Pratyusha Pramanik explores the impact of social media
The Chai pe Charcha* in the Indian subcontinent often has a political undertone. The various adda or gossip sessions I have grown up watching in Kolkata have been at tea stalls situated at the parar more*. In these engaging discussions on politics, cricket and cinema I have often seen the conversations turn violent with disagreements; but soon these disagreements were laughed away over a cup of cutting chai, tea, and sutta, cigarette. Social media which is fast replacing this Chai pe Charcha, especially during the pandemic, does not give the option of agreeing to disagree. Equipped with algorithms which are created to bring together ‘like’ minded people, these medium are playing a massive role in political polarisation.
Although born and brought up in Kolkata, I shifted to Varanasi for my higher education. My social media is filled with friends from both the places and from other parts of the countries too. While this offers a diverse blend of opinions, I found myself at a very uncomfortably polarised situation when I saw the posts on the occasion of the Ram Mandir Sthhapana. There was a group of friends who hailed this as the triumph of dharma. There was another section that put up posts declaring they would unfriend anyone who is a bhakt. Both of these groups being my close friends, I was put in a social dilemma.
While watching Jeff Orlowski’s docudrama The Social Dilemma, I found a lot of answers to my unadressed questions. Like why do I start getting advertisements for lipstick, soon after I messaged my friend mentioning a lipstick! Or how would YouTube know I would want to listen to Emptiness at midnight! Although the discourse about data mining is not new, the interpolated interviews coming from industry insiders is almost like a wakeup call. The show is even more relevant amidst this pandemic, because of the increasing screen time as the world of physical interactions between humans has come to a complete halt. As India bans several Chinese apps on account of national security and as we come face to face with Facebook’s hate speech policy and its bias towards the ruling party we need to understand that these social spaces are not as friendly and accommodating as we may have been thinking. Ironically the platforms which have made possible #metoo, #BlackLivesMatter and have been a voice against many human rights violations around the world is also becoming a means of polarising it. The insight that this docudrama offers is that this may not be a bug which is accelerating the spread of fake news or propaganda; it may be a consciously in-built feature which is programmed to manipulate its users. This is an industry which has been developed to feed on its users’ multi-dimensional insecurity and anxiety.
The COVID19 crisis has forced us into physical distancing, which in turn has increased our dependence on online platforms — for entertainment, for communication, even for groceries! The social media has become our constant source of information. Not only were we indulging ourselves in some harmless challenges, but we were also trying to distract ourselves from the impending crisis. Even before we realised our screen time had increased and there was not much we could do about it. There was also a false sense of comfort in this doom, as we saw people around us get back to their lost hobby or become a more productive version of themselves, we too found some lost part of ourselves!
My mother and her college group of friends started cooking exotic dishes and exchanged images; my academic friends arranged online lectures and invited each other; all of these may seem very constructive when we look at it, but this enforced productivity is to maintain a sense of belonging in the community. So to be on digital fasting, uninstalling one or more of these apps to take a break would not only make one feel isolated but also inconvenience others. Social media is no more an app for our leisure, with different features like chat rooms and private groups; there is a continuous effort being made to add more professional features. So while on the one hand, we have Microsoft Teams which is used by different institutions and companies for professional purposes, with various features like reacting to posts a general wall where one could post photos, animations and other media; there is Facebook which is trying to bring in more professional features, not to forget a lot of human resource activities are now being arranged on Instagram and other similar apps by private companies.
Toggling between different apps that helped us work from home and these social media apps it has been a different experience. It has taken a toll on our attention span. This is significant among teenagers who are using phones to attend classes on different platforms. Children today have been using phones from a very tender age, but online learning has given them greater exposure to this cyberspace. The scandal around the Bois Locker Room on Instagram is proof how the cyberspace has gradually become more toxic for teenagers. Teenagers are walking a tightrope while they switch between Google Classroom or similar apps and social media as they are attending a class. As a Teaching Assistant, I have always felt the challenge of competing with an AI (artificial intelligence) to grab my students’ attention even in physical classes, but with online classes, this seems to be an insurmountable problem. Here expert supervision will not work, since, in India, most of these children are the first generation mobile users, so they will definitely outsmart their parents and even their teachers. The threat around TikTok a Chinese app trying to manipulate young minds in different parts of the world is therefore not ill-founded. India, the US and other European countries found the app a potential threat with the possibility of mining data from young and naive users. As more and more apps are scrutinised to find how their users are being analysed to manipulate them, we are under the threat of cyber nationalism; here not only our governments are putting us under surveillance, we are also under the surveillance of other nations. The threat is primarily for naive users who are not otherwise equipped to understand the complex mechanism that goes behind these apps and the propaganda that runs these industries.
The State using the ideological state apparatuses to obtain consent from the people is not a recent phenomenon. Nevertheless, what is noble about this is the kind of false sense of security and neutrality that these platforms offer to manipulate the users into willingly handing over their data.
As Facebook tries to work on its community guidelines, and the Parliamentary Committee probes into the collusion between BJP and Facebook, the users face a social dilemma. BJP has had remarkable social media presence, especially with Modi’s enigmatic election campaigns and other activities. The thaali bajao diya jalao*amidst the Corona had captured the imagination of the Indian middle class; these activities were as much social media campaigns as they were offline activities. The fake news forwarded around these times about how Corona will be eradicated with these campaigns remains amusing. A significant amount of party resource is used in keeping the people engaged with ever-changing narratives. Facebook being an active party in generating these narratives and manipulating its naive users, comes as a late realisation. The industry insiders who are interviewed in The Social Dilemma cite similar examples where social media have acted as catalysts in the hate campaigns against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. If we look deeper into this, we realise that this phenomenon is not different from the news channels that prefer to conduct a media trial of a woman even when the country is going through medical, economic and other crises. While the news channels are driven just by the target rate points or TRPs, in the cyberspace the AIs work towards catering a feed that will initially suit the user, and gradually tailor the user to suit the feed!
There is more to this dilemma. The security threat from China also falls under cyber nationalism. China which itself has the isolationist approach towards internet, has a history of hackers trying to hack systems of enemy nations. So when the government of India banned several Chinese apps, it was more concerning issues of security than about economy. However, experts in the USA have not denied that the boycott of Tiktok and several other apps might have come into effect for the threat posed by the competition it gave to Facebook. The western market wished to curb the growing popularity of TikTok before it expanded into domains beyond videos. With Modi’s call for self-reliance or Atmanirbhar Bharat, there is a definite intention of developing homegrown apps that will gradually replace these foreign threats. However, cybersecurity is still a concern in a country that is not yet efficient in using internet facilities and has poor cyber hygiene. National Security Adviser AjitDoval while delivering a keynote address at c0c0n, the two-day virtual international conference on hacking and cybersecurity arranged jointly by the Kerala Police, the Society for the Policing of Cyber Space and the Information Security and Research Association, has observed that there has been a 500% increase in cybercrime, “Financial frauds have also increased tremendously owing to the increased reliance on digital payment platforms.” He also added that several prominent UPI Ids and web portals were forged; fake apps were launched within hours after the Prime Minister declared the PM Cares fund. The PM Cares fund became a popular public fund where a huge section of the population decided to donate money on the onset of the pandemic. Several cyber criminals used this portal and other online transaction apps to fraud several innocent users. The Arogya Setu app, which was used by Government of India to monitor the health of the user and keep a check on the Covid situation, was also used to extract information from the users or sometimes deceive them.
As the government comes up with indigenous solutions to these foreign threats and promotes start-ups which will cater to the demands of homegrown apps, we should keep in mind the role AIs will play in manipulating the users. If Facebook, Twitter or YouTube could manipulate users around the globe, it will not be challenging to influence a country where the ordinary people are not adequately cyber-literate. The docudrama The Social Dilemma thus comes at a significant juncture in history, when most countries are adopting an isolationist cyber nationalist policy. As elections draw near and fake propaganda fill up inboxes there will only be a handful who will be able to sift through these game. Social media thus will become the Orwellian telescreens which will be encoded in different Newspeaks as will be suitable for the nations. Tristan Harris, who formerly worked as a designer ethicist at Google warns in The Social Dilemma: “We were all looking for the moment when technology would overwhelm human strengths and intelligence. When is it gonna cross the singularity, replace our jobs, be smarter than humans? But there’s this much earlier moment when technology exceeds and overwhelms human weaknesses. This point being crossed is at the root of addiction, polarisation, radicalisation, outrage-ification, vanity-fication, the entire thing. This is overpowering human nature, and this is checkmate on humanity.” It is towards these human weaknesses that the nationalist apps will be targeted. The right time to come up with alternatives for these apps or to collude with the manufacturer of these apps is at moments when the users find these apps irreplaceable because of their addiction and the apparent utility. Populist governments will come in power with the aid of these apps, and they will secure their position and propaganda using these apps too. Thus, we are not only under the surveillance of the telescreen we are being manipulated by the Orwellian thought police.
Coming back to Chai pe Charcha, which is a very democratic setup, does not serve the purpose of the thought police. So there will be tea-sellers and their stalls of stories, but not one that will sell stories in the interest of the people! When the social media was launched, we came nearest to Tagore’s ideal of the ‘Heaven of Freedom’, with its free knowledge and a world without ‘narrow domestic walls’, words came out from the ‘depths of truth’ as the mind was led forward into ever-widening thought and action, but gradually ‘the clear stream of reason lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit’. The pandemic has catalysed the threat of AIs. We have already been warned of the vaccine nationalism; what lies ahead of that is the cyber nationalism.
Pratyusha Pramanik is a Research Scholar and Teaching Assistant in the Department of Humanistic Studies, IIT (BHU) Varanasi. She is working on post-colonial social movements in Bengal, she is also interested in gender studies. She is a cinephile and is an amateur film critic. Few of her works have been published in Feminism in India. Her interest in the role of intellectuals stems from her desire to search for a life purpose.
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