The majority of the public discourse around a ‘compromised’ media in India is centred around the recent Cobrapost sting operations which were released last week. However, what seems to be less under the radar of both the Indian media and the public is how the present Government of India may be attempting to keep a look out for the social media communications which take place amongst users and utilise that information for its own interests.
Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Limited, a Government of India enterprise under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has invited bids for controlling the ‘Social Media Communication Hub’.
It is the creation of a social media monitoring system which can “...collect Digital media chatter from all Core Social Media Platforms as well as digital platforms like news, blogs and forums…” It is expected to ‘listen and respond’ to social media websites such as Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, etc.
The tool is also expected to have enough infiltration into the internet and social media so that it can analyse the trends which emerge and ‘gauge the sentiments among the netizens’.
The bid also states, “… the tool should have the capacity to provide inputs to the Ministry on how to improve the reach of various social media campaigns, how to make a particular topic trending and for the overall general improvement of social media campaigns.”
Based on whatever has been written on the tender, the Indian government seems to be looking at a technology which can harvest online information available on social media which can help them in pursuing their own interests.
Recently, both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Indian National Congress came under a barrage of criticism for allegedly using the services of Cambridge Analytica, a voter-profiling enterprise which unlawfully harvested the information of over 50 million users in the USA for helping its clients win elections in 2014.
What Cambridge Analytica largely engages in is the analysis of voter preferences and reaching out to them through personalised messages to make sure that they are likelier to vote for their clients.
If the government is able to harness such valuable data from social media through such a tool, the fear of it misusing it for various purposes, including electoral, is always omnipresent.
The tool is also expected to make some ‘predictive analysis’ such as:
1. “How could nationalistic feelings be inculcated in the masses.”
The government has been both praised and criticised from various quarters for being fiercely nationalistic in rhetoric. Many experts point out that the central government’s brand of nationalism is very Hindu-centric and that it creates a feeling of alienation amongst people belonging to minority religious communities, especially the Muslims.
2. “How could the media blitzkrieg of ‘India’s adversaries’ be predicted and replied/neutralised.”
It is not very clear based on the tender who ‘India’s adversaries’ here are. Is it referring to foreign media which may be critical of something the government may not agree with? Or is it a reference to the Indian media? Ever since the current dispensation came to power, many media houses have been labelled as ‘anti-national’ on social media for having targeted the Narendra Modi led government at the Centre negatively. Or could it be referring to both?
3. “How could the social media and internet news/discussions be given a positive slant for India.”
What does it mean by a ‘positive slant for India’. It is not particularly very clear.
However, based on whatever is written in the tender which has been floated it doesn’t just seem to be targeting the social media communication of Indians or the Indian media. It also seems to aim to be attempting to put its fingerprints in the global arena for an image-building exercise. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi frequently travels abroad and has been closely examined by the international media ever since he came to power in May 2014, it does seem to be a well thought out move.
The ‘predictive analysis’ of the tool should also be able to be able to gauge the following related to happenings abroad:
1. “What would be the headlines and breaking news of various channels and newspapers across the globe.” The bid also states that all this could be done with ‘knowledge about their leanings, business deals, investors, their country policies, sentiment of their population, etc’. The examples of media houses given are New York Times, The Economist and The Times.
2. “What would be the global perception due to such headlines and breaking news.”
Interestingly, The New York Times and The Economist have been extremely critical of the Narendra Modi government. The New York Times editorials have been particularly critical of the Narendra Modi led government at the Centre.
A New York Times editorial in April 2018 titled ‘Modi’s Long Silence as Women in India Are Attacked’, attacked Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his silence on the rape and murder of 8-year-old Bakarwal Muslim girl. The girl was abducted, gang-rape and murdered in the month of January in Kathua, Jammu. Influential members of the Bharatiya Janata Party had come out in support of the accused by demanding their release. After much public outrage and media coverage in the month of April, Narendra Modi finally said, “I want to assure the country that no culprit will be spared, complete justice will be done. Our daughters will definitely get justice.”
In another editorial by the The New York Times on March 23, 2017, titled ‘Mr Modi’s Perilious Embrace of Hindu Extremists’ it had criticised the elevation of Hindutva hardliner Yogi Adityanath to the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in the same month. The editorial ended with the line, “The move is a shocking rebuke to religious minorities, and a sign that cold political calculations ahead of national elections in 2019 have led to Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party to believe that nothing stands in the way of realizing its long-held dream of transforming a secular republic into the Hindu state.”
There have other editorials criticising the Narendra Modi government at the Centre in The New York Times as well.
In an article in The Economist published on June 24, 2017, titled ‘India’s prime minister is not as much of a reformer as he seems’, it had criticised both ‘demonetisation’ and the Goods and Services Tax (GST), along with the Hindu nationalism that Narendra Modi has been promoting.
In another article in The Economist titled ‘India’s prime minister focuses too much on appearances’ it had again been very critical of both demonetisation and GST, criticised the BJP’s Hindutva agenda of the Uttar Pradesh government, amongst other things.
It must also be kept in mind that Narendra Modi has a huge fan following amongst the non-resident Indian community and the people of Indian origin residing in the United State of America, Canada, Australia, United Arab Emirates, etc. Every time he visits a foreign country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ends up addressing large crowds comprising of people belonging to the Indian diaspora.
When he had addressed the Indian community at the Madison Square Garden in New York in September 2014, around 19,000 people had turned up to cheer for him. Narendra Modi has successfully drawn large crowds when he has visited countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, United Arab Emirates, etc. ever since he became India’s Prime Minister.
The tool is also expected to identify ‘fake news’, with a particular focus on such conversations on social media and ‘specialised’ websites.
The Narendra Modi government has also been accused by both opposition and various journalists of having muzzled press freedom ever since it came to power in May 2014. India’s current ranking in the World Press Freedom Index is 138. Last week, a sting operation conducted by media website called Cobrapost revealed that media managers of organisations such as the Times of India, Hindustan Times, Zee News, India Today, etc. were compromised as they were willing to showcase Hindutva advertorials in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections for large sums of money.
In April 2018, the Union Ministry of information and broadcasting had announced that the journalists guilty of having broadcasted or written ‘fake news’ would either lose their accreditation with the Press Information Bureau either permanently or have it suspended temporarily. There was a lot of backlash against this on social media. The very next day the move was withdrawn after orders from the Prime Minister’s Office.
It is not entirely clear how the ‘social media communication hub’ will be tracking users’ online communication and how it is intended to be utilised by the Government of India. However, based on whatever is written in the tender inviting proposals for the job, it does seem a bit alarming.