Should we trust that Mark Zuckerberg will protect integrity of Indian elections?
Expecting the Facebook CEO to follow through would be an exercise in futility.
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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in a well-prepared testimony ahead of his two Senate hearings — the first in front of a joint session of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, the second before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce — said, “2018 is an incredibly important year for elections. Not just in the US mid-terms, but, around the world, there are important elections — in India, Brazil, Mexico, Pakistan and Hungary — and we want to make sure we do everything we can to protect the integrity of these elections.”
His mention of India is a big deal. After all, in the aftermath of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica (CA) exposé, we learnt that the British voter-profiling company that managed to access the private data of an estimated 250 million people of voting age in the US also had a role to play in Indian politics.
Christopher Wylie, a CA-employee-turned-whistleblower, released documents that showed the firm's parent company SCL Group had worked for the JD(U) in the 2010 Bihar elections, in which Nitish Kumar won with a landslide victory. One of those documents read: “SCL India was asked to provide electoral research and strategy for the 2010 state elections for the JD(U). SCL undertook a behavioural research programme targeting over 75 per cent of households to assist the client in not only identifying the correct battlegrounds, but also the right audiences, messages and most importantly, the right castes to target.”
I've been getting a lot of requests from Indian journalists, so here are some of SCL's past projects in India. To the most frequently asked question - yes SCL/CA works in India and has offices there. This is what modern colonialism looks like. pic.twitter.com/v8tOmcmy3z— Christopher Wylie (@chrisinsilico) March 28, 2018
They also revealed that SCL India has a database of more than 600 districts and seven lakh villages, which is constantly updated, and micro-level information includes household-level demographics, specifically focusing on caste data, linked to online mapping applications. The company helped clients “identify and target key groups within the population to effectively influence their behaviour to realise a desired outcome”.
With an important state election ahead of us — Karnataka Assembly polls — and the 2019 Lok Sabha elections soon to be underway, Zuckerberg's promise is crucially important. We must keep in mind that chief election commissioner OP Rawat has mentioned that Facebook would remain the poll panel’s social media partner during Karnataka Assembly elections.
As in the United States, social media is an important tool for campaigning in India. The 2014 Lok Sabha elections that saw the landslide victory of BJP and the ascension of Narendra Modi to prime-ministership can be hugely attributed to the party’s social media campaigning. In fact, with almost 470 million internet users — a number that is expected to rise to almost 520 million by next year — the stakes have never been higher for political parties to capitalise on the digital citizens of India.
Apart from making sure that firms like SLC do not get access to more data — Facebook recently confirmed that around five lakh accounts of Indian users have been accessed by CA — what exactly can Zuckerberg do?
With both the BJP and the Congress, the two largest parties in the Indian democracy, leaving no stone unturned in accusing each other of voter manipulation and accessing private data, is it not prudent for the Facebook CEO to divulge more information about the leaked data?
It is after all important for voters, and the Election Commission, to know beforehand who may be employing unethical practices to win seats.
Another concern that Facebook and its CEO must address in light of their promise to maintain the “integrity of Indian elections” is the free-flow of fake news and hate speech on Facebook.
In a highly polarised India, both the issues have not only reached a tipping point, they are also intertwined. Multiple websites and influential accounts — some of members of the ruling party and some followed by the prime minister on social media — have been caught red-handed on several occasions spreading fake news that have a decidedly communal agenda.
Of course, in his testimony, Zuckerberg's reluctance in giving a definitive reply on how Facebook plans to clamp down on the spread of hate speech through its platform was telling enough on how his promise falls short. Though Zuckerberg did accept that there is a problem, he stopped short of making any commitment to make a Facebook a hate speech-free zone in the immediate future.
"Hate speech – I am optimistic that over a five-to-10-year period we will have AI tools that can get into some of the linguistic nuances of different types of content to be more accurate, to be flagging things to our systems, but today we’re just not there on that,” Zuckerberg said.
Suffice to say that is definitely not going to be a part of his agenda to maintain the integrity of Indian elections.
The Facebook CEO, in his testimonies, has made one fact clear: He is good with his mea culpas, his confessions. But should one expect him to follow through with action? Even if he lets this one slip, will he ever be subjected to anything more than a slap on the wrist?