Since its advent, social media has always been an effective manufacturer of consent and consensus. With a potential that transcends realities across multiple realms, it has managed to influence political discourses around the globe. Disruptive communication tools linked with Meta Inc., and alike verses, capture the essence of narratives, opinions, and rhetoric in real-time, before spinning them in favourable directions. In the previous decade, the tale of Arab Spring and the curious case of Iraq’s WMDs have mainly served as two prominent examples of such spin of affairs. While the line between fact and fiction blurs increasingly, the very fabric of reality is also coming under severe scrutiny. The debate around “what is truth and what is not?” dates back to the pre-Socratic era, yet the struggle for its investigation and implications of its misinterpretation has never been as consequential as now. An indecisive moment of inaction and deliberate information manipulation today can set off a timebomb of hate speech, a plethora of fake news, and even in some cases, genocides. Such is the power of social media and communication technology. Recent revelations made by an independent news agency in India, The Wire, unveiled the acrimonious nexus between propaganda, social media platforms, and the Indian ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
A lot has been discussed about the manipulation of public opinions and dissemination of dis/misinformation. But the magnitude of catastrophe and disaster approaching with the emergence of unregulated technologies has become a matter of critical concern. The vast network of resources that went into the hijacking of narratives, exploitation of political discourses, and manufacturing of online trends – in favour of BJP by its Information Technology cell is as appalling as it is dreadful. Disruptive technologies are turning into a litmus test for modern democracies, particularly India, and their accountability frameworks. Democracies die without dissent, and therefore, systemic elimination of difference of opinions and divergent political discourse can conveniently halt their basic functioning.
At the core of BJP’s disinformation saga is an odd mix of public and private actors – linked with a secretive browser application named “Tek Fog”. This ominous application helped the ruling government amplify its extremist ideology and construct its power base online, besides carrying out targeted harassment campaigns against citizens that have been critical to the ruling party’s policies. Trends on Twitter and Facebook, such as #WeStandWithArnabGoswami, #HindusRiseAsOne and #TablighiJamatVirus, were initiated and dispersed to construct ideological narratives. Additionally, all targeted individuals were categorised “according to their occupation, religion, language, age, gender, political inclination, and even physical attributes.” Confidential information, required to target private citizens, was stored in a database that was allegedly supervised by former social media and IT head of BJP youth wing – Devang Dave. Albeit, he has responded by claiming that he has no idea about the application or its functioning on any level in government.
By amalgamating technological marvels with corporate efficiency to achieve particular ideological interests of a specific party, BJP has out-manoeuvered even German Nazis in its quest for maintaining power.
An essential element in this equation was the indigenously built social media platform “ShareChat”, which is worth $3 billion and has approximately 160 million users in India. The key to its popularity lies in the fact that it operates in 15 local languages and, therefore, has the potential to influence ordinary citizens rather effectively than other available international platforms. Where establishment and launch of local communication platforms is a breath of fresh air for entrepreneurs and tech startups, there political manipulation through these platforms is akin to a two-edged sword. The international community, nation-states, and all responsible stakeholders will have to take responsibility for providing a non-partisan, non-ideological and inclusive space for such tech initiatives to operate per civilised rules.
Moreover, the investigation carried out by The Wire was critical in highlighting the grim state of affairs unfolding in contemporary India. By amalgamating technological marvels with corporate efficiency to achieve particular ideological interests of a specific party, BJP has out-manoeuvered even German Nazis in its quest for maintaining power. Previously, Europe-based EU Disinfo Lab managed to map Indian disinformation operations targeted at Pakistan. However, with these recent investigations, the number of threats these operations pose to countries associated with India and its ordinary citizens have multiplied.
Estimated billions of people use social media for daily news updates today. Such massive consumption can effortlessly materialise what happens on these virtual platforms into the practical world or have some implications. For instance, the degree of harassment and mental abuse that female Indian journalists and government critics like Rana Ayub, Barkha Dutt, and Swati Chaturvedi endured during targeted bots campaigns is beyond imagination. The mental toll of troll-bots and their ability to exhaust political opposition is more damaging than it appears. If entire political parties can succumb to the might that disinformation can marshal, its impact on particular individuals can be interpreted as colossal.