Facebook and the UK-based data analytics company Cambridge Analytica (and its related company, SCL) are in the eye of the storm after a sting by Channel 4 reporters and reports in The Guardian, The Observer and The New York Times showed how big data and dirty tricks are par for the course in fighting elections today. The newspapers had reported that Cambridge Analytica illegally harvested data on 50 million Facebook users, and used them in helping Donald Trump win his election. The firm has denied this.
The Channel 4 sting brought out a video which purportedly shows the top management of Cambridge Analytica purportedly telling the undercover reporter about how they can use extortion and honey traps to damage the prospects of those standing in opposition to their clients. Again, Cambridge Analytica has denied this and claimed that the video is heavily edited and shows a distorted view of the meetings. At any rate, an investigation is on by UK authorities and meanwhile Facebook has suspended Cambridge Analytica from its platform pending an investigation, and Facebook itself has not come out smelling of roses on the way it manages data of people using the social network.
Why is the Cambridge Analytica affair important for India?
For a number of reasons. One, using social media and data analytics has already become increasingly important since the last elections. The social media campaign used by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP in - and since the - 2014 general elections have provided a template for other politicians and parties on how they need to get their act together in the future elections. Equally important, there were reports that the Congress may have been talking to Cambridge Analytica about the 2019 elections, and even if it doesn't use them now after the scandal, it would definitely look at how modern elections are fought across the world.
Data analytics has become as important in fighting elections today as all the other traditional methods. Data analysis was used heavily in deciding strategy even in India during the 2014 general elections, the subsequent Bihar assembly elections and even in the UP elections. The use of data and targeting of individual voters is only going to increase as data on voters become increasingly available. If data is the new oil as different businessmen and politicians love to proclaim, a lot of companies ranging from platforms like Google, Amazon and Facebook and data analytics firms and independent consultants are building their businesses around it.
In the past too, data was used in Indian elections (and in elections across the world) though in a much less scientific manner. Putting up candidates in seats based on the case calculations of voters in that particular seat has been popular in elections for long. What is new is that the current firms allow for individual targeting of voters according to the data trails they have left on the internet. A far greater scientific analysis is available now on an individual's preferences and likes and dislikes than ever before.
Google uses it to understand and refine its advertising aimed at you and Amazon uses it to recommend things you need to buy. But it is only in the last few years that firms like Cambridge Analytica have sprung up to help fight elections.
Cambridge Analytica may or may not be used by the BJP or Congress or any of the other parties in the next round of elections. But make no mistake, the strategy of data analytics and individual targeting they use will be used by all politicians in all future elections.