A verbal war with possibly no winners is currently being waged between the BJP and the Congress over the alleged hiring of a data analytical firm to influence electoral outcome through unfair means. As if that was not enough, there is a sub-plot to the controversy with an anonymous French vigilante hacker’s warning of data leaks from the 'Namo App’ and the 'With INC App’ because of basic safety flaws. Following this, leaders of both parties have been hurling accusations against each other with extra venom over Twitter, in TV studios and at press briefings in what seems like a clear case of the pot calling the kettle black.
In fact, on the face of it, that is what it appears to be. At the centre of the controversy is a Channel 4 story which had a passing reference to the India link of Cambridge Analytica — a UK-based data firm which illegally harvested data from 50 million Facebook profiles, used for target messaging in favour of Donald Trump during the US Presidential campaign in 2016. The news attracted attention in India on March 21 after Congress leader Manish Tewari tweeted at 7.42am that the Channel 4 story must be looked into by the Election Commission to see if any Indian political parties were involved.
Tiwari did not name the BJP, but the party chose to react through IT and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. This triggered a war of words. Subsequently, media reports revealed that one affiliate of Cambridge Analytica in India (Ovleno Business Intelligence) had mentioned the BJP, Congress and the JD(U) as clients on its website, which has since been pulled down. It also came to light in the media that another arm of the British data firm (Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL) Private Limited) had liaised with the BJP and the Congress.
One of SCL’s directors, Avneesh Kumar Rai, even alleged in press interviews that ahead of the 2014 elections, Alexander Nix, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, had met Congress and BJP leaders as part of an SCL team. The company even did a pilot survey of constituencies as a sales pitch for the Congress, but Rai discovered that Nix was actually working undercover for a US-based Gujarati NRI client who wanted the UPA to lose the 2014 election.
Adding a new twist to the controversy Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower and Cambridge Analytica co-founder, while answering a question posed by a British Parliamentary Committee investigating the data scam, said he “believed” the Congress was one of the parties in India to engage the services of the British data firm. This set off a fresh round of allegations from Ravi Shankar Prasad, which was countered by Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewal, who challenged the government to produce evidence and file an FIR. instead of “throwing allegations in the media”.
The lines of who hired or didn’t hire Cambridge Analytica are rather blurred. Adding to the confusion, the website profile of the firm claims that it worked on the 2010 Bihar assembly elections where its clients (the JD(U)-BJP combine) scored a “landslide victory”. What was the nature of the work done, however, is not substantiated.
As for the war over Apps, it is now evident that both the ‘Namo App’ (of Narendra Modi) and the ‘With INC App’ (of the Congress) are vulnerable to data leakage. According to the anonymous French vigilante hacker, while data from the PM’s App was going to a US-based company, the Congress App was vulnerable to leaks in Singapore. So, on every count, both parties have sullied their hands and one was no wiser or better than the other.
If that is indeed the case, why is it that from the outset of the “data war,” there has been unease within a section of the BJP over the party’s handling of the Cambridge Analytica controversy? Why was it felt that the party may have overreacted to the Channel 4 story and to Manish Tewari’s tweet? Was it because the use/misuse of data analytics was simply seen by a section of the party as an alien concept for most Indians and hence a non-issue? Or was there some other reason to warrant caution?
Scoring a self-goal
The answers are not far to seek. According to party insiders, should data and the misuse of social media in elections come into focus, then the BJP will have much to explain. As a party MP from Bihar told SouthWord.: “Forget Ravi Shankar Prasad’s claim that he has the powers to summon Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to India, he has also accused the Congress of using Cambridge Analytica to spread fake news in the Gujarat assembly elections last year. Can he substantiate these wild charges? Some of the things he has been saying can actually hit back (sic) at the BJP.”
Much of the discomfort comes from the IT and Law Minister’s widely reported allegations of the Congress using fake news in the Gujarat polls. “This company (Cambridge Analytica) is known for aggressive, fake news and below standard campaigning. Do I need to record before you the language of Rahul Gandhi — the Gabbar Singh Tax and the whole social media campaign? The footprint of the DNA of this company was evident in Gujarat,” Prasad had told the media.
Such an accusation was unwarranted, say party insiders, given that the BJP, more than any other political party, has exploited cyberspace not only to win elections but also to spread fake news and canards about rivals through an army of so-called volunteers and friendly websites. Also, questions could be raised about why the government, which was taking the anonymous hacker’s warnings about the Congress App so seriously, was dismissive about his repeated warnings vis-a-vis leakage of Aadhaar data.
Spinning a venomous web
That the BJP is streets ahead of its rival in the use of social media is fairly evident. In its 2014 election campaign, the BJP’s social media cell had employed an army of so-called volunteers to boost the campaign of its candidates as well as to target rivals. It continues its work till today by targeting BJP-unfriendly journalists, lawyers, social activists, writers, actors and rival politicians. At the same time, it focuses on spreading pseudo-nationalism, Hindutva, communal hatred and viciously bash Muslims, minorities and Dalits as well as spread canards about the personal lives of those opposed to the BJP. In recent years, WhatsApp groups have emerged, further sharpening the campaign using anything from morphed images to fake videos to spread hatred as well as disinformation. Very often, these find their way into television news, on websites and even in the print media.
It is evident that social media campaigns have tacit support from the establishment. Several hate-mongering Twitter handles are followed by senior BJP leaders, including the Prime Minister. The police are therefore reluctant to act against those who spew venom in cyberspace, particularly if they target persons who oppose the BJP or the government. However, it is quick to crackdown in “national interest” on any personal attack directed against top BJP leaders.
Forget Ravi Shankar Prasad’s claim that he has the powers to summon Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to India, he has also accused the Congress of using Cambridge Analytica to spread fake news in the Gujarat assembly elections last year. Can he substantiate these wild charges? Some of the things he has been saying can actually hit back at the BJPA BJP leader and Member of Parliament (on condition of anonymity)
Hatred/disinformation being dissipated through social media is a well organised activity and not always a voluntary effort as it is made out to be. In her 2016 book, I am a Troll, journalist Swati Chaturvedi offered some valuable insights. Her research into the BJP’s digital army has the following takeaways:
* The National Digital Operations Centre (NDOC) or the BJP’s social media cell, has a nationwide network of party volunteers and paid workers who act as information disseminators and trolls. The NDOC has dormant Twitter accounts, which are used to whip up trends. Bots at the central cell are programmed to send out identical tweets.
* According to Sadhavi Khosla, a former volunteer with the social media cell, “the single point brief” from the NDOC to WhatsApp groups and volunteers while she was working there was to troll the Nehru-Gandhi family and to mock them. “All the propaganda and cartoons against the Gandhi family were done in the NDOC and the volunteers were asked to make them trend and flood social media…even the jokes on Robert Vadra and Rahul Gandhi…” Khosla has been quoted as saying.
* 'Spontaneous' campaigns, like the one against actor Aamir Khan to ensure he lost the Snapdeal ad contract following his remarks on rising intolerance, are orchestrated by the NDOC.
* Many Twitter handles of the BJP are based outside India. This means that either the BJP was using Virtual Private Networks (VPN’s) which can create fake handles to trend politically motivated hashtags or hired external agencies for part of its online operations.
Details provided in Chaturvedi’s book and going by all available feedback, there are several grey areas in the use of data and social media by political parties. In the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica controversy, Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) OP Rawat has said that his organisation will take a serious view of data harvesting. “We will be considering this issue in its entire dimension in the Commission’s meeting. Something which can affect the election arena in an adverse manner like the public opinion being moulded, should concern us and we will take a view on this,” he said earlier this week.
Perhaps Rawat will keep in my mind what former CEC SY Quraishi had to say about elections in the digital era: “All political parties by law have to declare their media spend to the EC. But you can spend as much as you like on digital media and come under no scrutiny during an election with no questions raised about content either. This explains the increasing focus on social media as the new battleground.”
Should the EC examine the use of social media in political campaigns and the proliferation of fake news, then the BJP will have enough reasons to worry. Which is perhaps why a section in the party is hoping that the Facebook data mining controversy gets a quiet burial.