Dr Ashwani Mahajan
Some time back it came to be known that a data analysis company named Cambridge Analytica worked in the election campaign of US President Donald Trump based on Facebook data of 87 million people and this company played an important role in Trump’s victory. The question is, from where did Cambridge Analytica get Facebook’s data, it is clear that it was obtained from the Facebook company itself. While there is evidence of the Facebook company’s representatives selling its data, and although Facebook owner Mark Zuckerberg also apologized in this regard, there is no guarantee that such acts will not be repeated in the future.
In the year 2018, it was revealed that this same Cambridge Analytica company proposed to work for the Indian National Congress using Facebook and Twitter data to change the trend of voters for the 2019 elections. The website of the company also claimed that this company worked for the winning party in the Bihar elections in the 2010 elections. Misuse of data of social media companies for political parties, is becoming a common practice from the point of view of elections.
But the interference of these social media companies became more visible in the recent US presidential elections. Almost all the tweets by President Donald Trump had Twitter company’s comment, questioning his statement. This naturally played a major role in creating suspicion about all the statements of President Trump. Twitter company has become the centre of unembellished controversy as President Donald Trump’s Twitter account was suspended following recent violent demonstrations in the United States.Although it is being argued that Twitter company suspended the account of President Donald Trump because Donald Trump’s statements were posing a threat to a peaceful transfer of power in United States, some time ago, the non-suspension of his Twitter account, despite the tweet of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, justifying and instigating violence by a religious group, is raising questions about fairness of Twitter in dealing with similar situations.
There is no doubt that these social media companies have a large amount of personal information about the customers using these platforms. These companies have access and practically right to use all types of data including their social relationships, caste, community, economic status, their locations and movements, their purchases and they can use this data in the interest of political parties of their choice or who pay for the same. In such a situation, they can affect democracy in a wrong way. Although there is no harm if social media is used honestly, but if these social media companies start doing business of influencing politics, then not only democracy and democratic systems in the world but even social fabric will be in danger.
Huge power of tech companies
Significantly, in India alone, Facebook has more than 33.6 crore accounts, while the messaging, voice and video call application WhatsApp, operated by this company has more than 40 crore subscribers. Apart from this, Facebook also owns the Instagram app, which is a popular application for photo and video sharing. From this, it can be clearly seen that this company has private, economic and social information (data) of a large population of India. Similarly, Twitter has around 7 crore accounts in India and 33 crore accounts in the world. Although, Social Media apps like Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, Linkedin etc. provide their services for free, but they use their huge database to increase their income. Similarly, Google company running search engine and many other services, has also been found guilty of misusing its logarithm for unethical profiteering, many times. Today in India, Google and Facebook have become the largest revenue earning companies in terms of advertising. Similarly, other tech companies also have their own business models. No doubt these companies are providing great satisfaction to consumers, due to which their popularity is increasing continuously; however, due to their increasing popularity and the absence of any kind of restraint on these companies, apprehensions are being expressed that they may affect the democratic structure, by disturbing the social fabric and wrongful use of data by impacting opinion for profit. Significantly, there is a complete lack of transparency in the activities and logarithms of tech platforms run by these companies. And it is also clear that these companies work for profit motive and continue to maximise profit for their shareholders. Therefore, naturally, despite even staying within the purview of the law, these companies can do anything to make a profit. Since electronic social media has come into existence recently, the legal systems of various countries are finding it difficult to control them. In such a situation, in the absence of any legal obligation, these companies can hurt the social and political fabric and democracy.
Recently, a very important issue came, when some of the China’s mobile apps were engaged in inhuman and anti-social acts, yet it took a long time for the government to ban them. Although such apps have been banned in large number, primarily due to increasing public anger towards China, it will not be an easy task to curb apps like Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter etc. In such a situation, there will always be a danger of these companies influencing democratic systems.
What could be the solution?
In view of the potential threats of these companies, China doesn’t allow Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc, in their country from the very beginning and Chinese apps have been developed as alternatives to Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter etc. India can also try to provide alternatives to these tech platforms, while continuing the existing social media apps. It’s notable that after banning a large number of Chinese apps, many types of apps have been developed in the country through Indian start-ups.
Similarly, the government can force these companies to keep their data in India in a transparent manner by enacting a law for data sovereignty and data privacy, in order to prevent misuse of data by social media apps. Even by discouraging data mining by these companies, misuse of personal data of people can be reduced. In this era of technology, it is the responsibility of the government to protect people’s privacy and country’s democratic systems and discourage efforts of these tech companies to destroy the social fabric. In this regard, government cannot escape its responsibility to make laws for effective control of these social media and tech companies.
(The author is Associate Professor, Department of Economics, P.G.D.A.V. College (University of Delhi)
Dr Ashwani Mahajan