There are scenarios where the so-called fringe groups can become mainstream and can even come to power. It is what networks do...
Power always used to work through an interaction between radio, television and print. Ideas were made public through these forms of publicity. Governments obviously liked to intervene in that infrastructure and address the public because governments’ direct address had limited balance.
The difference is, since 2000, the emergence of social media, and the internet, information is based on something called distributed infrastructure where content is not necessarily produced by institutions, but by networked individuals. It is called user-produced media.
The early phase of internet in the 1990s-early 2000 was not highly commercialised. With the shift to social media, users came into the system and they produced information which had a value; human experience became commoditised. Access is free but the information you produce through Facebook or Google search is commoditised, sold, monetised and made valuable. This is a kind of transaction between hundreds of millions of users coming to the system and the big companies. This data is generated by users and becomes highly valued.
It is a new thing because our experience till now was monetised only a little bit: you went to a movie hall, bought a ticket and that was about it. There were moments that were commoditised. Now the entire experience is commoditised. Information is hugely valuable. Whether political parties or data companies, they really want this data, which can predict the future. This is coming to India in a very big way. It was used in the 2014 campaign.
Take the infrastructure Jio laid out by giving out free phones. The more people you get into the system, the more value you are generating because it is potential information and you can target them in different ways.
You can understand what they like, where they go, what’s their lifestyle… all this is of great value. And the key thing is that the older models of advertising worked on consumer research. This is a little different. This is a 24-hour update. For example, when you are travelling through the city, your Google Maps is on all the time, you are basically providing information on a 24-hour feed. People are afraid of CCTV cameras but essentially the human body, once it has a smartphone, is generating data 24 hours.
We are producing this huge amount of data and companies of course want it, political parties want it, but the argument about fake news is the manipulation of the information people receive. This “manipulation” of the system has been advertising, is in-built into the system. Lot of this so-called manipulation of the political ideas is unfortunately when you are opening up to user-created media, you are opening up to all kinds of systemic possibilities of real and fake. It is on a huge scale, hundreds of millions of people and you can’t control networks. But it is in your interest to expand networks.
Then there is a third level which is not web-based like Facebook and YouTube, where you need to go on the web. Like WhatsApp. It is encrypted now and it uses a protocol set up by open whispers system which is encrypted which opens up all kinds of channels, which means people can circulate all kinds of vast amounts of information very fast. This infrastructure is used by the state and also by various populations.
These are situations, where there is no formula. There are scenarios where the so-called fringe groups can become mainstream and can even come to power. It is what networks do allow you to tremendously expand political value.
My argument is that the older model is dissolving in front of our eyes in politics and governance, including in the West. India is always fragile. It is something we need to think through.
Facebook is saying they will try and introduce certain controls and they have deleted hundreds of thousands and millions of accounts which are fake.
They will try because it is important for them to preserve their credibility but beyond a point they can’t do it. A lot of code is now produced by machines and it is very difficult to separate this beyond a point. Because the media structure has changed and politics and media are so mixed up now, we need to think of a new form of political imagination to address this reality.
There are two things. The ethical tool is to do with different education models, public education models, and politicians must speak out strongly and ethically when confronted with things that are violating basic forms of citizenship.
Political leaders must play a very strong role. It happened during the Independence movement but today it’s unfortunate that political leaders feel threatened and they try and compromise with these things.
Young people are sharing material, some of it is violent, some of it is explicit, we need to have honest conversations.
Parents must know how to deal with it. You can’t ban these things any more. The old model of censorship is long gone. You have to deal with it honestly and openly.
Today, worldwide, you have political regimes India, Turkey, US, Russia, and parts of Eastern Europe — that have plugged into the fringe becoming mainstream and have generated political value from this.
We must understand that attacking fake news is only a small part of the problem. Information warfare is carried out by everyone. It is equally demanding.
(The author, on the faculty of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, focuses on the intersection of the postcolonial city and contemporary media experiences.)