A petition filed under Article 32 in public interest by Trinamool Congress MLA Mahua Moitra was admitted by the Supreme Court. Filed against the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and one of its subsidiary PSUs Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Limited (BECIL), the petitioner’s prayer was for a Request for Proposal (tender) to be quashed.
This tender was floated by the Ministry via BECIL to invite bids for the Supply, Installation, Testing and Commissioning (SITC) of software for a Social Media Communication Hub (SMCH). This SMCH’s proposed scope of work and the powers it avails to the State prima facie appear to be incompatible with the fundamental rights in light of recent jurisprudential developments. Further, if actually realised, it displays the bearings of a surveillance state, where the Government in addition to tracking social discourse, will be able to silence it and run a counter narrative with laser precision, which depicts a horrific, dystopic setting.
Social Media Communication Hub’s scope of work
At a mere textual reading, it is evident that the capabilities the tender calls for clearly exceed its stated objective, and can reasonably be construed to be a surveillance mechanism encompassing the entire digital space.
A host of issues pertaining to individual liberties begin to crop up at a perusal of the SMCH’s first component, the Social Media Analytical Tool. The Tool requires to be suited to “collect Digital media chatter from all core Social Media Platforms as well as digital platforms like news, blogs and forums…” to “help facilitate creating a 360-degree view of the people.” Apart from this, it should be able to “listen and respond” to email and provide support for multiple regional languages.
Additionally, the RFP called for Artificial Intelligence (AI) based Natural Language Processing (NLP) capabilities to extract “sentiment” and “context” from the content. All this coupled with the required software’s ability to “categorise social media conversations and other references on the World Wide Web into positive, negative and neutral” is indicative of the software being used beyond its stated and seemingly innocuous objective as a tool for the Government to gauge and improve upon its social media campaigns.
Predictive Analytics and propaganda campaigns
Further, the requirements enlisted under the component of Predictive Analytics, establish it to be facilitative of State run propaganda campaigns. In addition to being able to “disseminate content”, the Ministry requires the software to be able to predict “how could the public perception be moulded in positive manner for the country”, “how could nationalistic feelings be inculcated in the masses”, “how could the media blitzkrieg of India’s adversaries be predicted and replied/neutralized”, and “how could the social media and internet news/discussions be given a positive slant for India.”
These functions are to be performed via data mining and analysis using application of machine learning based AI, in the notable absence of an AI regime or policy. Further, the RFP fails to provide any metrics of objectivity or neutrality against which the content is to be tested.
Additionally, under its Knowledge Management System (KMS) component, the software is required to allow its administrator to “suspend and resume audit trail generation for specific system and user activities”, a provision to manipulate the log details of functions performed via the SMCH, hence perpetuating opacity and non-accountability.
The fact that SMCH’s entire operation of collecting, analysing, and storing of data and meta data such as geographical locations of individuals is being allotted to a private entity in light of no Data Protection Laws as well as the instances of Aadhaar data being leaked, worsens the situation.
These applications eerily replicate the dystopic world view depicted by George Orwell in his seminal book, 1984. The Ministry here seeks to assume the role of the all-seeing Big Brother, keeping a tab on each of its citizens,
and policing the thoughts of the populace. Apart from being inexplicably intrusive and a perfect medium for propaganda, this software seems facilitative of imposing “newspeak” via its information dissemination operation, the linguistic design with a limited vocabulary meant solely to praise the government and put forth views in line with its version of “nationalism”.
This proposed technological structure will allow the government to collect and analyse any content shared by any individual, regardless of it being meant for open public access (via blogs), restricted public access (via social media handles), or completely private access (emails).
This collected data would then be analysed by the tool’s AI based capabilities and as per inherently subjective parameters in line with the Government’s socio-political leanings. This reflects an eerie evolution of the unfortunate othering that has perpetuated across the nation along xenophobic lines at ground level, with the assault against ideological opponents being ramped up to the digital sphere as well.
Availing the utilisation of meta data, this tool further allows the government to get to its critics who operate behind the cloak of anonymity granted by the internet for their own safety, and cut them to size thus eradicating the culture of internet activism.
With the internet being the primary source for factual and opinion-based information for the majority of the populace, this inflicts a chilling effect on any kind of a counter narrative that may emerge. This will lay the groundwork for an information system where it only flows from a Statist source, with all dissenters silenced into fear of State sanction, given the data capabilities this platform avails.
The propaganda aspect further enunciates the need for this policy to be quashed. In light of the legitimate threat the pandemic of fake news poses, this tool provides the Government a tailor made application to create an echo chamber rife with the information it wants to go out, and in a manner that panders to its sensibilities. Further, the imposition of a particular brand of nationalism which necessarily will be in line with the majority political party’s agenda, will further lead to the deterioration of an already weakened secular societal order. It also directly contravenes the democratic order of the State, with clearly impeding free and informed decision making. Another threat posed by the SMCH is the enabled targeting of any dissenters via legitimate means, or illegitimate ones.
Additionally, the profiling enabled by SMCH also raises concerns about it being used in a manner akin to the entire Cambridge Analytica fiasco. Though the latter obtained user data illegitimately via exploiting loopholes in Facebook’s security structure, the implications would be the same, albeit in this case with State sanction and oversight.
Availing the government precise and highly accurate information, the SMCH will allow it to direct personalised propaganda based upon an individual’s biases and opinions in targeted fashion. This, especially in light of the manner in which BJP employs its IT Cell operatives, as well as the orchestrated information broadcast via the social media handles of its spokespersons and other figures of relevance, will obliterate any counter view or information that a person may receive, hence eliminating all criticism.