In Retrospect: How I Decided My Vote
My peers are incredibly well informed - but are they correctly informed?
Indian democracy is ill, and flailing. In this digital age of election campaigning, misinformation and disinformation are racing to the finish, whilst accountability and veracity are biting the dust. April 2019 was a month instrumental in deciding the future of Indian politics, identity, and development. And yet, this April I saw the news flooded with reports of statements that were incredibly divisive and polarising; and I was particularly aware of statements stemming from the Bharatiya Janata Party. From Amit Shah’s comments on the NRC and his commitment to “remove all infiltrators”, to Pragya Thakur’s vitriol-filled statements on Godse, I noticed an unprecedented extreme on the acceptability of political expression. The term Political Correctness itself feels ironic now - to imagine that this discourse in politics today is our standard of correctness, feels like an insult to our ideas of civilised society. And yet, to criticise is easier without a pathological investigation; particularly when granted the anonymity of a screen and a keyboard.
I am a part of the internet generation, the millennials. Our identities are layered and complex; each facet of our selves catering to the platform on which we choose to exhibit it. On Twitter, for example, my words are short and sharp. My ideas on India and its politics take the form of accusations within 144 characters. On Instagram, I am artistic and deep - my politics has no place in my portfolio, I am apathetic at best, and anti-social at worst. On Facebook, I am a social justice warrior, reacting to all the news I see, on a feed that caters to my politics. I am legion, a part of the NOTA voter generation, choosing to reject the existing monoliths of political representation, but failing to present a suitable alternative. When asked about my views on Indian politics, my reaction is extreme, immediate, but also transient - lasting in that moment only, with a political memory of just a few weeks at most. This was my second time voting - and that franchise meant more to me than any decision I’ve made before in my adult life. However, once that ballot was cast, I had to ask myself - what informed the decision I had just made? I had just helped choose the future of my nation - my motherland - with the easy touch of a button. But which button mattered? The ballot button? Or the like button on Facebook, that carved out my political identity?
A few weeks ago, the news broke that Facebook was taking down hundreds of pages catering to Indian politics; but not for running fake news. These pages were taken down for “inauthentic behaviour”, or actions “to try and drive traffic to specific political content aimed at influencing voters.” Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab “suggests that the use of covert assets has become an accepted part of campaigning, at least in Indian politics, and that parties which aspire to governance will likely look to inauthentic amplification as a necessary tool in the broader campaigning toolkit”. This is eerily similar to the role Facebook played in the United States 2016 elections, where Russian hackers used memes and troll pages to influence American voters. What is frightening in the Indian scenario, however, is the fact that we aren’t being hacked - we are spreading our own misinformation.
Doctored photos and videos have immense shock value, and do the rounds spreading like wildfire. One example is a video of Priyanka Gandhi allegedly teaching a group of children unbecoming slogans about PM Modi. The clip surfaced on April 30, 2019, and was widely shared and retweeted, most notably by Smriti Irani, with the jarring caption: “Uncouth to the core. Imagine the filthiest of abuses that a Prime Minister has to endure from people whose only claim to fame is a nose.” However, an equal number of responses arose with the full video attached, clearly showing Priyanka Gandhi admonishing the children for the use of derogatory slogans against Modi; and putting the entire incident in context. The timing of this video’s release, coupled with the inflammatory remarks made by people holding very high positions in the government led me to wonder if all voters would be capable of contextualising incidents such as these - and if not, whether this lack of accountability was the new norm. Is it now our state policy to turn a blind eye to this sinister spread of lies, or is there some way to curb the careless gossip mongering that now has a global reach in this digital age? The Election Commission, in 2013, issued social media guidelines and set up various mechanisms for a check on the cyber-sphere. At the state and district levels, there are media certification and monitoring committees in place. But the issue of fake political news on the internet can only be treated like Hydra - you cut one head off, and two more sprout in its place. No matter what stance tech giants like Facebook and Google take, at the end of the day, their platforms are used to spread (mis)-information.
This has become standard practice, and coming to my initial point - I was most aware of how it was wielded in India by the BJP. This is in no way to say that the Congress party is innocent. No, rather, I realised that the platforms through which I access my news - Facebook and Twitter - cater to my own political proclivities. Why did responses to Ms Irani’s tweet about Priyanka Gandhi leave such a deep impression on me? Why did I keep coming across it repeatedly on my Facebook feed? My internet activity has shown a clear slant towards the liberal side - and so, the news I am offered, the articles that are cherry picked for my consumption, all relate to the takedown of the BJP. The articles I received were focussed on building a sense of mistrust of the party that clashed with my ideals.
This April, as I was standing in that polling booth, a million images crossed through my mind - a million memes I had seen, a million half-formed thoughts I realised were the result of late nights surfing the web. As a part of the millennial generation, I am surrounded by peers who have a wealth of opinions on current issues, and minute-by-minute awareness of the updates of any political movement. My peers are incredibly well informed - but are they correctly informed? Who shapes the information that they receive? Do they have the knowledge that a voter needs before making a commitment to a certain representative? Do they, with their half bits of knowledge, deserve the authority to decide the next five years of Indian history? Do any of us? Do I?