Social media used to engineer psychological manipulation of public opinion

As a war wages over cyberspace activities of parties, a key Parliamentary panel has expressed concern over social media being used to engineer “psychological manipulation” of public opinion on crucial issues affecting countries.

The comments by the Committee on Estimates led by veteran BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi comes amid worldwide condemnation of data analytics firm ‘Cambridge Analytica’ for “misusing” Facebook users data to influence voters in US Presidential elections and Brexit campaign.

In a section on cyber crimes in its report ‘Central Armed Police Forces and Internal Security Challenges: Evaluation and Response Mechanism’, the committee acknowledged that social networking has emerged as a key tool used around the world to promote and aid communication.

“However, this type of technology might be doing more harm than good. Of late, use of social media has been seen as a key tool for engineering psychological manipulation of public and its opinion on issues that affect the nation and society,” the report said.

The Committee expressed its fear that the “potential for interference by one state with the affairs of another state” through the use of social media is “higher than ever”. It said, “clearly, lines have blurred between freedom of expression, privacy, law and order

Though the report does not mention any specific incidents, it appears that the Committee has in mind the allegations in the United States that Donald Trump’s election was aided by Russians. Last week, it also emerged that Cambridge Analytica, which aided Trump’s campaign, illegally harvested user data.

The Cambridge Analytica episode has also raised the political mercury in India with Congress and BJP locking horns over their suspected links to the firm. Another controversy erupted following allegations that there was data leak from Prime Minister Narendra Modi (NaMo) App. Congress is also in the eye of a storm over its now deleted App being launched from a server based in Singapore.

Like in the West, Modi had used social media vigorously in the 2014 campaign to emerge victorious. He has also asked MPs to reach out to the people through social media, especially Facebook.

In its report, the Committee said the “cocktail of social media, 24-hour television and NGOS create virtual reality, which soon has effects in the real world.” It said the probability of disruption has grown apace with the rise in number of cyber users.

These are not just law and order problems, and they are not amenable to the traditional responses that the states are accustomed to. These are serious internal security issues. We have seen technology place increasingly lethal power in the hands of non-state actors. The effects can range from the benign to the dangerous, though technology itself is value neutral,” it said.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald on Mar 27, 2018)

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