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Book Excerpt:

Promoting a Messaiah - the Hindu nationalist agenda and Facebook in India

by Cyril Sam, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, 3 May

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excerpt from ’The Real Face of Facebook in India: How Social Media Have Become a Weapon and Dissemninator of Disinformation and Falsehood’ by Cyril Sam and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta (April 2019) Published by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta | available via: https://amzn.to/2ViCdzV

“The 2014 Modi pre-election campaign was inspired by the 2012 campaign to elect Barack Obama as the “world’s first Facebook President.” Some of the managers of the Modi campaign like Jain were apparently inspired by Sasha Issenberg’s book on the topic, The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns. In the first data-led election in India in 2014, information was collected from every possible source to not just micro-target users but also fine-tune messages praising and “mythologizing” Modi as the Great Leader who would usher in acche din (good times) for the country.“

[ . . . ]

“Earlier, in 2015, the Modi government rallied support for the social media platform by announcing an e-governance scheme called “Digital India” – all government departments, ministers and bureaucrats were asked to create Facebook pages to reach out to their friends and constituents. In effect, Facebook became the default communication platform for the government of India. In the years that followed, supporters of the BJP started “weaponizing” Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp to target voices critical of Modi and his party.

These three social media platforms together comprise the biggest advertising network of its kind in the history of humankind. But they have huge design issues that go beyond leaking user data. Facebook and its sister platforms are not just addictive but seek to convert politics into games. Democracy and interpersonal interactions turn into games of engagement: likes, shares, comments and a race to gather more followers.

In India, representatives of various political parties have been reported saying that the chances of a person getting a party ticket to stand for elections would go up if the concerned person had a large number of followers on Facebook. In March this year, Prime Minister Modi asked his party MPs how many of them had over 300,000 “genuine likes” on their Facebook pages and said he would incentivise such MPs by appearing on video conferences for their supporters.

The social media giant is no ordinary corporate conglomerate. As the New York Times recently put it: “In just over a decade, Facebook has connected more than 2.2 billion people, a global nation unto itself that reshaped political campaigns, the advertising business and daily life around the world. Along the way, Facebook accumulated one of the largest-ever repositories of personal data, a treasure trove of photos, messages and likes that propelled the company into the Fortune 500 (list of the world’s largest companies).”

Facebook makes money, and lots and lots of it, on engagement. “Commercial, political and personal speech are different – Facebook short-circuits democracy by blurring the lines between and among them,” said Dr Ravi Sundaram, media scholar at the “Sarai” programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, a Delhi-based think tank, adding: “It is an infrastructure that makes money by conflating all forms of messaging and speech into commercial speech.”

Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, together also comprise the biggest consciousness manipulation infrastructure of its kind that has been constructed on a scale never seen before in the history of the world. In 2012, Facebook conducted a notorious global experiment to evaluate how changes to its news feeds affect the emotional state of its users. The results published in 2014 were not surprising. When users see more positive content on their feeds, they post positive content. And when people see negative posts, they post negative things.

Simple, but true! Facebook makes lots and lots of money by manipulating the consciousness of its unsuspecting users. Extreme content generates extreme emotions and, therefore, enhances engagement. Advertisers realised this quite quickly. The tactics employed by political hackers is borrowed from the playbook of advertisers. Facebook does its part by providing support to political operatives to generate better, more effective and more polarising messaging.

In the book, we have already examined the role played by Facebook and WhatsApp in disseminating fake news, hate speech and incendiary information and their alleged complicity with Modi, and the BJP. We have reported on how Facebook arrived at the dominant position it is in India at present with more than a little help from the current ruling regime. We continue to outline the role played by key individuals with close links with the BJP and Prime Minister Modi in propagating his party’s right-wing Hindu nationalist agenda on social media platforms like Facebook.”

P.S.

The above excerpt from ’The Real Face of Facebook in India’ by Cyril Sam and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta (2019) is reproduced here with permission of the authors