[op-ed snap] Foreign hand returns

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Mains Paper 2: Governance | Important aspects of governance, transparency & accountability

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Not Much

Mains level: Role of Social Media in influencing elections


NEWS

CONTEXT

It is widely accepted that the current general elections would be India’s first polls to be shaped by the social media. As rival parties weaponise new digital tools in a rather charged political moment, the question of preserving the integrity of India’s elections has come right to the top.

Examples of Foreign Interference

  • Foreign manipulation of elections is a major problem around the world.
  • In the last few years there have been charges of external intervention in elections in countries as different as the US, Cambodia, Madagascar and Taiwan.
  • For example, Indonesia, one of the world’s largest democracies. About 190 million people are set to elect the president, national parliament, provincial assemblies and local councils — all at one go — on April 17.
  • Last week, Arief Budiman, the chairman of Indonesia’s general election commission, told the press that hackers from Russia and China were trying to attack the voter data base and that these attacks were taking place not just every day, “but by the hour”.
  • “Voter behaviour can be changed by de-legitimising the election commission,” Budiman pointed out.

Indian Scenario

  • There was a time when the Indian political classes routinely accused the “foreign hand” for many unexpected developments, electoral or otherwise.
  • Most of the time, the “foreign hand” was a code for the US and its Central Intelligence Agency.
  • As the Congress, under Indira Gandhi, drifted close to the Soviet Union after 1969, the non-left opposition parties would often charge the KGB of meddling in the elections in favour of the Congress.
  • interfering in the internal politics of other societies — through overt and covert means — is as old as statecraft.
  • Before the age of mass politics, it was about influencing royal succession, ensuring friendly sovereigns in one’s neighbourhood, suborning key members of a foreign court, including ministers and military leaders.
  • According to one study, America and Russia intervened in at least one in nine elections around the world between 1946 and 2000.
  • As the global war for political influence raged during the Cold War, the CIA was accused of helping the Congress Party to push back against the Communists in Kerala and West Bengal. Russia and China, in turn, have been charged with supporting the Indian communists.
  • The end of the Cold War and the relative harmony among major powers meant there was less pressure on the great powers to intervene in India.

Cyber field as an arena for foreign interference

  • The contestation between great powers has returned, slowly but certainly.
  • As the cyber domain emerged as a new theatre for the political rivalry, charges have flown thick and fast about foreign intervention in the domestic politics of other countries.
  • Donald Trump’s surprising victory in the 2016 presidential elections has been followed by allegations of Russian intervention to manipulate the social media during the campaign.
  • There is no  question that platforms like Facebook were deliberately used to spread disinformation during the elections.
  • The unprecedented speed of online communication, the relative ease of spreading misinformation, the growing sophistication of fake news, the extraterritoriality of the web, the increasing impact of the digital influence operations by individuals, professional cyber consultants, criminal mafias, and above all governments, has helped constitute a new global cyber landscape that few could have imagined a decade ago.

Ways to address the cyber menace

  • The Indian political class has not devoted enough attention to the issues involved. The problem needs to be addressed at least at three levels.
  • One is for parties and political leaders to pay greater attention to cyber security of their campaigns and social media accounts.
  • Hacking and leaking of personal and sensitive information could have an explosive effect on the 2019 elections.
  • Two, the BJP and the Congress need a small, quiet and credible mechanism for mutual communication to contain the damage from hostile attempts to undermine Indian elections. The two parties must find the will to protect the legitimacy of the 2019 elections.
  • Finally, the national security establishment must extend full support to the Election Commission in fending off many likely threats to the integrity of the elections and help raise the awareness of the political class on the new dangers of the digital age.

 

Social Media: Prospect and Challenges
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