From time immemorial, Technology has altered the balance of power. In that sense technology is political.
The industrial technology of the 18th century shifted the power from feudal lords to the capitalist and lead to the creation of government states which would provide to the capitalist a conducive environment to generate wealth. Computer technology and the Internet lead to greater globalization adding to the capitalist coffers.
Social media, an off spring of the internet, brought the voice of those who got left behind to the center stage. It also brought fake news as well as the information about psychographics to generate and target messages which could influence individual behavior and impact electoral outcomes and even spark revolutions. Almost making the world a Technocracy.
It is through this lens I would like to look at the ongoing Indian elections, how they have changed and who has the technological upper edge.
The extent of the Indian General Election is staggering. Over 8000 candidates from over 2000 political parties around the nation, are competing for a seat in Parliament’s lower house- Lok Sabha.
The election will take place over 39 days, in 7 phases and as many as 900 Million people are expected to cast votes at a million poll stations spread across densely populated megacities and far-flung villages. Considering the geographical expanse and diversity of the country, this is often a task that requires huge manpower and cutting edge systems in place- meaning that the use of technology is always a given, and evolving technologies a boon.
This year, the political battleground is digital. With more than 450 million smartphone users- most of whom are expected to be part of the 900 million electorates- this election result lies in the palm of the voter’s hands.
THE ELECTION APP STOREHOUSE
Political parties are heavily relying on Apps to create a network of supporters as well as to reach their voter base. The most popular Apps are the NaMo App and the Shakti App.
The NaMo(Narendra Modi) app, with over 10 million downloads till date, allows users to receive instant updates and information on the Prime Minister, including receiving emails and messages directly from him- has over 10 Million downloads on the app store.
Through its Shakti app, The Indian National Congress assigns tasks to workers, including door-to-door campaigning, organising protests, meeting and rallies. Based on the updates sent by workers, each of them is given a specific number of reward points, and even the ‘best performer’ award. Through this incentive program, the party believes it is recognising its workers’ efforts and also giving them a voice.
Third party players like the Neta app and NextElection app have entered the election arena on the premise of being go-to resources for users, free from bias and committed to equipping voters with all the information they need to make the best choice.
The Neta app lets users rate and review the performance of the ministers at the center and state as well as the MPs and MLAs and, comment on their performance in specific spheres. Ratings are based on personal perceptions of performance, and users have access to the way others have given their ratings in order to help shape their decisions.
NextElection app allows users to rate their leaders and leaders of the opposition, and also provides a discussion forum to help voters understand a wide range of issues of national, regional and local importance and share views with other voters.
The election commission too has gone digital. To empower the voters and to make the process more transparent as well as to handle accusations of being ineffective and even corrupt, it has introduced several digital apps and tools.
These include a public domain app called CVigil where citizens can directly post their grievances and have them addressed; the VoterHelpline app to help people find their names on the electoral roll and submit applications and a PwD app that helps persons with disabilities request doorstep facilities, or even demand wheelchairs at their polling stations.
With the help of advanced technologies it has improved its processes as well as data security with instruments such as the Voter Verified Paper Audit Trial( VVPAT) machines which support the EVM machines to register, tally and store votes; a digital security net, and a Digital Atlas, a geographic information system (GIS) for real-time planning, monitoring, and implementation of the poll process.
It is clear that increased communication and information exchange are defining factors for this election, a fact that becomes more pronounced when it comes to social media and other communication technologies.
More than anything else, elections are a battle of ideas, and Social Media is becoming of prime importance when it comes to clinching a decisive victory.
With 200 Million voters on WhatsApp and about half a billion on Facebook, India is the world’s biggest market for both these platforms and is one of the biggest markets for Twitter. India’s 2019 national elections have even been dubbed the ‘WhatsApp elections’, against a backdrop of rapidly improving internet connectivity and rising smartphone use.
Through constant civic engagement, dissemination of real time information and emotionally fuelled marketing opportunities, social media platforms are providing political parties the perfect outlet to mobilise support for their campaigns, and for shaping popular narratives in their favour.
Both the BJP and INC have created thousands of WhatsApp groups to spread content in the form of videos, texts, cartoons, internet memes, that are circulated on a daily basis. In Rajasthan alone, Congress boasts of 90,000 WhatsApp groups while the BJP says it has 15,000 under its direct control while another 100,000 is maintained by its social media campaigners.
Facebook is replete with pages and groups which are being used by each party to target their intended voter base with multimedia and text messages. On Twitter, debate and inflammatory viewpoints are the norm as social media campaigners from both sides engage in an incessant volley of tweets.
However, with all the obvious benefits- social media is a double edged sword. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica Scandal in the 2016 US Presidential Elections where a 3rd party developer engineered an application on Facebook to harvest user data, and after hoax messages on Whatsapp were linked to mob lynchings in the India last year- social media has emerged not just as a powerful tool, but a dangerous weapon.
The threat of fake news, in-authenticity and exaggerations for the purpose of manipulating public opinion is imminent on almost all social media platforms. This brings not only the looming peril of violence but also an undermining of the democratic process.
How to Tackle Issues:
To tackle such issues, these platforms have doubled their efforts to preserve facts, deliver truth and prevent abuse. Facebook’s India claims that with the help of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning it has been able to monitor and remove abusive/fake content.
WhatsApp has also restricted forwarding of messages to five recipients at a time, instead of the 256 previously allowed, a global move inspired by the Indian scenario.
Social polarisation and divisive politics are clear disadvantages of social media, but there are also advantages- higher accessibility of information in far corners of the country, a vibrant exchange of ideas and bridging gaps in thoughts and opinions. In every way, it is the most solid foundation for campaign strategies in the contemporary world.
DATA AND THE ELECTORAL PROCESS
If social media defines election strategies, Big Data defines the electioneering process.
Using Big Data, candidates can improve their engagement with their voter base by addressing issues relevant to them.
Big Data analytics empowers political parties to get to know their voters on a personal level. Superior technology and sophisticated tools help gauge individual needs and the different ways the voters can be approached. This is an unprecedented gain for the political parties.
Big Data was arguably first used in 2014 Indian elections by the BJP party for its Prime Ministerial Candidate Narendra Modi’s campaign. It made use of tech startups like Voxta (a speech recognition service which helped in relaying his speeches), Frrole (a big data startup to provide insights into Twitter discussions), Simply360 (another analytics providing insights into social media threads) in order to track the way in which voter mindsets were being shaped.
In 2019 elections, other political parties have also got their act together. Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the Indian National Congress has even instituted a formal data analytics department within his party. The department sifts through vast amount of data from various sources, which is then cleaned, processed and converted into meaningful information which the party then uses to make important internal and electoral decisions.
If the 2014 and 2019 elections are founded on employing data analytics and communication technologies- the future could bring an even more pervasive disruption – Blockchain.
In a country like India, where every election is marred by accusations of corruption and bias- implementing Blockchain could lower costs and bring greater transparency and security.
The sanctity of electoral processes must be maintained in order to protect the systems of Democracy, and newer technologies like Blockchain are a beacon of hope.
(Edited by Anu Choudary)