The “world’s largest democracy” might descend even further into dystopia than it already is if the government exploits the recent spree of WhatsApp mob lynchings to censor social media, weaponize crowd control tactics, and then unleash millions of future militiamen against so-called “anti-national” groups.
Indian “Democracy” Takes Off Its Mask
India has been hit by a spree of highly publicized mob lynchings triggered by viral fake news messages spread across WhatsApp alleging that innocent people are either child abductors or cow killers, the latter of which is especially sensitive in this Hindu-majority country whose hyper-nationalist government is suspected of wanting to silently impose a so-called “Hindu Rashtra”, or fundamentalist Hindu regime, on this constitutionally secular and multi-confessional state. The situation has spiralled so out of control in recent weeks that the “world’s largest democracy” – a sham concept if there ever was one but one which is steadily being exposed by the day – is now planning to monitor social media in order to supposedly thwart future outbreaks of violence that owe their origins to these platforms or immediately respond to them the moment that the warning signs first begin to appear that digital provocations have led to real-life consequences.
The Supreme Court warned last week that this could turn India into a “surveillance state”, a rare rebuke to Prime Minister Modi and one which raises questions about the state’s true intentions if it indeed goes forward with these plans regardless. The chief concern is that the government will abuse its responsibilities and end up labelling criticism against it and its representatives as “fake news” that would ultimately end up censored from social media, prior to which the “perpetrator” might be put on a national security watch list for raising a “red flag” after using certain banned keywords or images. This is an especially worrying scenario because India mandates that all of its citizens enroll in the world’s largest biometric database that’s increasingly linked to all practical facets of their life and therefore theoretically allows the state to keep track of everyone and everything that they do.
Aadhaar, Internet IDs, And Big Data Analytics
This outcome in and of itself is what India regularly criticizes China for openly pursuing, but the “world’s largest democracy” apparently believes that it should be immune from such criticism by virtue of not being a “communist state” like its rival is. All hypocrisy behind this approach aside, it should be mentioned that India now mandates that all of its citizens’ bank accounts be linked to their biometric identification number (“Aadhaar”), something which normally wouldn’t affect many people in this largely impoverished but economically dynamic country had it not been for Prime Minister Modi’s surprise announcement right after the US’ 2016 election that India will radically “demonetize”. Portrayed as a campaign against “black money”, it was really just a scheme to get Indians to open up bank accounts so that they could more easily be employed by transnational (Western) corporations as part of the government’s “Make In India” corporatist development program.
After pressuring people to pool all their financial wealth into Aadhaar-linked accounts, the state is in better position to more easily create a supplementary database linking its citizens to their cell phone numbers after tracking which ones they use their bank cards to pay for. It should be remembered that WhatsApp, the most popular social media platform in India and the main vehicle for spreading viral fake news messages, requires a workable number to use, so this could indirectly allow New Delhi to piece together the network of people knowingly or innocently involved in contributing to the spree of mob lynchings through “digital forensics”. Out of “national security interests”, it might even get to the point where one’s Aadhaar number or an encrypted substitute linked to the aforesaid is needed in order to access the internet, including to connect to public WiFi, as a means of tracing everyone’s digital footprint.
Extrapolating along one of the most logical tangents, this could realistically lead to the scenario that was described earlier whereby a person is placed on national security watch list after using certain banned keywords or images, whether or not these “red flags” are legitimately linked to inciting mob lynchings. In order to identify what criteria that would even be in the first place, the state might want the right to monitor social media so that it can then employ the services of Big Data companies like Cambridge Analytica to learn what keywords and imagery trigger certain responses by various demographic groups. This could in turn be abused by the state-linked troll farms to boost pro-government sentiment and/or provoke intercommunal discord for strategic reasons during election season. Once the Indian “deep state” learns how to weaponize crowd control tactics through these means, Pandora’s Box will be opened.
Big Brother’s Getting Ready To Manipulate Millions Of “Little Brothers”
So as to prevent this “instrument” from “falling into the wrong hands”, the state will move to monopolize its control by censoring social media under whatever basis it believes is the most “publicly plausible”, possibly taking advantage of the mob lynchings to make itself looks like it’s “responsibly responding” to this outbreak of seemingly uncontrollable violence. In parallel with its Big Data-assisted study of social media-facilitated crowd control tactics in what’s expected to soon become the world’s most populous country, India also announced its new plans to train at least 1 million “disciplined” and “nationalist” youth in 12-month training courses that some fear could lead to the creation of millions upon millions of de-facto militiamen (or militia-children) in what’s already an ultra-jingoist society. It’s not too difficult to imagine how the government would put both of these “tools” to use for advancing its agenda.
For example, the identically indoctrinated militiamen could all be provoked by the same combination of words and images once Big Data analyzes the most efficient ones to use for “hacking” the crowd’s psyche, after which custom-tailored messages can be sent to this group through WhatsApp or similar services to incite them into taking predetermined actions against different groups, especially demographics whose aggregate data analyses are interpreted as determining a predisposition towards “anti-national” ideas or behavior. The worst-case manifestation of this in practice would be if the state channeled its Chanakya-derived strategic traditions to wage Hybrid War on its own citizens through mob violence, though comparatively “brighter scenarios” could simply see this wielded to organize peaceful pro-government marches and other conventional activist activities such as door-to-door canvassing common in “democracies” such as India’s. Even so, the potential for abuse is enormous and understandably terrifies observers.
The Indian government needs to urgently take some action or another to deal with the wave of mob lynchings that have swept across the country in the past couple of years, but its forthcoming moves mustn’t be abused by the state to centralize its control over its citizens’ lives. Internet censorship seems to be a fait accompli with time, but the state first needs to learn how to remove people from the internet and what “violations” should trigger this action, thereby necessitating de-facto internet IDs for all of its citizens linked to their Aadhaar numbers and the employment of Big Data analytics in order to determine who’s saying what and the consequences that this has in real time. It would be ideal if this involved total transparency and numerous checks and balances, but that’s probably not going to happen, meaning that the possibility for state exploitation is extremely high.
If India’s envisioned social media monitoring plan – aided by Aadhaar-connected internet IDs and Big Data analytics — is paired with its newly announced proposal to train at least one million “disciplined” and “nationalist” youth every year, then the frightening potential emerges that the country’s ultra-nationalist government might follow in the footsteps of last century’s fascist states if it weaponizes digital Hybrid War “instruments” against its own population for domestic political purposes. This could realistically take the form of inciting mob lynchings against accused “anti-national” communities or encouraging intimidating political processions through the streets that coerce the population into submitting to the state. The irony of it all is that India routinely criticizes China for its authoritarian control of society for security reasons, though Beijing’s model largely succeeds in keeping the peace, whereas New Delhi’s stands to deliberately disturb it for divide-and-rule electoral purposes in this much more diverse state.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.