- Why do we care ?
All of us have heard the accusations of the US elections being unduly influenced to favour one candidate over the other; that the Brexit vote was influenced unduly producing a surprising result. While opinions may vary whether the results of these elections were fixed or just slightly emphasized towards one direction or the other, there can be no doubt that in today’s world expert use of social and other media influences, ultimately decides the course of public, democratic elections.
India, the largest democracy in the world, is going to polls shortly. In a lot of ways, this is a defining moment for both the country and for the world at large. Therefore, it is imperative that we ensure it is solely the expression of peoples’ will that determines the election and not any manipulation by any external agency, benign or malignant.
It would be extremely naïve to think that the approaching Indian Parliamentary elections in 2019 would not be influenced and arrogant to think that we, the voting public, will not be susceptible to such emotional manipulation. A more prudent course would be to try and understand what such influence is and how it is carried out. Perhaps, by staying vigilant, we could counter (or at least minimize) the effects of such manipulation one voter at a time.
In this article, I aim to outline how such insidious manipulation occurs and how
we can guard against being manipulated. Or if we can …
- What is influence ?
First let us define the terms. Again, at the outset let us all agree that all nations indulge in both.
Propaganda is the purveying of news or information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.
The focus is the nation itself.
Influence operations on the other hand, are the co-ordinated manipulation of opinion by using a selection of distorted, false or partisan information with the intent to cause harm to another nation. Influence is effected, nowadays, by manipulation of the social media & news outlets of the targeted nation.
The focus, of course, is the other nation.
Finally, Cyber Warfare is, the attempted disruption of a rival nation’s cyber
assets with the explicit purpose of crippling it.
These are three different axes and not really parts of a continuum as is generally
- What is the state of art in influence ?
Today, major social media platforms like Google or Facebook or Twitter need relatively minor amounts of input from a person to form a profile of the person that is more informed and accurate than their close friends. Double that amount of information, and they could, in reality, know you better than your parents! One study puts that number at 70 ‘likes’ for Facebook to outdo your friends in knowing your proclivities. And 150 ‘likes’ to better your parents.
Google, being privy to your searches, your purchase history, your location history etc, can predict with a high degree of accuracy what your next activity in a given line of inquiry could be. For example, what you are likely to be buying online next.
“So what?” you ask?
The problem is that these kind of platforms are the primary means that people use to obtain information. With that kind of intimate knowledge about a person, these platforms can mould their opinions in a specific direction by emphasising some kinds of information over others or by hiding other kinds of information. Essentially they can create a very customised, interconnected narrative that can skew your world view.
- What is the danger ?
The danger is Orwellian – if you did not have the information (or vocabulary) to think something, you cannot think that. If all your sources tell that ‘red’ is ‘green’ and you have no concept of green, with no means of finding out, is it any wonder that you believe red is indeed green?
The ability of social media platforms to tailor experiences for each user according to a pre-determined narrative is just a tool. If I were to be charitable, I would say that it was created, and is used, by the concerned organizations largely for commercial exploitation of the user.
However, this tool can (and it is) be hijacked by other players to further other agendas. For example, other nefarious actors can use the targeting abilities of these tools to create a reality for you that is very different from ‘objective’ reality. And by the creation of that reality, slant your opinions in a direction that makes you act in a certain fashion, say, vote for a particular party. Since you do not get any counter message to the narrative, you naturally believe the synthesis of the stories you receive.
That this happens has been proved in the US Presidential Elections, the Brexit referendum and in the 2018 US elections. Multiple agencies of various governments have implemented multiple measures to address this influencing of the populace, one individual at a time.
The danger is, if such influence is left unchecked or even undetected, what will be expressed in the largest democratic election in world will not be the will of India’s one billion voters but, instead, the will of a few other nations.
Part 2 of 3: Influence and the Indian Elections
Different Objectives – Dirfferent Approaches
It is normally assumed that all influencing takes the form of purveying “fake news” and as long as one is conscientious about validating sources, one cannot be influenced.
Nothing is further from truth than that idea.
Fake news is not a tool used by sophisticated influencers. It is too easy to counteract by vigilance. In fact, it has been shown that fake news is propagated primarily by people over 60 within their own peer group. As such these are people who are pre-disposed to the point of view espoused by the fake news and are not really contributing to changing the outcome of, say, an election.
What is being aimed at by these agencies is to manipulate you, even if you are vigilant.
In fact, it is a good assumption that everyone (including yours truly) can be, and is, influenced and all the time. Research indicates being aware of being manipulated does not change the result – you still end up being manipulated, just as though you were not aware. (I recommend reading “Predictably Irrational” by Dan Ariely for a few benign examples).
Today agencies that seek to influence public opinion use a variety of tools, and in coordination, to achieve their aims. The primary methods they use are listed below:
- They don’t lie.
The story that they use to influence you is typically factually correct. What is changed is the frame it is presented with.Take the example of ISRO. Let us say that they have a 80% success rate in their launches. That is a fact. However that can be presented as either “ISRO is the most successful space agency of all time” or as “Almost one in four ISRO launches are failures”.
- They morph & amplify
They use various methods (army of people, bots, SEO etc) to amplify their chosen message, typically about a true but partisan story.
In the previous example, the negative message could take this path
- 25% of ISROs launches are failures
- Understanding the repeated failures of ISRO
- 5 reasons why ISRO cannot compete
- ISRO – underfunded or incompetent?
- ISRO – Story of an opportunity squandered
And the positive message could take this path:
- More successful than NASA – India’s ISRO
- ISRO – where success is a habit
- Frugal Engineering – ISRO launches a Moon mission cheaper than a Hollywood movie
- Even NASA prefers to use ISRO to launch their satellites
- Fastest-Cheapest-Best: India’s ISRO
(Please note, I don’t really know the actual failure rate of ISRO. I am only using the name for illustration)
Both sequence of stories are built on the same set of flimsy facts – an 80% launch success rate. By timing the sequence and flooding the channels, it is quite clear that either opinion could be reinforced in a large portion of thepublic.
They subvert credible sources
A stronger approach is to take over (either legally or by means such as hacking) a normally credible source like a news agency and present point of view that furthers their objectives. Fact checking does not help in this case as the credibility of the source is good and the item is propagated widely ensuring that multiple sources provide the same information.
This was the method that was used in precipitating the Qatar crisis. They took over an official twitter account, published an inflammatory (but completely made up) interview and locked the account so that the original owner cannot recant or refute it, at least until it is too late.
The tragedy is, in today’s climate, even a recant will be viewed as a confirmation of the original story!
- They use memes. The defining characteristic of a meme is its stickiness in the mind.
- Psychologists have long been aware of the importance of ‘priming’ – where a pre-existing environmental trigger influences your mood, performance or even vocabulary.
- By using memes, agencies achieve twin goals – plant a concept in an easily retrievable fashion and also prime the user towards a specific orientation.
- By planting memes about how crass the President of a country is, they are able to change the perception of the activities of the country itself as mean spirited or selfish or vulgar.
- They create echo chambers
- By constantly repeating the same message in all your channels and in all your circles (remember, they have this information in excruciating detail), they create a situation where you simply do not hear any information that contradicts the information you have been given. Over time you believe that you have been told as the gospel truth.
- Since they target entire groups with the similar approach, the message becomes self-reinforcing. You keep hearing that somebody is a nincompoop and all your contacts also hear it. Whenever you interact with people they talk about how much of a nincompoop that person is. You never hear anything to the contrary and ultimately believe that the person is a nincompoop.
- It does not matter that the ‘nincompoop’ has 3 PhDs, at that point. As far as you & your cohort are concerned that nincompoop is the personification of nincompoop-ness.
And thereby you are influenced.
Part 3 of 3: Influence and the Indian Elections
How do you avoid being influenced ?
As I have hopefully demonstrated, you cannot help being influenced. Being vigilant is only the first step. There are few other things you can try to ensure that you are not overly influenced.
Here are a few:
- Actively seek contrary view points
The one way you can break out of an echo chamber is to actively seek contrary view points. If you think the current government is doing great, go look for evidence that shows where they are failing or vice versa.
This approach has two major benefits. One, you actually look at a more complete body of evidence and hopefully form a more informed opinion.
Second, by doing this, you skew the algorithms that identify what is ‘relevant’ to you. They now, because they are automated, also start
showing items that are contradictory.
So you are using the power of the medium to break the evil of the same medium. What can be more satisfying than that!
- Confirm a news item with at least 3 sources
Any major happening is sure to be repeated in all channels, irrespective of the slant of the presentation.
While it would be impossible at the first reading to identify the framing of a story, you should be able to glean the facts of the case by reading multiple sources.
It would also help if you developed an understanding of statistics and numbers!
- Do not propogate opinions
This is a difficult one to implement.
Essentially you forward something because if conforms to your opinion of something. So it is difficult to avoid the temptation of forwarding a meme or article that seems to “express it better than I could”. That is precisely why it is pernicious.
If possible, formulate and express your own opinion rather than forwarding a pre-made opinion. By doing this, you give yourself a chance to understand the structure your opinion is built on and hopefully, understand when it is built on flimsy foundations. It also ensures that you are not manipulated by hot buttons like “Hindu”, “Muslim”, “Conversion”, “56 inches” or “Pappu”.
This goes in conjunction with the earlier point.
By writing your own opinion, you automatically delay the propagation of influence. It also gives a chance for disconfirmatory evidence to emerge & be heard.
- Seek Information; Don’t consume.
If you think that something is true, actively seek information on it rather than consume information that is fed to you. And when you are doing it, ensure that you multi-source it and look for discomfirmatory evidence. If you take the easy way out and just believe what is presented to you because “it feels like the truth” you are more susceptible to being influenced.
- Don’t rely on the people you know for truth
There is a major change in how information is found and the veracity of that information is validated.
Earlier, reputable persons and papers presented information and editorialized their opinion. The information was pushed to you at fixed times and was authenticated by the source.
The other aspect is that when your friend in your group tells you something, you have reason to trust them because you know them and their proclivities. Therefore the validity of the information is measurable and you adjust for their leanings.
Now, you pull information by searching for it and you have no control on the sources that present you the information. The onus shifts to you validate the information and separate fact from opinion.
The people who are in your group (say a WhatsApp group or Facebook group) are not necessarily known to you. So you cant use your old yardstick of “someone, who is like me, told this in my group and hence it is likely to be true”. You don’t really know who they are.
So, beware the people agree with you!
Being vigilant is hard work and requires effort. It is doubly hard as by nature, we are programmed to take the easy or lazy path while thinking about something.
Hence the prevalence of heuristics and short cuts.
Since this very mechanisms are being suborned into influencing you, you need to make the extra effort to ensure that you are thinking about something rather than just consumes what has been pre-thought for you.
Otherwise, your vote will represent somebody else’s opinion. And since they took the effort that you are not willing to make, it is almost guaranteed to be not in your interest.