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Opinion

The larger lessons for India from the Facebook data scandal

Affair highlights risks to all democracies from globalized social media

Can India keep Facebook from influencing elections?   © AP

Social media networks such as Facebook and WhatsApp now make it possible to communicate with large numbers of people, individually or in small targeted groups. This can be a big boon for elected and aspiring politicians in a representative democracy where getting closer to voters is the ultimate aim.

The role of social media in democracies should therefore have been celebrated and not scorned. Yet, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has just been subjected to a grueling examination in Washington by democratically elected representatives for allegedly putting electoral democracy at risk.

How is it possible that a technological innovation that should have been celebrated as a giant leap for representative democracy is accused of putting that very idea at risk?

It is a case of an extremely useful technology gone completely awry. Massive social damage has been inflicted by what was supposed to be a "cool technology." The ramifications of the impact of social media in democracies are relevant everywhere, not least in India, the world's largest democracy, as it prepares for parliamentary elections next year.

Social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and others have built huge bases of users primarily because people can generate their own content and share it instantly with whoever they want to. There must be something liberating about expressing oneself to the world that has driven billions of people to these platforms. With these user bases, platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp now own 'pipelines' that can connect to almost every individual on the planet. Social media platforms allow messages to be tailored in contrast to communication via traditional means such as public rallies, newspapers and television. This ability to connect to large numbers of people almost on an individual basis can be very tempting for anyone that need to market their wares or messages.

But, as the Facebook affair highlights, things can go badly wrong. Some 270,000 users answered seemingly innocuous questions in 2014 on their page and, perhaps unknowingly, gave permission to questioners to gain access to all their contacts, a total of up to 87 million people. Facebook says the data was "improperly acquired" by Cambridge Analytica, a political campaign consulting firm which worked on Donald Trump's U.S. presidential election campaign and denies it acted wrongly. Millions of people were allegedly fed 'fake news' and propaganda during the election campaign.

Any misuse of private data on social media is absolutely abominable. Peddling false, divisive and hate propaganda is equally abominable. Lest we forget, even without the alleged theft of data involved in this case, any campaigner could still have paid Facebook, enormous sums of money to target those same millions of people with similar propaganda. It is called "targeted advertising," which is after all, Facebook and other social media platforms' legitimized business model. With their "pipelines" to nearly every adult on the planet, social media companies make money by renting these connections to anyone wanting to communicate with a specific target individual or small groups of individuals, based on any criteria such as race, religion, age, gender, location, behavioural patterns etc. The ability to target specific groups and individuals can easily be misused and manipulated. For example, specific messages can now be sent to specific racial or religious groups vilifying other races or faiths.

Is this acceptable in a civilized democracy? There are two key criticisms of Facebook in the Cambridge Analytica affair. The first is allegedly allowing the data abuses to take place. The second, which is much deeper, is facilitating distribution of malicious "user generated content" that threatens electoral democracies. User generated content is after all the very foundation of these social media platforms.

This is a real and present danger, not least in India, a diverse and complex nation with numerous identities. The disease of targeted hate-filled communal campaigns through social media is already threatening our proud liberal democracy. India has 1.3 billion people, practising more than half a dozen religions, speaking more than a dozen languages and often identified along 300 different caste lines. Almost all of them are now connected through the mobile phone and half of them are on social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook. India's beautiful diversity is now under grave danger by vicious and spiteful targeted campaigns through social media, often by political and religious radicals, pitting one group against the other.

Much is often made of the risk of foreign intervention in the democratic process of a sovereign state through social media. But social media platforms today make it possible for anyone -- foreign or not -- to disseminate false, hate and malicious propaganda to targeted groups. As is being witnessed in India, very often such propaganda is more a domestic threat than a foreign one.

The threat of social media to electoral democracies is clear. The solution is not. Content regulation is often thought of as the only plausible way out of the current mess that our societies find themselves in. But that would be retrograde. Perhaps naming and shaming the perpetrators publicly by social media companies and civil society organisations would build enough disincentives for people to not misuse these powerful social media platforms. Facebook and other social media companies need to exhibit far greater social responsibility by being judicious with a business model based on targeted commucations, and not hide behind a veil of maximizing shareholder value.

Civil and liberal societies often solve such complex problems through self-regulation and correction, not external regulation. Past history gives the hope that this could be yet another passing phase of Schumpeterian "creative destruction, which liberal democracies such as the United States and India go through and emerge stronger and better -- as they did when print, radio, television and the internet threatened to disrupt traditional politics in the last century. But there is nothing automatic about defending democracy. We must pay heed to these challenges -- and respond.

Praveen Chakravarty is chairperson of the data analytics department of India's Congress party. Views are entirely personal.

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