, hacking, and doxing. The 2016 US presidential election witnessed how social media became a weapon in the hands of Russians to target dedicated groups or influencers and sow the seeds of division and confuse the voters.

There were reports that revealed how the weak spots were utilised to enable the process. Moreover, the interference was further facilitated by growth-obsessed social media companies, unsuspecting intelligence agencies, and an election featuring two hyper-polarising candidates, one of which was said to have a Russian blind spot and a group of supporters willing to believe lies and half-truths.

This does not end here; there have been reports that claim that the wheels of influencing the 2020 US presidential elections are already in motion in ways social media organisations may not yet understand or be prepared for. And Russia is just one such country that has been building up its cyber capabilities.

The same stands true for India’s election at the current juncture, where half-truths, lies, and memes are being used to flare dormant sentiments with no check mechanism in place.

Considering the country has a hostile neighbourhood, gatecrashing elections using social media may not seem like a tough task at hand.

The case of Cambridge Analytica was another such instance that brought to light the cruciality of data protection and security and the ways in which powers that be were using data for manipulating and influencing the targets.

Manouevring the (social) media minefield

The footprint one leaves on social media is an extremely valuable resource today and people in power can go to extremes to get it. Tools of data analytics can aid in harvesting information from user profiles and scan through the trove to support research, augment targeted campaigns, and help political parties in assessing and evaluating their performance.

These have been quite beneficial in targeting swing voters, forecasting voter behaviour, running simulations, predicting the verdict of a constituency, and accelerating work in areas where the grip has not been that strong.

Using social media as a tool of manipulation is an art that follows the 4D principle—Dismissing the critic, Distorting the facts, Distracting from the main issue, and Dismaying the public.

Sadly, when these mechanisms spread like wildfire and are able to gather millions and millions of shares and likes, the prevalent system allows the perpetrator to make money.

Additionally, the algorithms embedded in social media applications use those ‘likes/shares’ to customise everything from the advertisements one sees to the searches one conducts online. This results in an echo chamber or a filter bubble that virtually imprisons users and shapes their newsfeed, and possibly outlook, on various issues, including political orientations.

This impacts the credibility of democratic processes; hence, the question remains: whether voting for a particular party is one’s will or the outcome of being imprisoned in the online filter bubble for too long.

Even for the adversary nations it is cheaper to change the government by manipulating elections than invading it to get the favourable party in the seat of power.

Cracking down

It has been difficult to control the spread of misinformation for its sheer volume and the quantity of recirculation. So dissecting and unpicking data of misinformed campaigns or fake news as to how it was weaved together is far more time-consuming than producing more of it.

This doesn’t mean that the entities responsible have not done anything. In 2016, the EU established the code of conduct as a means to pressure social media platforms to crack down on hate speeches.

The German Parliament, in 2017, passed a law that allowed authorities to impose a fine on social media companies who failed to remove aggressive content within a stipulated time.

In India, Facebook recently removed 687 pages linked to Congress IT cell for “inauthentic behaviour” and pushing spam. Additionally, even WhatsApp recently unveiled its feature of “Checkpoint Tipline” where people can check the authenticity of messages received. 

Even the Election Commission of India has come out with guidelines for the use of social media in the 2019 elections that include certification of ads.

What needs to be done

There still remains a dire need for rapid alert mechanisms regarding misinformation, fake news, and hate messages. More importantly, the private sector must be involved in any debate and deliberation on issues around political ads-sponsored content, bots, and fake accounts to increase the transparency and maintain the integrity of the election process.

It is equally important to educate individuals regarding sharing of data online. There has to be more proactive measures to counter the side effects of social media, lest it becomes a case of ‘too little too late’.

Kritika Roy is a Research Analyst at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

Elections 2019Social Media