WhatsApp “Twiplomacy”and 2019 General Elections

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In recent years, technology has not failed to influence every aspect of human life, including the election process. We’ve seen the evolution from the traditional ballots to the Electronic Voting Machines(EVM), which amongst them is a better option, well that is a debate for some other time.

In this article, we’ll discuss different aspects of the advancements of technology, and how heavily the political parties and leaders rely on them. The 2014 General elections in India bears the evidence. It was the largest on record, with over 800 million citizens eligible to vote in elections spread over nine phases, in what is considered the world’s largest democracy. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), under current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, managed to eke out a majority government.

The 2019 general elections just a few yards away, international media’s attention is shifted to India, in recent months. The role that social media has played in events in the country, is being analyzed. Over 50,000 WhatsApp groups have reportedly been created, earlier this year to spread campaign messages during State and other elections. In the past year, the country has witnessed the aftermath of rumors and false information propagated through WhatsApp. The gullible public has been mobilized and instigated resulting in the killing of more than twenty innocent people since April. Many incidents were reported from all over the country of lynching and mob attacks, of law and order gone haywire. Although none of these incidents has been directly connected to campaign created WhatsApp groups, they reflect how political and social divisions have been propagated and inflamed by digital technologies.

A marked shift in election strategy was seen in the 2014 General elections. Data and social media platforms occupied a central role. The upcoming 2019 elections are expected to rely even more heavily on social media than those in 2014, with video content playing an even more prominent part, according to the experts.

With the ready availability of smartphones and the advent of 4G networking in rural areas, the connectivity has risen in India. There are about 243 million internet users, 114 million Facebook users, and 33 million Twitter users, in the country. All of them ready to be ‘understood’, influenced and manipulated. Reports have found that the number of tweets rose 600% from the 2009 elections to the 2014 elections.

There are certain things that we should be aware of as responsible citizens and voters of democratic India. The process to create a fair and impartial election is complex in a diverse country like India. India follows the universal adult franchise system of voting where every citizen above the age of 18 has the right to vote. The elections are administered by the Election Commission of India (EC) which was formed on 25th January 1950 as an autonomous, constitutionally established federal authority. General elections, state legislature elections, the election for President and Vice President of India are under the control and direction of EC.

According to the Supreme Court, where existing laws and provisions are silent, the Election Commission has the authority to fill these gaps.

Understanding the use of personal data in elections is the first step towards enabling individuals to choose how they want to engage in elections and important in formulating policy response towards the use of digital data and technology by political parties and candidates to ensure free and fair elections.

And to help us with that Tactical Technology Collective, an international non governmental organization, partnered with researcher Elonnai Hickok, the Chief Operating Officer at The Center for Internet and Society India, to elucidate the role played by digital platforms and personal data in India’s recent and upcoming first-past the-post general elections in 2019, constituting the country’s 17th Parliament.

The section below summarises a few, major findings from Hickok’s report. Her research spans observations from news and academic articles, legislation, company websites and promotional materials, and election advertisements.

Even in the face of rising dependency towards digital and data-driven campaigning in India, the current regulatory framework for data usage is not adequate. In particular, current electoral rules and media regulations do not yet fully address the use of ‘Sensitive personal data or information’ (SPDI) or ‘Personal information’ (PI) with respect to elections.

  • Public-sector bodies are not subject to regulations on the use of PI and SPDI. By definition, SPDI in India excludes political opinions, ethnic origins, philosophical beliefs, and trade union membership – all of which qualify as ‘sensitive personal data’ under the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation(EU GDPR).The General Data Protection Regulation 2016/679 is a regulation in EU law on data protection and privacy for all individuals within the European Union and the European Economic Area. It also addresses the export of personal data outside the EU and EEA areas.
  • In July 2018, an Expert Committee on privacy legislation drafted a bill expanding the definition of SPDI to include religious and political beliefs. The bill also extends regulations to foreign companies involved in data processing or profiling of Indian data subjects.
  • The acquisition of citizen data, during political campaigns is an opaque process. According to Hickok’s report a combination of public data (adapted from sources like the census and voter rolls) and proprietary data (sold by a growing host of local companies offering products particularly for political campaigns) are being used by the political parties.
  • Large-scale data collection in India has facilitated the development of companies like Germin8 Social Intelligence, which analyses social media inputs in real-time, and the widespread adoption of micro-targeting.

Numerous foreign and domestic data and digitalservices companies have been involved in India’s election campaigns, but the extent of their involvement remains unclear.

  • Growing connectivity in India has generated demand for digital services, giving rise to various domestic companies catering to election campaign needs and contracts with foreign companies. Both SAP (based in Germany) and Oracle (based in the US) worked with the BJP in the most recent election cycle. Oracle has not publicly acknowledged its involvement.
  • Between 2003 and 2012, Strategic Communications Laboratory (SCL) – Cambridge Analytica’s parent company – was reportedly involved in six state elections, in the 2009 national election, and others according to leaked documents from whistle-blower Christopher Wylie. The services provided by the firm included caste research and behavioral profiling. SCL stated that both the BJP and Congress were clients. Furthermore, in April 2018, NDTV India displayed a copy of a pitch on data strategy for the 2019 election reportedly presented to the Congress Party by Cambridge Analytica.
  • Hickok’s report reveals at least four dozen domestic and international companies involved in Indian election campaigning to some degree, with short profiles accompanying select firms. One firm, Modak Analytics, claims to have assembled an electoral data repository on 814 million voters.

In the General Elections of 2014, Narendra Modi’s Prime Ministerial campaign made extensive use of digital tactics, reflecting a marked change from previous campaign strategies.

  • Modi’s campaign included a strategy dedicated to harnessing technology, data, and online platforms. One component of his team was dedicated exclusively to social media analytics, and another to information technology more broadly.
  • The campaign used various techniques to gain new supporters. For instance, individuals were given a ‘NaMo number’ representing the number of supporters they had added – directly or indirectly, and motivating them to add more contacts (including their voter ID and phone number), with the ultimate goal of increasing the BJP supporter database. The campaign also used hologram technology to hold 1,350 3D rallies across India. Furthermore, followers and potential supporters could access to Modi’s speeches on specific issues simply by calling a phone number.

Other tactics included installing GPS in campaign vehicles to ensure outreach to rural areas, using cookies as a data-harvesting technique for targeted ads on campaign websites, and broadcasting “Chai pe Charcha” (Discussion over Tea) conversations via satellite, internet and mobile technology in select villages as a means of putting Modi directly in touch with voters. After Modi’s first 100 days in office, Twitter published a “Twiplomacy” blog highlighting Modi’s novel use of Twitter in his communications. As one specialist observed, “Modi is perhaps one of the most tech-savvy politicians in the world and certainly the most active in India.”

Know your rights and fight or them and make your way to free and fair elections.

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