Govt on prowl can be ominous 

Beware, the big brother will be watching whatever you may be saying and doing over the social media. After an obtrusive move by the abrasive Smriti Irani to rein in journos in the name of fake news misfired, taking away the I&B job from her, the govt is set to institute a new mechanism, with its tentacles reaching out to every district in the country, to monitor social media content and develop strategies to counter what the govt might find offending.

The operation of the media hub will be similar to a setup already existing in the broadcasting ministry to collect data relating to regional and local media events, monitor local editions of newspapers, cable channels, FM stations etc. The need for the new mechanism stems from the realisation that, unlike social media, these channels exercise a certain restraint as they are responsible for whatever they are putting out, but social media handles are a law unto themselves.

The need to monitor social media is unquestionable. But there is always the danger of the facility being abused. There are also major privacy issues involved. We haven’t yet overcome the shock of how Cambridge Analytica’s services were employed to engineer public perception ahead of elections in India and outside. And when the agency belongs to the government, the chances of abuse are many times more.

It is understood that the analysis of the social media content would be done through tools for big data mining, which naturally intrudes into personal information. That is a patently ominous part of the whole set up, especially when the definition of negativity depends on the administrators of the system. There is a danger of it being used to supress dissent, which must be resisted.

The urgency for instituting such a mechanism is being linked to the approaching general elections in 2019, where the stakes are high for all the players, particularly the government. The available analytical tool would trawl social media platforms so as to mine data, identify top social media influencers, measure the efficacy of the government’s hashtag campaigns, counter negative publicity, and monitor social media sentiments.

It will also have the capability to carry out predictive analysis and see how public perception can be moulded and a positive slant given to social media discussions. This will put the Opposition at a great disadvantage unless all the players are given access to such tools, which is unlikely. In a system such as ours, a level playing field for the government and Opposition parties in an election is an impossible proposition.

Particularly in pre-election national campaigns, the line that differentiates the government and the ruling party is hardly discernible. This opens up the possibility of companies such as Analytica being brought in through the backdoor.