2019 Polls & Big Data: Where Lust For Power Begins & Ethics End

How political parties are using our personal data and information to manipulate us into voting for them.

5 min read
Hindi Female

“We are moving slowly into an era where Big Data is the starting point, not the end.”

― Pearl Zhu, author of Digital Masterbook series

Amidst the din of the 17th Lok Sabha elections, one of the most fascinating aspects to have emerged is how the parties are using data and technology to manoeuvre their ideologies.

Data analytics had played a big role in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Analytics India magazine reported: “In India, the 2014 elections were one of the first to use data, and technology, and digital platforms played a central role in the way the campaigns were designed, structured, targeted, implemented, and communicated. Over the years, data and technology have played a key role in strategically navigating the complexities of demographics, religion, politics and caste in India”.

Big data companies and political strategists came to the fore during the 2014 election. The role of Prashant Kishor, for instance, as an important face behind Nitish Kumar’s victory in Bihar (2014), saw Congress and other parties following suit, and using analytics and data for campaigning.

How BJP Is Gauging Voter Sentiments

The use of personal data to gauge voting behaviour has been notoriously used by the political parties to target voters. In 2014, data analytics also allowed the candidates to understand the voters’ opinions of a particular demographic, and alter their campaign accordingly. “2014 Lok Sabha elections were the turning point witnessing active use of Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. WhatsApp also became a common man’s channel of communication,” says Astik Sinha, the digital campaign strategist in Anurag Thakur’s campaign in Hamirpur, Himachal Pradesh.

“Further, the use of 3D innovations ever since the 2014 elections, for the use of applications like the NAMO app in the current elections, has led to the expansion of budgets of both political parties and its candidates,” says Sagar Vishnoi, Political strategist, The Ideaz Factory.

BJP targeted its voters by reportedly using GPS in campaign vans to increase efficiency, and used cookies on their website to harvest and further use information about users’ internet behaviour, in order to target them with customised advertisements.

The utilization of big data for political purposes is an interesting angle to gauging political behaviour and voter psyche. However, the verdict is still out on to what extent the use of big data and technologies leads to violation of privacy and attacks the values of transparency, accountability and fairness.


How Facebook and AI Are ‘Helping’ Political Parties

One of the most visible uses of social media to influence voters in the current elections, is Facebook informing its users about the political candidates in their local areas – which would simultaneously make use of their location, their political choice, and keep an eye on their behaviour. Another interesting example is that of Gully Boy rappers emerging with their politics-themed numbers on Kolkata’s hip-hop scene. Kolkata’s rap scene’s mammoth growth in recent months is possibly related to the fact that West Bengal is among the biggest consumers of political videos in India. As reported in Analytics Insight, “...A particular kind of online behavior creates a demand for some specific videos which are trending. And over that, if politicians have access to this data, then they probably know how to reach the hearts of Bengalis”.

The algorithms function in a way that parties would get to know whether the voter likes the Congress or the BJP. The universal presence of algorithms, analytics and artificial intelligence creates a pattern of political messaging by constantly tracking and decoding voters’ online behaviour.

Similar to the nature of targeted ads, the Indian neta aims to enter your mind space by featuring repeatedly in your social media feed. The interaction with posts on nationalism on a daily basis, makes for a BJP-friendly algorithm, featuring the same on your timeline. Similarly, one’s reaction to the Congress tells AI whether they like the party’s NYAY scheme or not.


Micro-Targeting Households & Constituencies

A Times of India report says, “Congress has given all its candidates a data docket for each constituency”. These dockets contain information on households, new voters, missing voters and local issues. Praveen Chakravarty, Chairman of the Data Analytics department in the Congress, says, as reported by TOI, “Instead of pushing down a single leader’s message using technology, we empower our party workers with data and technology. These workers pass on personalised or customised messages.”

Other strategies functioning within the microcosm and our everyday lives, is the circulation of political messages on WhatsApp. The terminology of ‘WhatsApp University’ has been used in popular media to define a behaviour that shapes mass psychology, both politically and emotionally. It is crucial to understand these strategies at a deeper level, from the perspective of manipulation, and also, the evolving nature of political strategising.

The well-known poll strategist told TOI: “BJP has 25,000 WhatsApp groups in all the northern states... There is no way for the Congress to match the BJP’s reach”.

The social outreach of BJP is definitely smarter and assimilates the different shades of Indian democracy. The argument has been reiterated in Swati Chaturvedi’s book, I Am A Troll as well. The IT cell of the BJP has expanded its programme to include households, by moving beyond the idea of door-to-door campaigning, and pervading via WhatsApp messages.

Macro-Level Targeting

The targeting of voters happens at the macro-level when parties collect information on utility bills like power and water, to do policy-based campaigning. In the recent phase of the elections, the BJP has been particularly working on the data of beneficiaries of schemes like Ujjwala Yojana, and convincing them to vote for their party. In a similar vein, Aam Aadmi Party is taking help from data scientists to design its poll strategy. The Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh is using social media to popularise the ‘gathbandhan’.


Walking On Tricky Terrain

The space of big data and technology is a tricky terrain owing to the challenges of privacy violation, and transparency. The Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal exemplifies this point.

The extensive and unregulated use of technological tools and algorithms could only serve to prove ‘liberty being used as license’ by various political parties. In the light of recent elections and the increasing use of AI, it is essential to have a legal framework to regulate and protect the privacy of citizens.

While it is true that big data is the start of new opportunities for the electorate in terms of technological and political explorations, it should not become the end of constitutional values.

(Manisha Chachra is pursuing a PhD in political studies at JNU. She has previously written for IndiaSpend, The NewsMinute and Tehelka. Presently, she is a political associate at Govern. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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