Eleven years ago, in 2007, when I joined Facebook at the insistence of my classmates at Columbia University, I was not an instant believer in its power. But within a year, I saw myself following the fierce political debates on the FB pages of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Ron Paul during the US Presidential campaign of 2008. It was quite phenomenal to see how a single platform had mobilized public opinion in favor of President Obama. I was hooked.
I told my family members and friends back home in India that this platform was going to be the biggest database of humans that the world has ever seen. Some of the cynical members of my family joined very reluctantly and eventually became more active users of FB than me.
In Indian political space, India Against Corruption (IAC), the precursor of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was the first to understand and utilize Facebook’s potential. IAC reached out through FB to the NRI community in the US like anything around 2009. I joined their campaign in the US on Facebook and felt quite enthusiastic that Indians cutting across caste, class and religion had come together over the most important issue that effects every common Indian. But the man who really popularized Facebook in India was Narendra Modi in run-up to the 2014 elections. Now Indians with smartphones and Internet access spend most of their spare time on Facebook.
What am I trying to say here? Simply this: The hysteria that Cambridge Analytica manipulated users to vote for Donald Trump or agencies like them can and will manipulate Facebook users to vote for an unlikely winning candidate is totally over the top.
Those who think that people vote in one or the other way only because data based agencies persuade them through lies and propaganda clearly do not understand something very fundamental about humans.
Humans are both prone and resistant to manipulation. The whole ad industry functions on that principle. Regardless of the promotion of fairness creams such as Fair & Lovely by Shahrukh Khan and others, most men still don’t believe in the product’s claim. But the health conscious classes across the world for a very long time did buy the sugar industry’s campaign that all fats are bad. Eventually, the pushback campaign against fats won and now the health conscious classes believe all carbs are bad. Yet, most of the world population eats whatever is available, accessible and cultural to them.
No amount of criticism against Arnab Goswami has dissuaded his fans and haters from watching his theatrical and cacophonous TV news debates. Ekta Kapoor’s kitschy TV soap operas struck a chord with people in and outside India irrespective of contempt it received from art critics. Religious believers are completely resistant to scientific thinking even as their lives are mostly dependent on scientific discoveries and inventions. The lie of god and his avatars and messengers is the biggest lie lapped up by humans and most of us are alright with it.
The bottom-line is this: Humans believe what they want to, read and hear what they want to and do what they want to.
Only in democracies in the West, political parties hire agencies like Cambridge Analytica to know what should be obvious! In India, political parties do electoral arithmetic of caste, communalism and class on their fingertips. In democracies, Lowest Common Denominator matters and his opinion is formed on the basis of his socio-economic and cultural reality. Religious fascism and violence, financial and economic insecurity, unemployment, inflation, lack of basics of life and injustice, threat to value systems, drive bigotry, nativism and racism and not platforms like Facebook. Donald Trump did not win because of Cambridge Analytica or Facebook; he won because he addressed (even if rhetorically) the insecurities of his electorate.
Cambridge Analytica and Facebook are just modern tools of what humans have always done — talk on public squares, chat in the streets, gossip on tea stalls, on dining tables at home and at social gatherings. Facebook is your drawing room in public sphere and Cambridge Analytica is like the neighbor who claims that he/she knows all the conversants in the room and overheard the whole conversation and then went out to bitch about it what is already known to everyone. These tools are only widening and deepening democratization and we all are aghast because we are suddenly exposed to how masses actually think.
Our opinions are formed on the basis of how we understand the world around us.