Several years ago, when I first starting using Internet in the early days of Web 2.0, it felt as if someone had opened a window to the wider world. Besides allowing one to connect with friends and family, the internet made it possible to discover new information at the click of button. It was no longer necessary to merely rely on one’s imagination, one could simply find information about various subjects online. In that sense, by democratising information the web really helped expand one’s mind.
The Internet of today is much different. In a world where we explore internet mainly through encrypted apps and platforms owned by a handful of commercially driven companies, we increasingly encounter information optimised to our interests. To some extent, this can be useful, such as while online shopping, as it can help one navigate reams of data and arrive at more relevant material. However, this becomes problematic when such personalised messaging starts interfering with what we know about the world or when it limits our exposure without our awareness in different areas of public life. Recent global events indicate that exposure to partial information can have a polarising effect on society.
In Brazil, rumours about the dangers of Yellow Fever vaccine spread via WhatsApp reportedly impeded government’s efforts to vaccinate people. In the UK, a parliamentary enquiry into fake news has pointed towards the misuse of Big Data analytics and social media platforms for delivering targeted messages to individual voters in the Brexit Referendum. It has been suggested that it would have not been possible to win in favour of leaving the European Union without computational tactics. Experts explain that personalised targeting of messages may not dramatically alter one’s opinions, but it can ‘convert’ or ‘swing’ those who could vote either way. Even slight variations between voting preferences can have a significant impact as can be seen from the Brexit vote where 51.9% voted to leave the UK while 48% voted to remain.
Such findings are highly relevant for India as the country gears up for general elections next year. As a country with a large young electoral base and significant penetration of social media, the (mis)use of closed platforms such as WhatsApp for election campaigning is inevitable. In the run up to elections, be prepared to find memes, videos, text messages created and disseminated with the intention to polarise views, influence perceptions towards specific political parties or leaders. That said, one must be cautious while engaging with and sharing messages with emotional overtones, emphasising a certain narrative and highlighting specific information related to politics and culture masked and shared as words of wisdom.
Despite the many challenges, the internet is still an indispensable part of our lives for seeking information and connecting with others. The danger lies in believing claims as facts and not trying to seek alternative views. In a world increasingly mediated by technology and which thrives on our participation, our only defence is thinking critically, sharing responsibly and keeping an open mind towards people whose views differ from ours.