Friday, 23 March 2018

Cambridge Analytica elixir to make politicians taller


(Logo downloaded from internet)


The political atmosphere, not just in our country, but also even in far off USA, has become quite hot because of allegations of use of the services of “Cambridge Analytica” for success in politics. It is very much like allegations of use of banned drugs in sports.

Congress and BJP are engaged in allegations and counter allegations of hiring Cambridge Analytica. The BJP has alleged that Rahul Gandhi has met the owner of the company several times, apparently for seeking help help in 2019 general election. The Congress spokespersons were mentally deny; ‘our national leader has not done anything like that; in fact, the BJP used the services of the agency in the past.’


Politics – struggle for power – by nature has always been very noisy and competitive. In the past, use of force was a common practice. It is not completely out of practice even now. When an invading army defeated ruler of the territory, all the inhabitants automatically became subjects of the victor. When and where power is to be captured with people’s support, the modus operandi is election though the allegations of manipulation of votes are as old as the ancient Roman Republic.

In independent India, initially our political leaders depended mainly on their oratorical skill, lung power and promises for a better future. As the competition increased, new strategies and techniques became necessary. They invented “social engineering” and “booth capturing”. I had seen the effect of “social engineering” in 1963 Bihar assembly election when K. B. Sahay and Ram Lakhan Yadav (both from the Congress) joined hands against a common rival (also from the Congress). Their supporters chanted ‘jab mil gaye lala gwala, kya karega Akbar ka sala?’ meaning ‘what can Rajputs do when kayasthas and yadavas have joined hands?’ (Sahay became Chief Minister.) Later, politicians like Lalu Prasad, Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav appeared as major “social engineers”. Old-timers may remember the slogan 'Tilak tarazu aur talwar, inko maro jute char' (Brahmin, baniya and thakur, thrash them with shoes). We must give credit to the “social engineers” that they proved very dynamic, changing their caste-alliances to suit the changing political needs.

 “Booth capturing” was in vogue for several years. It provided employment to large number of musclemen who “captured” polling booths and put stamp on the symbol of their masters. Their other main job was to prevent opponents’ supporters to reach the polling booths. With the Election Commission becoming more assertive and powerful, the practice court setback and ended after the introduction of the electronic voting machines. (There is no need to waste time on useless discussion of manipulation of EVMs.)

The spread of TV with large number of new channels gave opportunities to reach larger number of persons throughout the length and breadth of the country. The people can see and hear politicians of all hues abusing their opponents and promising the Moon. India does not have the American practice of two main presidential candidates participating in debate on TV channels. Here their supporters and party spokespersons do that work. It is another matter that most of the time, debates do not make sense. The anchor places the topic of discussion or debate before a panel of three, four, five, or even more persons with different views and perceptions. Sometimes, journalists and experts are also invited. Within a couple of minutes, you can see three, four or even more persons including the anchor speaking simultaneously. Nobody has patience to listen to the opposite view. You get fed up and move to another channel where you may witness a similar scene.

The evolution in information technology (IT) has opened new channels of communication and new means of winning friends and influencing people. (It is another matter that some of the efforts have entirely different results.) Politicians are increasingly using tweeters, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube and other social media to improve their reach and popularity.

The popularity of social media has given opportunities to enterprising persons to make quick money. They promise to provide information that can be used to identify the target groups and to improve the popularity ratings of their clients.

The Cambridge Analytical is one of the hundreds and thousands of such enterprises. The agency boasts that it collects personal data from Facebook, analyses the data and provides information to its clients about political leanings of voters and influences public opinion by manipulating voters’ perception to help clients win elections. Such claims have put the Facebook in dock. India’s Law Minister has threatened Mark Elliot Zuckerberg, the Chairman and CEO of the company, with dire consequences if the allegations of theft of data from the Facebook approved. Zuckerberg has become quite defensive.


As a layman, I fail to understand how Cambridge Analytica or any such agency can influence my political decisions. I am one of the 250 million Indians who have Facebook account. I post my writings, mainly political, on my website (devendranarain.com), LinkedIn and blogger (naraindevendra blogspot.com). I have joined about a dozen Facebook groups and regularly post links to my writings, though most of my readers are on LinkedIn and blogger, directly, not through the Facebook. Any agency like Cambridge Analytica can easily collect my name, address, profession, and information about my political leanings. However, social sites could not provide any information about my assets such as bank balance and investments in movable and immovable properties. Nor will it know whether I bother to exercise my voting right or not.

I am least disturbed by the possibility of my profile falling in the hands of any agency.

Suppose, an agency collects data about all the voters of a particular constituency, analyses the data categorise people according to their political leanings and sells to a political party. I divide the voters in five categories: (a)  those who vote on the basis of political allegiance/ideology (they can be further sub-categorised according their ideologies); (b) those who vote on the basis of caste/sub-caste, community (they too can be further sub-categorised ; they are generally influenced by their leaders); (c) those who never vote for some political parties; (d) those who vote out of anger against the ruling party (“anti-incumbency” vote);; fences sitters; ( e) and those who do not wish to vote, either because of their habit or because of frustration with politicians

Can any agency categorise all or the most of the voters of even one constituency as mentioned above? This is impossible. Grass-root workers who work at local levels and know the voters can do far better work. The success of a political party very much depends on persuading its supporters, who are reluctant to vote, to go to the polling booths.

It is surprising, rather shocking, that (as reported in a section of media today) our Election Commission “partnered with Facebook on at least three different occasions in the last year to encourage Facebook users, youngsters especially, to register themselves as voters.” I do not know the degree of success achieved by this partnership, which according to the Chief Election Commissioner, is now under review. Thanks to Aadhaar, the central government has much more data than Facebook. True, Aadhaar is not a proof of citizenship but certainly Aadhaar cardholders can be asked to confirm or deny whether they are Indian citizens and hold Voter Identity cards and the information can be matched with the list of voters to identify those citizens who are not registered voters and to persuade them to get registered.


Marketing gurus say that you can sell anything provided you know how to sell. This is what advertisement is all about. There is a company that claims that if children drink its product, they will grow taller than those who do not drink that product. The market is full of beauty creams. The companies claim that their products can make anyone’s face fairer and attractive. In the land of dark and brown people, such creams are in great demand. I have seen on TV screen a top film star promoting such a cream.

The Cambridge Analytica is selling an “elixir” which it claims will make the users “taller” than their competitors as a result of which they will attract more votes. With tons of money at their disposal for publicity, rich political parties do not mind spending a few crores in the hope of getting “taller”. Their IT advisors are very pleased to work with such agencies. It gives them employment for longer period and opportunities for going up.

Can Cambridge Analytica raise the height and political stature of a ‘leader’ who has made himself a laughing stock, is getting ‘shorter’ day by day and (in the opinion of many) is presiding over a party that is on the verge of “withering away”?

Devendra Narain
March 23, 2018


Ps

Comments and suggestions are most welcome.