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Can Big Tech interfere in India’s 2024 elections? What it has done in the USA, the risks and what the Indian govt must do

It is time to act and time to act fast, not just for the security of our elections but for the sake of our democracy in the long run.

The battle commenced in November 2016, Donald Trump had just been elected President, an astounded Washington establishment-media complex was conspiring to undo the election results, but most sinister of them all, Big Tech began exposing their venomous fangs.

They were caught slumbering at the wheel back that had allowed a relatively free exchange of information, a major factor that enabled Trump’s election, they were not going to allow it.

Twitter began with small measures such as shadow banning Trump supporters and suppression of pro-Trump Tweets covertly. In time, Trump supporters were suspended, sometimes permanently banned. YouTube began blocking and demonetizing channels of Trump supporters. But Trump administration and even Trump himself were silent when it should have been one of their top priorities.

Next, Twitter marked a video in President Trump’s tweet as manipulated media. As election season heated up, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram removed a Trump campaign video over copyright complaints. Trump’s Tweets were labelled ‘misleading’.

Anti-Biden news, especially the news of Biden as vice president abusing his power to enable his son Hunter Biden to earn millions of dollars, was censored by Big Tech. It was reported that almost 10% of Biden voters in the key states wouldn’t have voted for him had they known about hunter Biden dealings.

Twitter altered the ‘retweet’ functionality without any notice. Many users presumed that the app had malfunctioned and stopped using the function.

It is entirely possible that all of this and the tyranny of Big Tech caused a Biden victory which was by a slim margin in key states.

After the results of the 2020 elections were out, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram banned President Trump claiming that he was ‘inciting violence’.

Today the big tech function like a de facto super-nation, which operates above the rules of law of any specific country. They work with governments such their influence and networks are deeply embedded in the corridors of power.

If one were to study the pattern of behaviour of big tech in the US and India, there are some interesting parallels.

Regular users, particularly Modi supporters have always complained of being shadowbanned. Some have been suspended for ‘abusive behaviour’. Last year a Tweet by the BJP Spokesperson Sambit Patra was labelled ‘manipulated media’, he complained but they did it again a few months back. They removed Home Minister Amit Shah’s display photo citing copyright reasons.

Recently, Twitter depicted a map of India with Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh as separate countries. IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s Twitter account was blocked briefly, a week after he reprimanded them for its arbitrariness in fighting fake news. There have been instances of opposition leaders tweeting blatant falsehoods, but seldom is punitive action taken.

The instances are myriad and it is amply clear that the direction is identical to that in the US.

Could they really push aggressively to peddle their influence here?

Let’s do a risk assessment and consider the worst possible scenario for the central government.

Perhaps we are months away from the election and the following measures are implemented simultaneously:

  1. WhatsApp begins by tagging certain messages as ‘False information or hateful and begins restricting the ability to forward or even copy them.
  2. YouTube bans or suspends certain channels (even TV channels) labelling them as hateful, and other social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter remove videos
  3. YouTube block the broadcast of political rallies again citing hate again or they do it covertly by slowing down the streaming that causes users to give up.
  4. Twitter and the others go out of their way to amplify specific stories while they suppress others.
  5. Google searches are manipulated in such a manner that negative stories show up on the first two pages while the positives are pushed to the third and fourth which people seldom look at
  6. Social media platforms alter or purposefully suppresses functionality to share certain stories.

All of the above to occur concurrently and in a coordinated way is extremely unlikely, but the US elections of 2020 have taught us that nothing is impossible with respect to Big Tech.

It has to be remembered, the Trump campaign spent millions on social media adverts but that didn’t help at all. For big tech, earning a few million or even a billion is short-term thinking. Hence doing business with them, like the central government is doing, will do little to placate them.

What the Big Tech seeks is dominance through monopoly. Since they are the only show in town you have no choice and hence they eventually earn all the billions and push their influence. They decide if you are worthy of being their patron. They decide if you are worthy of earning a living through their mediums. Also on the agenda is a total silencing of opposing points of view via de-platforming. Rivals will not be allowed since they own all the servers. This sounds like a totalitarian state.

In Trump’s case, the Washington-based permanent bureaucracy and even some members of his own cabinet were against him. Most of them wanted Trump out and were glad to see him go. Hence they did nothing to support him apart from theatrics during hearings.

In PM Modi’s case, it would appear that he has widespread support in his government. They will act if he desires, it, therefore, makes sense to be proactive rather than reactive.

Some claim that that newspapers, TV news, Govt adverts and Mann Ki Baat, and election rallies make Social Media irrelevant. There are people from all demographic groups, even in smaller towns, who consume news solely through digital channels and who do not read physical newspapers or watch TV. Half a billion people in India use smartphones, all Big Tech needs is to peel off from this section, and maybe it is just enough to alter results.

What about those who say it is essential to label falsehoods actively stop the spread of it?  What about curbing ‘hate’? Social media always claimed to be a platform rather than a publisher. If they are going to fact-check or look for ‘hate’ material in one account they will have to apply it across all accounts and we know that it is impossible. Also, Hate is subjective and what is hateful to one is provocative to another. A platform has no right to decide that for its users.

Twitter is now poking the central government, perhaps to judge how far they can go. If the ministers and government officials continue to merely express condemnation, followed by strong disapproval, followed by vehement denunciation, the prodding monster will be emboldened presuming weakness. There has to be action, not words.

We have often heard of local social media platforms being bug-ridden, clunky, poorly designed, and crash-prone. Some have servers in China.

The government through its Digital India and Make in India initiatives should commission local talent to either develop or improve upon Indian platforms and provide alternatives to Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, and WhatsApp.

It won’t be easy or quick but we have the finest and most superior software development talents in India. By enabling and encouraging private enterprises to embark on these projects the government will be providing a boost to the economy. It is also essential that encumbering regulations are relaxed and incentives such as tax breaks should be given to these firms for them to progress without impediments.

All government officials must set up accounts on these platforms once they are robust. It would also be the opportune moment to stop all collaborations with big tech corps for government programs. We can truly become Athmanirbhar. Soon Indian users and perhaps even users beyond our shores will join.

Rather than a ban, merely make them irrelevant would be more fitting.

However, in the interim a temporary ban or some tough action is essential. It would result in global backlash and op-ed pieces in the New York Times, but it will send a clear message. On the positive side, a certain Donald Trump will most certainly endorse this.

It is time to act and time to act fast, not just for the security of our elections but for the sake of our democracy in the long run.

Courage needs a soldier. 

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Rajan Laad
Rajan enjoys writing about politics, cinema, and current affairs. He tweets at @Sir_R_U_L

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