Here’s Why Cambridge Analytica Can’t Influence Indian Polls – Yet

Big data does not yet have the power to influence elections in India, local or national.

4 min read

If you have been following the news cycle closely, you’re probably tired of reading about Cambridge Analytica and how it is a big bad data firm which has the magical power to sway elections and shape public opinion.

I’m saying this from personal experience, because I’m simply exhausted by the constant headlines around Cambridge Analytica, and even more tired of the tu-tu mein-mein taking place between the BJP and the Congress over their alleged dealings with this shady firm.

However, it’s important to understand that Cambridge Analytica doesn’t really have the power to decide elections or significantly impact voter behaviour, at least in India.

Decoding Cambridge Analytica Conundrum

Cambridge Analytica, in its current avatar, is essentially a company which (often illegally), collects the social media habits and footprints of Facebook users to create a digital profile which it sells to the highest political bidder. (The controversy in the United States arose from the fact that it gathered psychometric data through a rather nefarious manner, but this article focuses on the Indian context).

These political entities then use that profile to personalise campaign messaging which they believe might sway voters in a certain or desired manner.

If this sounds familiar to you, that’s because it’s not entirely new. The modern voter has almost never existed in an information vacuum and political parties around the world have engaged in voter profiling for decades. They have consistently used targeted polling, voter demographics, and other data to understand the electorate, create profiles of voters and then appropriately strategise their messaging. In addition to having done this for decades in India, many political parties have in fact, been founded on precise caste, religious, and economic calculations.

The only difference is that Cambridge Analytica, a creature of the 21st century, did this in our hyper-connected world, which means that it gathered this information from Facebook, a 21st century social media network used by millions around the world. The problem with those sounding the sirens on Cambridge Analytica in India is that big data does not yet have the power to influence elections in India, local or national.

This is because they are making a fundamentally flawed assumption: That youth voters are spending enormous amounts of time on Facebook, and that campaign strategy has become advanced enough to prey on these young minds. This assumption could not be further from the data or reality.

Big Data Can’t Influence Elections in India – Yet

A 2016 survey conducted by the Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) revealed that half of India’s youth were not exposed to social media at all. In other words, half of the approximately 6,000 Indian youth surveyed had never used any popular social media platform such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp or YouTube. If extrapolated nationally, this means that half of the 140 million-strong first-time voters in 2014 would have completely been outside the reach of any data analytics firm to make assumptions of their political behaviour.

The problem with those sounding the sirens on Cambridge Analytica in India is that big data does not yet have the power to influence elections in India, local or national.

In order for Cambridge Analytica to comprehensively create political profiles, it needs to have a sufficient amount of data of Facebook users, and the reality is that only 17 percent of Indians are on Facebook, and most are not on it long enough for analytics firms to create political profiles.

Given that only 19 percent of young voters have “very high” or “high” exposure to social media, it is difficult for any analytical software to create a comprehensive file on user profiles.

Big data does not yet have the power to influence elections in India, local or national.

Many have hailed India’s homegrown version of Cambridge Analytica, Prashant Kishor, as the figure behind Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s monumental victory in 2014.

While it is true that Modi’s campaign used technology and social media to a degree not seen before in modern Indian politics, its victories were not due to social media profiling.

A 2014 CSDS survey reported that only 6 percent of 18-34-year-olds had reported using Facebook on a daily basis during that election.

Furthermore, if political profiling and data analytics were so pivotal in 2014, it is not easy to explain how Prashant Kishor’s elaborate data analytics led the Congress to a monumental defeat in Uttar Pradesh just last year.

Ultimately, in order for Cambridge Analytica to truly make a difference and decide elections in India, it will need to machine-learn caste equations, religious tensions, gender relations, welfare networks, economic anxieties, urban challenges, and the countless other factors that the Indian voter considers before going to the ballot box.

Fortunately, it is not there yet.

(The author is the founder of Vantage Analytics and the author of a forthcoming book on Indian millennials. He can be reached at @VivanMarwaha. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)

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