On the morning of November 9 in India, as the world closely followed the US elections results unfold, the venerable New York Times ran a results tracker as soon as counting started. In the early hours, Hillary Rodham Clinton had an over 90% chance of winning, based on exit polls and projections that had been regularly put out through the year. But as counting progressed, Republican candidate Donald Trump dealt one of the biggest upset wins in contemporary American history.
Newsrooms across the US, who had been prepared for a Clinton victory, plunged into a deep introspection on what had gone wrong. All the data analytics and journalism, the reams of opinion pieces and the reporting seemed to have gone horribly wrong. Clearly, this was a time for introspection, and as some argued, newsrooms had been in denial about the possibility of Trump winning.
That said, it is also a fact that the news, in a time of algorithms, data and digitisation, seems to have forgotten the one key ingredient that has successfully shaped newsrooms from the very start. Instinct, an indescribable quantity, is often dismissed as an imponderable, but can shape destinies. Newsrooms, with their experienced editors, seem to have given up instinct in favour of algorithms, in the hope that they will be able to optimise their feeds for greater viewership. Paradoxically, this has also led to a situation where a mass of datasets, instead of sharpening news, is now threatening to mislead it.
This instinct, shaped over years of shoe-leather reporting and editing, seems to be in short supply. With newspapers declining at an alarming rate globally, revenues are also drying up for media organisations. The advent of digital media has caused revenues to shrink further as more players fight for space even as budgets reduce correspondingly.
As a result, reporting, always an expensive affair, has faced the deepest cut backs, in favour of relatively cheaper opinion pieces and data journalism. This, it can be argued, has led to the deterioration of news instincts across newsrooms, resulting in erroneous and often biased perspectives. In an information overloaded, connected and digitised world, this is also posing much bigger problems.
Breaking (and faking) news
The humongous influence that Facebook has in curating and disseminating news has begun to worry publishers and politicians alike. A study revealed that 44% Americans sourced their news feeds from Facebook. With such inordinate influence, came reports that “fake news” – reports that are entirely false or misleading – on Facebook, much of which was purportedly anti-Clinton, had contributed to the major upset in the elections.
Commentators like Craig Silverman, the founding editor of BuzzFeed Canada, did a sharp analysis about how fake news stories were attracting far more readers than the real stories and had been doing so in the run-up to the elections too. While Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg denied that fake news had swayed the results in anyway way, experts found a lot of credence in claims that it had.
However, the US Presidential elections were not the first time when such doubts of online behaviour influencing elections had surfaced. In 2014, as India went to polls, some publications began to ask whether Google had a hand in influencing the voters.
While these reports were largely dismissed, the fear that search results decided by Google’s algorithms had taken root. And as more and more Indians go online and use the internet to make decisions, technology is bound to have an increasing impact on voting behaviour during elections.
Elections in the web era
Given this and the example of the US elections, the laws that govern elections in countries like India will have to step in at some point and take into account the role the internet can play. The Representation of the People Act, 1951, which governs the conduct of elections in India has steal clauses that aim to restrict “undue influence” on voting.
However, the current laws are inadequate to grapple with the advent of big data, which has been unleashed upon societies as more and more people go online. While 44% of Americans were sourcing their news from Facebook, India is far behind in terms of internet penetration as well as access to social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
However, the general elections in 2014 has demonstrated the power of social media as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an early adopter of the medium, led the charge to bring about a historic win for the Bharatiya Janata Party. A dedicated social media team, operating out of its New Delhi headquarters, ensured that the messaging was fast and furious and could overcome the traditional gate-keeping of main stream news organisations.
Today, as mainstream news organisations seek bigger audiences for their content, they rely on Facebook, Twitter and Google for higher web traffic. They too are, in many ways, hostage to algorithms in increasing numbers just as the population will be as it gets online.
The US Presidential election saw another unprecedented phenomenon that is increasingly possible in a connected world. The emergence of another nation-state as a major influencer. Russia, it was alleged, deployed large teams of trolls, bots and online influencers, who played on the political divide in the US. The hacked emails of key staff members from Clinton’s campaign was also attributed to Russian hackers. With the Russian establishment rooting for Trump, the correlation between the cyber hacks and the outcome of the elections is closer than ever before.
In India, as sharp political battles between BJP, Aam Aadmi Party and Congress social media influencers spark off on a regular basis, such a cyber exploitation is not too far off the mark. The current election laws fall short in such a scenario.
The American elections have thus shown us the power of the internet to enable as well as disable conversations. In some ways, Facebook emerged as the most powerful intelligence-gathering tool that the world has ever seen, sucking out user’s data and crunching numbers to analyse and if necessary, influence user behaviour. Unless the law catches up to this new reality, the chances of electoral outcomes being influenced by fake news will remain inordinately high, leading to national security threats that have not been fully imagined as of now.