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#SocMed The Fifth Column Is Online

Are Facebook and Twitter controlling your thoughts, behaviour and politics?

#SocMed The Fifth Column Is Online
Illustration by Sajith Kumar
#SocMed The Fifth Column Is Online

Imagine your virtual self is being held hostage by your favourite uncle. Let’s call him Som. Hold that thought. Now, you don’t mind because Som is cool, popular and well-liked, and could not conceivably put a foot wrong. Som tells you stuff you never knew existed, talks to you about the things you like. In fact, you like them because he’s the one who told you about them in the first place.

Som good? No, Som bad. Or is it all too complicated and you can’t tell?

Lurid visions of thought control aside, researchers have put forward an even scarier question, asking: “Is social media a threat to democracy?” That’s a far cry from the early days of the flat, digitalised world when the Internet was often thought of as a great leveller, and essentially democratic by nature. That initial optimism ebbed over time, and has now given way to a dystopian reading, where the medium is seen to have an internal behaviour with rather dark implications. And everyone is getting played by it, you, me and even Uncle Som.

The question is raised directly in the title of a study published this month by The Omidyar Group, known for investing in independent news outlets like Rappler in the Philippines  and Newslaundry in India, by contributors Anamitra Deb, Stacy Donohue and Tom Glaisyer.

The researchers have identified six key issues that plague popular social media networks like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and platforms like Reddit and 4chan. To quote: “Echo chambers promoting polarisation, the spread of false and/or misleading information, legitimacy stemming from popularity, manipulation by ‘populist’ leaders and governments, personal data capture and targeted messaging/advertising and a disruption of the public square.”

Familiar themes, but the patterns have become so pervasive and ent­renched as to pretty much define social media now. All forms of media have a political nature. Back in the day, television was seen to have created docile, apolitical, entertainment addicts: and which government doesn’t like that? Is social media doing the opposite? Creat­ing cantankerous, anarchic, even fascist communities? Does it have the power to seduce us into toppling governments?

This July, Facebook let it be known it had 241 million users in India. Even Uttar Pradesh, which as we know forms the axis on which Indian elections turn, has only a population of just over 200 million. If Facebookers were a cohesive ethnic group, they would be ruling India! Twi­tter, by comparison, is modest—around 23.2 million users in India at the end of 2016, according to Statista. But even that’s close to the population of Chha­ttisgarh, and likely growing much faster.

A New York Times article from May last year said Facebook claims its average user spends about 50 minutes a day on the platform. To compare it with another vital human function, the average human spends about 64 minutes eating and drinking in a day. The addiction, however, is not the problem. Or only an enabling element in it. “It is now increasingly clear that social media is quite different from any kind of mass medium humans have known—because it is many-to-many, pervasive and instantaneous. It seems the impact it has on the human mind is also very different,” says Nitin Pai, director of the Takshashila Institution, a public policy think-tank based in Bangalore.

The Omidyar Group study says the old rosy view about social media’s potential for democratising access to information, and giving voice to those who were trad­itionally marginalised or censored, is eroding. The business model for social media is simple: “Capture attention, then monetise it through advertising.” Plat­forms like Facebook and Google use “behavioural and psychographic profiling” which is used to target users with “personalised content and advertising”, invisible to most “but the recipient”.

This brings us back to the room where Som has held your virtual self hostage. No one knows where you are, but Som has been talking to you, and you feel secure.

Early optimism over the Internet has died. Social media is no friend of democracy: it creates echo chambers, online gated communities.

“Echo chambers exist not only on social media but in real life, like economic ghettos,” says Pratik Sinha , the 35-year-old co-founder of Alt News, a website that calls itself ‘anti-propaganda’ and has been calling out the misinformation spread by mainstream news organisations. Sinha compares his childhood, growing up in a house that was surrounded by the signs of a lot of economic diversity, to now, to the “clustered” 2BHKs and 3BHKs of today. “We are creating economic echo chambers, social media magnifies that,” he tells Outlook. In other words, we live in gated communities, both offline and online.

“Echo chambers do lead to polarisation,” says Ankit Lal, who heads the team of volunteers who handle social media for the Aam Aadmi Party. It can be a double-edged sword. Lal admits to have been stuck in an “AAP echo chamber” that he had to resolve by “connecting” with non-political people. The AAP handle has over 4 million followers on Twitter and close to 3.2 million on FB. “When the right-wing talks nonsense, it goes into their space. When we talk of schools, that also gets stuck in one chamber,” he says.

The BJP has 13.6 million FB followers and the @BJP4India handle on Twitter reaches over 7 million users. Reams of newsprint have extolled the party’s outreach programmes on social media during the 2014 Lok Sabha victory and since. A Stanford University study this year said: “The rigour with which they pursued their social media strategy seems to have paid off.” Outlook tried to speak with Amit Malviya, who is designated as the “in-charge of the BJP’s national Information & Technology”, according to his Twitter bio. He said: “After Himachal, Gujarat election. Thanks.”

The Telegraph, UK, showed the Google search graph for the term ‘fake news’ peaking after the Trump election of November 2016. The study says the “much-maligned term” comprises “several types of disinformation (sharing of information known to be false) and misinformation (the inadvertent sharing of false information)”. Says Abhinandan Sekhri, co-founder of New­slaundry, “Fake news is coming from a desire to win elections and create a dominant narrative”. Sekhri is an active voice on the kind of changes Indian media needs to adopt in order to survive at a time when an Edelman Trust report said faith in the media globally dropped to an all-time low at 43 per cent this March. Ironically, that report itself was misreported by sections of the Indian media, which claimed it was ‘shocking’ that the national media was one of the least trusted. Boom Live, another organisation that fact-checks claims made by the media, broke that story.

Alt News’s Sinha, who has been hailed for busting fake news from the right wing and says BJP supporters “abuse in hor­des”, says fake news is now used by all and sundry. “The anti-BJP camp puts out false news now,” he says, citing a rec­ent Boom Live story where Congress suppo­rters shared a pole-dance video of JD(U) MLA Abhay Kushwaha from 2015, saying it was Madhya Pradesh minister Kunwar Vijay Shah. “When one party gains electoral dividends by misinformation, no one holds back. You will see a lot of fake news targeting the BJP. I can see a trend,” he adds. Sekhri agrees, and says three-four years ago, the “motivation was not misinformation or the political blo­cking of a story. Now that is the purpose”.

The rot is deep. Take the recent media handling of the Rohingya issue. Everyone saw those over-the-top debates on news channels. And over the weekend, the edi­tor of ANI took to Twitter to tell Sinha that the news agency had taken down a story, attributing it to “oversight”. The Alt News headline: “Did ANI fall for a WhatsApp forward about 2,000 Rohing­yas planning to attack Nagaland?”

Historian Ramachandra Guha had rec­ently said India was “in danger of being reduced to an ‘election-only’ democracy.” Even if that’s taken to be an exaggeration for emphasis, the sheer magnitude of overt and covert pol­itical messaging on social media should forewarn us about disasters waiting to happen—what with all manner of vested interests capable of creating ‘narratives’ in the game.

The US election brought alive the threat of Russian hackers. Sekhri cites the case of Ukraine, which blocked popular Russ­ian social media websites in May. “Several Ukrainian politicians spoke in favour of the ban amid the simmering conflict with Russian-backed separatists, which has killed at least 10,000 people since 2014,” reported The Guardian.

On September 6, Facebook admitted about $100,000 worth of advertising on their platform came from Russia. The vast majority of ads on these accounts didn’t “specifically refe­rence the US  election.... Rather, (they) appea­red to focus on amp­lifying divisive social and political messages across the ideolo­gical spectrum, touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights,” says the study.

Governments are in the game too, naturally. In March, Buzzfeed reported how Myanmar officials were “using fabricated news to advance their political goals and downplay harassment of Muslims”.

Says Mayur Khatwani, an online marketing consultant based out of Mumbai: “Americans are more aware of sponsored advertising. They know which posts have come their way by detailed targeting on Facebook.” The Omidyar study mentions how FB could be used for ‘dark advertising’. It’s nothing but a “paid campaign”, Khatwani explains—an anti-hair-loss brand, say, would target users looking for hair-fall solutions on FB. “I catch this behaviour and show him advertisements because he’s vulnerable. People on social media don’t know where the posts in their feed are coming from,” he says.

The Trump campaign mapped res­po­nses to 40,000–50,000 different variants of ads every day, then “adapt(ed) and evolve(d) their messaging based on that feedback,” the study says, saying soc­ial media algorithms run on feedback loops which constantly monitor behaviour. “In real life, we do talk to more people,” says Sinha. “But it’s the nature of social media. When you like or share someone’s posts, you see more of that person.”

As the study puts it, “It may be worth questioning whether this is due to the editorial choices of the platforms, or whether it is a result of platform design responding to reader preferences and prejudice.” One clear bias in the algorithm “is that the criteria attribute legitimacy to popularity”.

Speaking of popularity, the prime minister has over 35.5 million followers on the @narendramodi account, far outshining BJP followers. In Lal’s party’s case, @ArvindKejriwal has 12.5 million followers, close to thrice of what his party has. (See graphic for media equivalents.)

“Twitter,” says Pai, “has done well to increase participation in the public discourse; but it has also made the public discourse very superficial, very tempor­ary and based on false and dubious information. Popularly held misconceptions and prejudices take on the effect of ‘truth’ by sheer force of numbers. Also, social media gives us an artificial sense of representation—we assume the loudest, most extreme, strident voices are representative of overall public opinion.”

And people on the borderline of bigoted views tend to be encouraged by those “few people (who) boldly express prejudiced and bigoted views,” says Pai. It has a cascading effect which “normalises and legitimises abusive conduct and political violence”—the dark side of society gains. “Even if the brighter side of things is amplified more than the dark side, there is a threshold of darkness above which societies can begin to regress. The world is edging closer to the threshold,” he says.

By now, you should know someone is creepy. Maybe it’s not just between you and Uncle Som. Or any similarly named uncle. Maybe it’s some Master Chatbot out there somewhere, telling us in a sec­ret language what to do, like and think.


Being Followed?

Social media amplifies the old truth: popularity brings legitimacy. And individuals seem more ‘trusted’ than organisations.

  • Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) 35.5m
    BJP (@BJP4India) 7.05m
  • Arvind Kejriwal (@ArvindKejriwal) 12.5m
    AAP (@AamAadmiParty) 4.04m
  • Rahul Gandhi (@OfficeOfRG) 3.76m
    Congress (@INCIndia) 2.75m
  • Sitaram Yechury (@SitaramYechury) 202k
    CPI(M) (@cpimspeak) 117k
  • Lalu Prasad Yadav (@laluprasadrjd) 2.42m
    RJD (@RJDForIndia) 24.5k
  • Rajdeep Sardesai (@sardesairajdeep) 7.58m
    India Today (@IndiaToday) 4.51m
  • Shekhar Gupta (@ShekharGupta)1.74m
    The Print (@ThePrintIndia) 24.6k

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