Hacking Elections: Tales from Far and Near

Hacking Elections: Tales from Far and Near

THE Netflix film, The Great Hack, relates Cambridge Analytica’s role in Trump’s 2016 elections to a much larger issue – the threat to our democracy from global tech giants.  It is not the Facebook data that Cambridge “hacked”, but the election itself.  And what is at stake is not just an election, but the very future of democracy. If elections can be hacked, so can our democracy. The film poses a fundamental question for our times: are more elections in more places going to be won by the best data “team” that money can buy?

The Indian elections of 2014 and 2019 raised similar questions. Shivam Singh’s book, How to Win an Indian Election, covers very similar grounds to show that elections can indeed be hacked using big money and big data.

The role of advertising and media consultants in elections is not new. With the growth of mass media, the methods of selling soaps and detergents also became the method to sell politics. What has been added now is the power of micro targeting: targeting each individual based on knowing, in minute detail, what makes us tick. An average person leaves enough digital footprints to generate 5,000 data points today; these are used by big data companies to target each of us with ads. This is what has made Google, Facebook and Amazon – and now Alibaba and WeChat as well – among the world’s ten biggest companies.

We have known much of this. What The Great Hack adds by way of understanding is that a lot of these “tools” came out of military’s psychological operations (or psyops) and cyber war techniques.  They were even classified as weapons under export control regimes. These tools are used to spread hate, disinformation and divisions – fake news in other words – in the “enemy” ranks, or any targeted population in countries slated for regime change.

The other insight of the film is that it is not the big votes that count in an electoral victory. These votes are generally decided, and difficult to shift. What counts is a small section of votes. If these votes are turned, they can tip the election from defeat to victory. In the US elections, for instance, given the lopsided nature of the electoral college system, just 70,000 voters in three states gave Trump his victory over Hilary.

If we understand the psychological profile of a voter, or what Alexander Nix of Cambridge Analytica calls the psychometric profile, we can do two things. We can discourage voters who would probably vote for the other side. And encourage the voters from “our side” to come out and vote. The film shows a successful example in Trinidad: young people of colour were targeted with a “movement” message of not voting as a protest. They were given the message of how “cool”  it is to not vote, while the other side was encouraged to vote with messages about family values, listening to parents.

In the recent Indian elections in UP, data analysis shows that BJP strongholds had a better turnout than SP-BSP strongholds, indicating the success of a similar campaign. If you are an opposition voter, you were targeted with messages about how all politicians are corrupt and elections serve no purpose. To the BJP voters, the messaging would have been that patriotism demands you vote and strike a blow against “our enemies”.

Though the film focusses on the Cambridge Analytica and the Trump elections, it also registers the role of the global rightwing networks using big money and their deeply divisive messaging. This is visible, for example, in Bolsonaro’s victory in Brazil. The film also addresses the role of Facebook and Google that have created a social media world that divides us rather than connecting us. Facebook realised, early on, that our anxieties and our fears are far more potent as advertising tools than the “likes”. They essentially sell our anxieties, fears and hatred to the advertisers. This is what has caused the worst sides of our humanity to explode in the social media space.

This is also what MIT researchers found out: that fake news penetrates deeper, faster and wider than actual news.

Hate pulls in eyeballs to the TV screens as well. This explains the rise of hate TV and fake TV: Fox News in the US and the gaggle of Republic/Zee/Times Now troll TV channels. This is the transformation today in the media space, particularly all forms of electronic media, from TV to social media.

The question is, What are we going to do? The Great Hack argues that data privacy and individual ownership of our data is the answer. However, the view that data belongs to us opens it to the possibility that big corporations can indeed own our data, but only after purchasing it. It does not change the underlying business model of the big data companies. Data as private property would still it make possible for our “eyeballs” to be bought and sold like any other goods, and allow data and power to be concentrated in the hands of big tech companies.

This view of data as private property misses the fact that data is not simply our individual data, but also that of our social relations, and data that belongs to communities and groups. Instead of focussing on how to keep data in our hands as commodities that belong to us, we must look at how data is common to us, how it belongs to the commons and is not a commodity. We must treat data of our social relationships, and community data, as something that cannot be bought and sold.

Next, how do we safeguard our elections? Our democracy? The answer has been always to limit the role of money in the elections. Big data requires big money. Smaller parties may believe that getting a Prashant Kishore or another election analytics company is enough to counter BJP’s big money – its 4,000 member in Association of a Billion Minds, and various other companies that work for its election machinery. Yes, if you are sitting on big bucks as some of these regional parties are, you can do it in one state. But not if you don’t have the big bucks. We need to make limiting the role of money in elections as the democratic and progressive campaign if electoral democracy and progressive politics are to have a future in this country.

Can we build a mass movement using social media? Social media giants are not neutral in this game. Their business models are built to encourage hate and a swing to the right. The algorithms are not simply mathematics. They encode our prejudices and Zuckerberg’s business needs, in their algorithms. The swing to the global right and the rise of hate politics are coded in the gene of Google and Facebook. Copycat politics of the right transferred to Left and democratic spaces is not the answer.

Is all lost then? No. We have to combine mass movements, the existing mass media including the digital platforms, our creativity and the power of our numbers, to create an alternate vision of society. Use social media by all means, but focus on the real world, and its real problems. Strengthen democratic media and the Left platforms, all of them, not just the digital ones. And have faith that people can be diverted by fear and hatred for a short time, but not for long. They will come back to the real issues through movements on the ground. Issues that bind us instead of divide, solidarity and not hate. This is our battle: how to combine the new with the old; and how to use it creatively.