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Digital Tools Have Potential To Impact The Quality Of Public Deliberation

These messages, that shape the political opinion of target population, have a significant impact on the electoral outcomes. 

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The 28-year-old Australian who sprayed bullets on innocent people who were praying at mosques in New Zealand on March 15 decided to broadcast his act on Facebook. Pixabay

At the onset of the digital revolution, there was high expectation that digital communication technologies, especially the internet, will prove to be a boon to democracy. It was believed that the internet is a force for good.

Its power of setting up a discussion platform which cannot be influenced by authoritarian powers; potential to impact the quality of public deliberation by providing citizens with direct and unfiltered access to information; and ability to provide leaders with an inexpensive platform to engage with citizens, was supposed to drastically alter political participation, democratic governance and lead to growth of democratic regimes.

The evolution of these communication tools, as expected, did prove to be a democratising force in some cases. For instance, social media platforms enabled powerful demonstrations that played a major role in the downfall of oppressive regimes in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. It also helped by providing the disenfranchised a voice and a way to participate in politics without joining a political party, attending meetings or visiting political offices. For instance, citizens all over the world have the power to bring their issues to light by organising online campaigns for policy change.

However, during the last decade, the negative aspects of the digital tools have become apparent. There hardly goes a day without the allegations that digital tools are undermining democracy. Research by scholars shows that digital techniques are being used to promote particular candidates or political parties; to enflame social tensions; and to spread fake news.

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The evolution of these communication tools, as expected, did prove to be a democratising force in some cases. For instance, social media platforms enabled powerful demonstrations that played a major role in the downfall of oppressive regimes in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. Pixabay

There are three ways in which influencers use digital tools to impact political participation as well as outcomes of democratic decision-making process.

First, spreading fake news by conducting active disinformation campaigns. The problem has evolved as greater access to information has not been accompanied by digital literacy programmes to educate citizens how to discern genuine from fake news. The primary digital techniques used to publicise misinformation are “bots” and “sock – puppets.”

Bots are algorithmically driven computer programmes designed to do specific tasks online. They are used by political parties or campaign teams of candidates to rebroadcast content i.e. dampen or amplify messages. Sock-puppets are human-operated fake accounts used for the same purpose of spreading misinformation. In addition to amplifying messages, they are used to reply to other social media accounts as the credibility of sock-puppets is higher than bots. The gravity of problem of misinformed citizens, is higher than that of uninformed citizens, as the misinformed citizens are committed to their untrue beliefs. The news world is filled with examples of fake news.

Second, cyber-attacks on databases. The theft and publication of government’s and political party’s private data has become a common form of digital interference during elections. These cyberattacks, based on the motive, can be categorised in two groups. One, the attackers, motivated by public interest, leak material that expose wrongdoings of political parties or candidates. Two, the attackers leak information to advance personal interest, rather than public interest. For instance, they publish data about their political opponents or the political parties they oppose.

The value of hacked data is very high, given it is only available to police or intelligence agencies and hence such leaks have high political consequences. Examples of such attacks include leaking hacked data of seven key members of Democratic National Party in 2016 that caused reputational harm and leaking of email trails and documents belonging to campaign team of Enamuel Macron two days before 2017 French presidential elections. Apart from data breaches, tampering with voting machines, voters lists and databases that are integral to the voting process also threaten election integrity.

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These examples are reflective of the idea that democracy is under digital attack. The digital communication tools, that were once expected to make democracy more resilient, have started to look more like democracy’s nemesis. Pixabay

Third, using big data and micro targeting techniques. In recent years, the world has experienced an exponential growth in data accumulation and processing. This rise in data accumulation, has made micro-targeting easier, compared to the pre-digital era. The influencers use algorithms to identify their target population and disseminate messages to them by using social media. These messages, that shape the political opinion of target population, have a significant impact on the electoral outcomes.

Also Read: Having a Handful of Nuts Everyday Can Boost Memory in Elderly, Says Study
A prime example of the use of big data to influence voters is the Brexit referendum. The ‘Leave” party was assisted by companies that helped them micro-target advertisements and manipulate the behaviour of voters.

These examples are reflective of the idea that democracy is under digital attack. The digital communication tools, that were once expected to make democracy more resilient, have started to look more like democracy’s nemesis. India is no stranger to these issues. Social media has become a hotspot for spread of misinformation and mischief in India as evidenced in infamous episodes of mob lynching across the country. With general elections less than a month away for the world’s largest democracy, it is critical that digital mediums are not misused. (IANS)

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Facebook Down Again? Chill as The World Has Not Ended Yet

Joining the outages, Twitter’s dashboard TweetDeck went down on July 2 in Europe and the US before it was restored later

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FILE - The Facebook logo is seen on a shop window in Malaga, Spain, June 4, 2018. (VOA)

By Radhika Parashar

Imagine this: All of your favourite social media apps such as Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat and Twitter have stopped working for an unspecified time period. Are you anxious, nervous or still a relaxed soul?

This year has seen several incidences where everyday apps faced major outages running into several hours in India. To the respite of users, they had Twitter to fall back upon as it was the only app functioning most of the time.

“Outages make us realise how much do we actually depend on Internet and apps. People even have apps that remind them it is time to drink water. And if these apps stop working, one can imagine the plight. Social media outages make me uncomfortable and restless,” Deepansh Jain, a 21-year-old college student from Mumbai, told IANS.

Managing a global user-base of over 2.38 billion people, Facebook and its family of apps, including photo-messaging app Instagram and WhatsApp, have collectively suffered five major outages in the last four months. Out of all the Facebook’s apps, Instagram experiences downtime the most.

On March 14, Facebook apps recorded their longest ever 12-hour outage. While people speculated possibilities of cyber attacks, the social networking giant denied the speculation and blamed “server reconfiguration” for its app blackout.

Following Facebook, in the last four months, Google services like Gmail, Maps and Calendar also broke down three times for users worldwide.

On June 3, Google apps such as YouTube, Gmail and Nest along with Snapchat and other web services stopped working for users in the US and Europe for four hours. As the company promised to probe the issue, a service disruption caused a three-hour long Google Calendar outage globally.

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Facebook, Messenger and Instagram apps are displayed on an iPhone, March 13, 2019, in New York. VOA

“App outages are scary. Personally, I instantly start fearing worst-case scenarios like if my account has been hacked. I just go blank,” said Sheena Sharma, 25, from Bengaluru.

Not just social networking apps, other Internet-backed services like voice assistants are also vulnerable to outages. On May 16, Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa suffered outage in the US for undisclosed reasons.

Throughout the outage period, when users asked Alexa for assistance, it replied: “Sorry. I’m having trouble. Please try in a little while”.

Also Read- Researchers Develop an Algorithm to Predict Storms, Cyclones

Joining the outages, Twitter’s dashboard TweetDeck went down on July 2 in Europe and the US before it was restored later.

The outage report said there were “issues at TweetDeck”, with nearly 400 complaints just within 20 minutes. Down Detector said there were “problems at Twitter”.

“While all apps have faced outages, Twitter still holds the forte and brings people from across the world to vent out their frustration on its platform. As soon as any of the apps stop working, I immediately check Twitter if it is just me or an actual blackout has happened,” said Aayushi Aglawe, a 23-year-old media intern from Pune. (IANS)