Har Mobile Pe Modi: PM's WhatsApp Message Raises Questions of Digital Influence

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Har Mobile Pe Modi: PM’s WhatsApp Message Raises Questions of Digital Influence

| Updated: March 19, 2024 14:30

This issue goes beyond WhatsApp and privacy, with the usage of state funds for electioneering.

Narendra Modi is everywhere this election season; he is campaigning offline, online and would reach the quantum realm in a jiffy if it helps the National Democratic Alliance win those 400-plus MP seats for the upcoming parliament elections. The WhatsApp messages from the prime minister sending us a letter to reply to him with feedback for the future is a great campaign strategy. Except it is being carried out with state resources for electioneering.

The WhatsApp messages that everyone received from “Viksit Bharat Sampark” seeking feedback of 10 years of Modi government were marked ‘public and government service’ with the registered office address of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, Government of India. This campaign could ideally have emerged from MyGov – a citizen platform that was designed to bring participatory governance inside government. MyGov is part of Digital India Corporation, a Section 8 company under the Ministry of Electronics and IT, Government of India.

These campaign messages have been sent to probably every Indian who has a WhatsApp account. But these WhatsApp messages are not the first of this kind of messaging campaigns being carried out using government resources at MyGov. The recent campaign of “Mera Pehla Vote –  Desh Ke Liye” was also being spearheaded by MyGov – a campaign announced by the prime minister and taking over the duties of the Election Commission for the promotion of BJP’s election campaigns.

Beyond citizens and voters based in India, these messages seem to have gone abroad, ideally sent to seek feedback from Indian citizens who are not in India. Interestingly these messages have been forwarded to foreigners who are not voters in India, several of whom have been sharing their experiences of the same.

The residents of UAE who received these messages have expressed shock at their information being used by a foreign government. The questions of privacy in India are being raised by foreign nationals who are clearly shocked receiving these messages. This action is largely not seen as a violation, with no one ready to question either the Election Commission of India or the government of its practices. People are just wondering which databases are being used to harvest their personal data.

For the BJP, information of voters comes from multiple sources; it is an entire ecosystem consisting of the government machinery, data brokers and party workers on the ground. This information often interchanges hands, with party data going to the government and government data going to brokers. What we are witnessing now is the usage of hybrid machinery for political campaigning with multiple sources of information.

Ideally, under the new Digital Personal Data Protection Act 2023, a Data Protection Board should have made rules to prepare for privacy-related violations ahead of the elections. Except the Data Protection Board would report to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, which is the body violating these provisions to send WhatsApp messages to everyone. There is a merger of the BJP and state machinery with no separation of party functions and state actions.

The role of mobile phones has been of strategic importance to Modi’s Digital India Mission. His policy of Jandhan Aadhaar Mobile (JAM) with Direct Benefit Transfer of welfare amount, with his promotion as the leader bringing them the money, is seen as a success. The KYC push for both economic and security reasons has been strategically co-opted by political parties to promote their propaganda.

The Indian National Congress, which has noticed these WhatsApp messages, has written to Meta, with no information of them approaching the Election Commission of India. The Office of Election Commission of India has refused to issue any comment about the WhatsApp messages from the prime minister. The Election Commission of India has been strategically avoiding questioning the role of data in elections, and has been silent on it since Cambridge Analytica.

WhatsApp and Facebook have been at the heart of election-related issues in India, including the spread of hate speech and fake news. The BJP has figured out how to use the power of IT regulation to force these organisations to bend to their demands. The role of these digital platforms is reshaping our democracy is deeper than has been documented. WhatsApp with its policies on spam, misinformation and fake news continues to allow the BJP IT Cell’s propaganda and is the favourite for every political party.

This issue goes beyond WhatsApp and privacy, with the usage of state funds for electioneering. At the heart of this election year is the role of influencers who can influence people through social media. The Government of India and Bharatiya Janata Party has been trying to become closer to many influencers. The National Creator Awards, also in partnership with MyGov, has been a programme to gain favour of these influencers to make them promote election related content.

The lack of regulation of micro-targeting and social media influence by the Election Commission of India is a serious concern with no tangible solution in sight. The only body which is required to address these problems is in a slumber with no interest to address these emerging challenges. Opposition parties are also dis-interested in demanding regulation, with them attempting to copy the practices of BJP and failing badly at it.

The Election Commission of India by ignoring to act on these issues is sending a message: it is okay for the political parties to do anything they want. The commission is effectively abdicating its responsibility of hosting free and fair elections. The upcoming elections won’t be free or even fair, with unequal influence of social media and Indians at large using digital tools and state resources.

This article was originally published on The Wire on March 19, 2024.

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