Russian hacking into the US presidential election has spurred claims that Donald Trump’s victory was tainted, maybe rigged. Twitter identified 36,746 accounts with Russiangenerated content. Google found 43 hours of election content on 1,100 videos of Russian origin. Facebook estimated that 126 million people were exposed to Russian inserts. Many analysts dismiss this as trivial: it pales compared with the 33 trillion Facebook posts Americans saw between 2015 and 2017.
More troubling (though unproven) are allegations that Russians hacked into electronic voter registers, changing the addresses of voters in Democratic areas. This created an inconsistency with their ID cards, making them ineligible to vote.
Two questions arise. First, what are the limits to which a country can seek to influence regime change in another? Second, what are the main lessons for safeguarding fairness in Indian elections?
It is a crime for US politicians to get foreign help in an election. This explains the media focus on whether Trump’s campaign sought assistance from Russian advertisements and fake news in the social media. Note: it is not illegal for Americans themselves to post motivated advertisements or false facts (though they can be sued for libel, something that rarely happens). It is, however, illegal to hack into voter lists or voting machines, which Russia may have done.
US outrage at Russian interference is in one sense laughably hypocritical. The US has long tried to topple foreign regimes it dislikes and supported those it likes, overtly and covertly. It helped topple Mossadegh in Iran, Lumumba in Congo and Allende in Chile, to name just a few. The USSR did the same, and quashed dissenting communist regimes in Hungary (1956), Prague (1968) and Afghanistan (1979). Many regional powers have played similar regional games.
The whole point of foreign policy is to influence other countries, through not just overt but covert financial and military assistance, through spying, counterfeiting and propaganda. It is well known that Indira Gandhi got election money from the US, and the CPI from the USSR.
What, then, is different about Russian intervention in Trump’s election? One is misuse of the social media, which have displaced newspapers and TV as the main source of information in the US. The second is the sinister possibility that Russia sabotaged the electoral process by hacking into voting machines and voter rolls.
India needs to be alert to the new dangers posed by misuse of technology, by not just foreign powers but local actors. Maybe Pakistan or China will seek to influence future elections. Far more probable is massive ying Russia’s reported tactics with great interest, and will not hesitate to attempt misuse in India too.
What precautions are possible? After allegations of manipulated voting machines, India now has a paper trail to check misuse. The US should adopt this too. Again to check hacking into voter lists, we need both paper and electronic registers. Wherever manipulation is detected, repolling should be ordered. Electronic manipulation should be made a major offence, and software created to quickly track down perpetrators. Much stronger cybersecurity of all sorts is urgently needed.
Social media manipulation will have little impact in India as long as internet use is low, but it is growing fast. India should oblige Facebook, Twitter and Google to reveal the source of election-related advertisements. Transparency will reduce the problem. Yet shell companies and trusts can be created to foil transparency.
Fake news in newspapers and TV channels is al-
players poses new dangers process
could use it to polarise votes in favour of a particular religion or caste. Right now, any Indian candidate whose speeches “promote enmity between classes” faces electoral disqualification. This helps social harmony hugely. But the social media provide means to post hate speech almost anonymously on an unprecedented scale. Exploitation of this loophole by local politicians is a more serious threat than exploitation by any foreign actors.
The Election Commission has identified dozens of cases of paid news to boost this or that candidate, and wants this made illegal. This could be a good step, provided it has safeguards preventing its misuse for political vendetta. However, nothing stops a party from buying existing media and stuffing them with false or slanted news.
Ultimately, manipulation cannot be stopped by legal or technological fixes alone. India also needs to develop a harmonious society that shuns divisive speech, and has social norms penalising manipulators. Alas, it is light years from that goal today.