“We see bots and trolls and fake news and we see how these are undermining the credibility of our democratic institutions, our open societies are under attack, our freedoms, our way of life is under attack … We can’t accept this…”
When Defence Minister of Germany Ursula von der Leyen said the above at an all powerful Munich Security Conference a couple of weeks ago, she wasn’t just hinting at Donald Trump’s election. Her reference was more direct and obvious to Russia.
With Germany and France facing elections later this year, a genuine fear that bots originating in and orchestrated by Russia will influence their domestic elections is taking over the mind space of policy makers. Ms der Leyen went to the extent of describing Russia as a threat to Europe’s “way of life”.
France, which faces elections in April and Germany later in September doesn’t want to repeat what many in the US feel was the failure of the previous Obama administration in checking the attack & swaying of sentiments using political bots by Russian agencies.
The French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has gone on record to say interference in French democratic life is unacceptable and cyber-attacks against the pro-European candidate Emmanuel Macron as compared to none against the right wing Marine Le Pen, who is anti-Europe and anti-Immigration shows who Russia prefers.
Should India take note of these comments and start worrying? With several such allegations also emerging in where the threat of domestic by-elections being influenced by political bots is now real, a debate on how Indian elections can be safeguarded against the use of these must be escalated.
The simplest definition of a bot is a computer program that performs automotive repetitive tasks. What one must add is that this kind of activity & its speed is difficult to be replicated by humans. In effect, what it means is that if you want to spread any piece of information widely or even misinformation driven by a specific agenda, it is easy to do so in the online world.
Political bots are when this information is used to spread a particular political agenda, idea or campaign. So in a world which is cruising to the extremes of ‘either/or, left and right, red versus blue, facts or alternative facts’, political bots are playing a major role in how an average voter consumes news and information.
In a world of twitter campaigns and news feeds on social media , where news true or false can travel & consumed at high speed, there are limited ways to check this onslaught of misinformation & agenda driven automated messaging.
There are three reasons why India should be concerned.
First, we are the largest democracy in the world that loves elections. So far, technology use has been positive whereby voters & political parties have used the tech to create voter awareness in terms of the importance of political process, governance and redressing citizen issues.
But, as recent instances show, political bots like to target democracies such as the US and European majors like France and Germany. Influencing voters using propaganda driven by foreign powers means stable democracies are under threat.
Second, majority of urban Indians and increasingly rural Indians consume information online through social networks. This is going to see sharp increase during the election season. The vulnerability of our population, despite India being a developing nation is quite high like the developed nations.
Third, this next generation war through information & use of media is much easier for India’s known-enemies to adopt. Neighbouring Pakistan has already fished in the waters of cyber-attacks but creating a more sophisticated political bot network is not so difficult in the near future. Russia’s interest in using bots against India can’t be ruled out either, especially, since the dynamics of international diplomacy are also changing quite rapidly, according to the experts.
Concern on Russia’s role is ever increasing. There is enough evidence that stable democracies with a thriving independent new media industry is what the Russian led bots like to go after. The political leaders these bot conspirators aim to support or prop up are not a factor of political ideology but how much disruption can they cause to the political discourse.
In the US elections, this was evident in plenty when Russians allegedly pushed anti -Clinton propaganda versus the positive Trump spin before elections but now seem to have gone slow after the fiasco over the NSA select Michael Flynn, who had to step down due to Russia links.
The New Yorker in a March essay described it as the Turbulence Theory which effectively says now that if the US has internal turbulence to deal with & closes upon itself, it frees up Russia’s hands! Bots seems to have served that purpose quite well.
India & Bot Worries
What can India do to counter bots & their influence on elections? With the next general election just two years away in 2019, political parties should recognise that it is fine to use machine tools and technology to run their own campaigns, but, at the same time, a bot attack from overseas is very real. So we need to go beyond the very symbolic appointment of a cyber-security coordinator in the PMO & talk of integrated cyber-command to some real thinking on bots & their potential.
First, we need to wake up to this threat and at every level, security agencies need to sensitise political parties of how not to fall for such agenda driven support from overseas. These, if they exist, need to be exposed right away. It is important to note that bot conspirators are much smarter than those who want to regulate them and will try every means to meet their goals.
Second, political parties across the board should differentiate between genuine campaign messages versus propaganda-led false messaging. This is a tough one since every party resorts to some half-truths which allow the bot technology work to spread its effectiveness. It learns from what users like to read and can use their reading habits for mass propagation of false news. At this stage, this goes beyond the control of political parties.
Third, the newsrooms which track events online need to spruce up their skills & resources to identify true versus false. In a battle of clicks & views amidst resource crunched newsrooms, an important role will be played by journalists in preventing the spread of bot led campaigns that are fake & full of malice. This can be a game-changer if approached the right way & can recreate the credibility that many news organisations now lack.
The harsh reality is that India, much like the West is not equipped either in technology, diplomacy or policy to prevent political bots from influencing our elections. Germany is creating a new cyber-defence HQ in April amid concerns that Russia would try to hack its upcoming elections.
The US intelligence agencies are now taking the threat of “Fancy Bear” or APT28 as a Russian espionage outfit, responsible for hacking into the Democratic National Committee last year, much more seriously and sharing information with other countries.
Clearly, this is no longer fancy tech geek talk, if we are serious about our politics and democracy, Bots must be high on the agenda of politicians.