Home / Opinion / Views /  Name piper-payers who may be calling the tune

In the internet age, being “under the influence" is not short-hand for drunk driving, but for having one’s perceptions and beliefs altered by online persuaders. This can happen in ways that range from casual to insidious. It could be a seemingly stray comment on what’s fashionable this season, advice on investment involving the use of a particular platform to snap up shares, or even an update on the Ukraine war that ascribes blame Westwards but we don’t suspect is part of a sneaky campaign run by a foreign state. If we were informed upfront of the interests that lie behind the screen, our gullibility would be far harder to exploit, as we’ll use that knowledge as a filter for what we’re being fed. This explains India’s crackdown on online influencers. On Friday, the government invoked the Consumer Protection Act of 2019 to issue guidelines on public disclosure by those who not only have audiences whose spending they can influence, but also sponsors that may determine or shape how they wield their charm. New rules that empower people this way, with information, are welcome. The more we know about who pays the piper, the better. Achieving a country of netizens who can discern the tunes being called, though, might prove to be a long haul.

The new rules require influencers to forefront any “material connection" they happen to have with advertisers and other commercial agents. Beyond financial compensation and rewards, all benefits received in kind qualify for revelation, with or without conditions attached. Free samples of products or services, barter deals, unsolicited discounts or gifts, holiday tabs picked up, honours awarded, employment ties and personal relationships all count as material links. And every link must be displayed in a manner that is very hard to miss. In the case of a livestream, for example, a ticker crawling across the screen has to specify any such sponsorship without a moment’s break. Failure to comply with these rules would attract a penalty that could be a fine as steep as 50 lakh or an endorsement ban for up to six years. As with other regulatory frameworks of this kind, it is for people to keep watch, flag suspected violations and seek action against influencers with hidden backers. The very awareness of legal and public-esteem risks could deter business purposes being served in the guise of earnest chit-chat or expert advice. Of course, this may take a few newsy nabs of guilt, given the air of ‘anything goes’ that has prevailed all this while, especially in spaces with ears primed for crypto serenades and the like, but we should thank this policy for any self-restraint that gets exercised.

Ulterior motives operate in other harmful ways too. Suspicions, for instance, have arisen lately of Indians being targets of propaganda by state agencies abroad. Accusations of devious designs are often levelled at various countries, some of them as political rhetoric, but it’s the alleged exploits of Russian info-warriors that seem the most successful, based on the global record of operations unmasked and outcomes achieved. While stealthy persuasion is likelier to be deployed in geopolitics by an autocracy than a democracy, it can originate anywhere, just as biased messages can and do within the country. The worst kept secret of Indian politics is how the internet is fed by digital fakes. Our best defence is to stay alert and questioning of all that’s pushed upon us. The internet made covert agendas significantly easier to pursue, but it’s mostly for people to wisen up to the matrix of interests at work.

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