Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

Opinion | How the internet could end up wrecking Indian democracy

Sadly, elections that were once about a country’s collective social agenda are now about disparate individual attitudes

Since the 2014 general elections, millions more have started accessing the internet in India. How will this huge increase in web access affect the 2019 general elections? Will the rapid spread of internet strengthen Indian democracy or weaken it? News from across the world has not been heart warming. The 2016 US presidential election and Brexit referendum are being cited as examples of the dubious role internet played in adversely impacting the outcome of elections.

A lot has been written about the ill effects of the internet. A recent article in Scientific American,The Internet Knows You Better Than Your Spouse Does, talks about how the traces we leave on the web and on our digital devices can give advertisers insights into our individual behaviour. A study by David Stillwell and Youyou Wu, both at the University of Cambridge, and Michal Kosinski of Stanford University has demonstrated that algorithms can evaluate the key dimensions of an individual’s personality just by examining a Facebook user’s likes. With data of 10 likes for analysis, it was able to evaluate that person about as well as a co-worker could. Given 70 likes, the algorithm was about as accurate as a friend. With 300, it was more successful than the person’s spouse.

According to Robert Epstein, a psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioural Research and Technology, Google could determine the outcome of upwards of 25% of national elections around the world on the basis of how it displays search results. Although there is no evidence that either Google or Facebook is doing such a thing, Jamie Bartlett, the author of the book The People Vs Tech: How The Internet Is Killing Democracy (And How We Save It), thinks otherwise. Bartlett believes that these tech giants, which have access to huge caches of information on their users, have immense power and that even small changes effected in the online environment could critically influence their users’ behaviour, including political preferences.

Voting is an excellent example of a prosocial behaviour. In The Handbook Of Social Psychology, C. Daniel Batson explains that prosocial behaviours are “a broad range of actions intended to benefit one or more people other than oneself—behaviours such as helping, comforting, sharing and cooperation". So though a voter does not get any tangible immediate benefits, an individual votes only because of his deep connections with the larger society.

Elections involve a lot of cooperation between various sections of a society. The most important being between various leaders and followers of a political party. Ultimately, members of all political parties, including the opposition ones, cooperate with election officials to conduct a fair and free election. A democratically elected government is an excellent example of the collective spirit of a society.

Political scientist Yoshihiro Francis Fukuyama argues in his book Political Order And Political Decay that political parties with broad programmes allow citizens with different and varied interests to collectively organize and share policy. The alternative is divisive squabbling among diverse special-interest groups. Unfortunately, this leads to dysfunctional political divides and political outcomes being captured by special interests at the cost of broader public good.

Digital marketers are changing the rules of the game. They have broken down the large voter base into micro segments. They now have data at an individual level and have the ability to send individualised messages to each voter. So the election campaign, which was once a public, social event that connected with everyone in a society, has now been turned into a private, disconnected activity. Studies have shown that candidates are more likely to campaign on polarizing issues when the forum is not public. Conflicts exist in every society. In a democracy, the political system arbitrates social conflict by means of free and fair elections. The internet, instead of moving towards conflict resolution, tends to intensify debates and accentuate the conflicts that exist in a society.

In the traditional election process, communication would originate around a common theme and would be disseminated by numerous grassroots party workers who would do house-to-house and street corner campaigns. With the arrival of the internet, the different messages are developed at a central location and changed by the day based on their effectiveness and disseminated with absolutely no personal touch. So election campaigns, a great opportunity for face-to-face interaction between citizens, have sadly been converted into an impersonal process, implemented mainly by machines with no accountability.

So far, the internet has been criticized for trespassing into one’s personal spaces and using one’s personal information for commercial activities. Now, the internet is facing a new criticism. It is being accused of converting what was once a social behaviour into a large number of individual behaviours and, in that process, turning what was once a public discourse into a personal conversation.

Social behaviour splitting into individual behaviours does not bring about desirable outcomes. Let’s take the example of playgrounds. Once, several individuals would play together and interact with one another. It burned up calories and kept everyone healthy. Then suddenly technology stepped into the world of games. Gaming consoles made sure that playing as an activity moved in the house. Games, once a social activity, have now become a personal activity. The consequences of this are there for everyone to see.

Elections are all about the collective social behaviour of a country. The internet’s conspiracy to convert this collective behaviour into disparate individual behaviours does not bode well for the future of democracy.

Biju Dominic is chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.

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