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The Threat is Real: After US, India Could Suffer Foreign Meddling in Elections as Tech Giants Drag Their Feet

This election year will see usual political activity, but what will make these polls unique is the advent of information warfare in the political space.

Lt Gen (Retd) DS Hooda |

Updated:January 7, 2019, 6:19 PM IST
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The Threat is Real: After US, India Could Suffer Foreign Meddling in Elections as Tech Giants Drag Their Feet
This election year will see usual political activity, but what will make these polls unique is the advent of information warfare in the political space.

Stepping into 2019, we are approaching the largest democratic exercise in the world as India gears up for general elections. There will be the usual political activity, but what will make these elections unique is that we will see the advent of information warfare in the political space.

Some may be surprised at the use of the term ‘warfare’ in a routine democratic practice, but let me take you to one moment from the US Congressional hearings on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections. Frustrated by the evasive answers being given by representatives of Facebook, Twitter and Google, Senator Dianne Feinstein said, “You don’t get it! This is a very big deal. What we’re talking about is cataclysmic. It is cyber warfare.”

The fallout of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and allegations of foreign interference in the 2016 US elections also created huge ripples in India. IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad informed the Rajya Sabha in July 2018 that the CBI had been asked to probe the alleged misuse of Facebook data by Cambridge Analytica.

A committee under Deputy Election Commissioner Umesh Sinha interacted with social media companies to ensure “purity of Indian elections such as avoiding adverse impact of fake news and targeted communication to voters”.

These actions, while not unimportant, will have only a limited impact on what promises to be a vitiated political campaign on social media. Signs of this are already visible, and trolling in India is vicious on issues of gender, nationalism, caste and religion.

Although I am not a legal expert, I do not think there is any law that prevents targeted political communication to individual voters. Therefore, there is nothing to prevent political parties from appealing to our non-rational biases and creating echo chambers that help solidify the votes of people with one particular ideology.

There is nothing new in the use of social media for gaining political advantage. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign is well known for its very extensive and sophisticated use of social media. However, what has rapidly changed is that advances in social media technology today have a greater cognitive influence in shaping our views. Each time we share or like a message, algorithms pick it up and feed us more of the same, reinforcing our views and shutting out any alternate viewpoint. Eli Pariser called this a ‘filter bubble’ that serves as a “kind of invisible autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas, amplifying our desire for things that are familiar and leaving us oblivious to the dangers lurking in the dark territory of the unknown.”

This raises some important questions. Is it completely right to pursue a campaign on social media that wins votes but has the potential to sharpen divisions in society? To what extent are political parties permitted to influence individual voting choices? Should the use of social media during the upcoming elections be also viewed as an ethical rather than merely a technical issue? These matters should be seriously debated by the Election Commission.

There is also a real danger of foreign interference in Indian elections. We have seen enough evidence of this around the world. Last month, while reporting on the US 2018 mid-term elections, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said, “Russia, and other foreign countries, including China and Iran, conducted influence activities and messaging campaigns targeted at the United States to promote their strategic interests.”

In the 2016 US presidential campaign, about 146 million Facebook and Instagram users were exposed to Russian-linked influence attempts. As a key international player, the Indian leadership has the ability to impact geopolitics on the world stage and it would be completely irresponsible to ignore the fact that foreign powers would attempt to influence the complexion of this leadership.

The ‘weaponisation’ of social media is now a commonly used term but not enough has been done in India to counter it. We have to move quickly in our search for solutions if we are to retain faith in the integrity of the democratic process. The starting point for this will have to be the security of personal data. It is this data that enables psychographic profiling of individuals for targeted communication. Cambridge Analytica’s website proudly states, “With the help of experts and different analytical tools, the company helped Trump to get a victory in winning the White House. They approached social media platforms and sent a targeted message to most persuaded voters who cared about the elections”.

In creating individual profiles of 230 million Americans, Cambridge Analytica illegally harvested data of about 87 million Facebook users without explicit permission. In India, unhindered data collection is going on by political parties, government agencies and private companies. The draft Individual Data Protection Bill, authored by Justice BN Srikrishna Committee, is still under consideration by the government and, as per recent reports, has been put off for a decision to be taken only after the elections. Meanwhile, we all remain vulnerable to exploitation.

Silicon Valley companies can no longer continue to insist that they merely provide the platform and are not responsible for content. Chamath Palihapitiya, a former vice-president at Facebook, admitted in a talk at Stanford Business School, “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.”

Despite overwhelming evidence of the misuse of social media platforms, these tech giants are moving very reluctantly towards changing their practices. If the companies do not act aggressively, and with transparency to weed out malicious content, we must consider them as diluting our national security and take appropriate legal action.

Foreign interference in elections must be viewed as an act of external aggression. The US is considering the adoption of a bill titled ‘Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines Act of 2018’ (Deter Act). This seeks to impose punitive sanctions against any foreign government suspected of interfering in elections. Similar laws have either been passed or are being considered in Australia, Canada, and Singapore. India must seriously look at legislation to deter foreign interference and also revisit the law that permits foreign funding of political parties. Even the slightest loophole in our practices will be fully exploited by inimical powers.

And finally, we the people must play our individual parts. National security is not only about external threats but in securing our national character. It would be futile to advise that we stay away from the addiction of the social media. But we could become more responsible in how we use it, and not glorify those who spread radical content, irrespective of our ideology. We have to break free of the ‘filter bubble’. This will not be easy but in this rapidly evolving cyberspace of trolls, bots, fake news and misinformation, we are no longer left with simple options.

At the end of the 2019 elections, everyone will be answerable: the government, politicians, social media companies, and all of us. Will we get it right?

(The author is former Northern Commander, Indian Army, under whose leadership India carried out surgical strikes against Pakistan in 2016. Views are personal.)

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