A tirade has started world over, following the news by New York Times and Observer that analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica, allegedly harvested data of over 50 million Facebook users to assist President Trump’s 2016 campaign. While Cambridge Analytica maintains that it had worked with Facebook in that period to ensure no breach occurred of Facebook’s terms of service and had provided a signed statement that all private data was deleted, investigations remain underway in the USA and the UK. Several politicians are making hard statements to save face over any potential privacy breach of their citizens, and are promising actions in case any allegation is proved.
But USA and UK apart, the controversy about social media-assisted electioneering may become a pressing concern now in the larger South Asian nations.
Elections & population – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka expect to hold their next federal elections between 2018 and 2020. Cambridge Analytica remains an active firm in these countries, and expects to participate in their upcoming elections. Cambridge and its India partner, Oveleno Business Intelligence, worked on Indian elections in the past, and are currently said to be in talks with India’s BJP and Congress for their 2019 campaigns, as well as Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa and Bangladesh’s Awami League. These nations are home to ~25% of the world’s total population – a huge canvas of data to run simulations on. India has ~250 million Facebook users (~20% of population), higher than USA’s 230 million. Pakistan has ~32 million users (~16% of population), Bangladesh ~28 million (~17% of population) and Sri Lanka ~6 million (~30% of population). Active users apart, this total count of Facebook alone is ~316 million, in comparison to the mere 50 million whose data is at the centre of the current controversy. The incentive remains immense, for Cambridge Analytica or other analytics firms like it to use the sheer quantum of user-data in conjunction with social media networks, especially when these four nations have elections approaching. Irrespective of the fate of Cambridge Analytica eventually in India and elsewhere, there are several firms like it who might be at the centre of the next big controversy.
Oversight lag – What is the regulatory oversight in these countries to ensure that private data from social media is not misused to influence the perceptions of the voting public? And if some breach does occur, how soon can it be caught? While the Information Technology authorities in these countries may show a hard face right now to appease citizens, the truth is the alleged data breach from Facebook occurred way back in 2014, i.e. four years ago. Facebook says it became aware of the breach in 2015. But the issue took another three years to become public? The extent of data lying ransom on social media networks is often unfathomable to the authorities, let alone the users. Else how do breaches occur in the first place and remain undetected for so long? And if it took technologically-advanced countries like USA and UK as many as four years to make this controversy public, imagine how the lag may play out in nations that have historically often seen more corruption-ridden electioneering?
Social media beyond Facebook – While Facebook may have suspended Cambridge Analytica after the data controversy erupted, social media today spans several mediums, not just the Facebook app. In India, Whatsapp has a similar penetration to Facebook. Even Instagram, Twitter and Linkedin are not too far behind either in terms of their penetration vs. Facebook. In Pakistan, while the gap between Facebook and the next two popular platforms is still substantial, they are picking up in popularity. At the same time, local social media networks do not really feature in the South Asian countries, unlike Russia where Odnoklassniki and VKontakte dominate or China where WeZone, Weibo and QChat dominate. The dominance of global social media networks in the South Asian countries housing most of their citizens’ data possibly makes cross-border data compromising instances more susceptible.
Procuring data is as easy as 1-2-3: In the Facebook-Cambridge controversy, the data was collected by an app built by Aleksandr Kogan, a psychology professor at Cambridge. Kogan’s Global Science Research in collaboration with Cambridge Analytica paid users to take a personality test for academic use. This app also collected the information of the users’ friends. A huge pool was built easily and targeted voters with personalized political advertisements. In South Asian countries where an over-supply of software makers abound, putting together such apps is child’s play. Also, while the parties maintain that they obtained data in accordance with the UK Data Protection Act, the truth is that not many users actually realize the extent of private information being made public when they play on such apps on social media, the result being that their entire feed is manufactured.
Deaths during campaigning: Let’s face it – elections in South Asian countries have often been bloody. Do the bloody get even bloodier, as free-to-enter political parties in our multi-party democracies resort to any tactic to gain vote-share when the publicity behind the elections is manufactured? Who takes the blame for such deaths?
As the skeletons in the current controversy tumble out, the question remains of how far the South Asian nations are from blatant manufacturing of voter perceptions? While the information authorities put up a hard face for popular appeasement, the loopholes remain high. The Election Commission in India has worked hard, a reason why exit polls in India are made public only after voting ends. But with each new controversy, its work only starts anew!