Can democracy survive the Big Tech onslaught?
Big Tech, in a way unimaginable even a couple of decades ago, today has a stranglehold on information dissemination & has become ubiquitous
If Indian democracy today could invent a time machine, it would go back to its founding fathers, wise members of the Constituent Assembly, to make them aware of the imminent dangers of social media accessed nearly universally, being controlled by a few mega corporations, whose algorithms would tirelessly parse, analyse, censor, amplify or kill any message by public figure, party, institution or votary or advocate of any idea.
Big Tech, in a way unimaginable even a couple of decades ago, today has a stranglehold on information dissemination and has truly become ubiquitous. Since democratic politics, especially elections, are about public opinion, shaped by a play of narratives and counter-narratives, then it singularly comes down to information and news, and false news, to shape what people learn, see, know, discuss, think, feel, and decide. It is this near monopoly of Big Tech that is problematic for democracies.
Recently, leader of the Congress party Rahul Gandhi wrote a strong letter to the CEO of Twitter, Parag Agarwal, expressing grave concern, exhorting him to not become “a pawn in the destruction of the idea of India”.
Beyond his specific case, or the issue of whether there has been foul play by Twitter or whether there is truth in Mr Gandhi’s allegation, when he said, “…learnt reliably, albeit discreetly, informed by people at Twitter India that they are under immense pressure by the (Modi) government to silence my voice...”, there is a genuine shift of power from citizens to corporations.
Just as all citizens are equal in a democracy, all social media posts and accounts are equal in the tech world. The equation changes, exactly like in a pragmatic imperfect democracy, when some people, born more equal, begin to assert unfairly, chipping away at the legitimate rights of everybody below them in station and agency.
Today, if we consider any social media account, your followership does not equate automatically to the number of views. So if you have say 1,000 followers on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, and by following you, they have chosen to be shown your every post, a complex algorithm actually decides what you see.
Laughingly putting aside the platitude of an assertion by Giant Corporations, like Twitter in Mr Gandhi’s case, that “…they have zero tolerance for manipulation”, no company explains or transparently shares the rationale behind the fuzzy weightage given to variables that eventually decide whether or not to show you a post, news link, a picture, a video, et al. Nor do common people have any say in deciding on these factors.
The big irony here is that dictatorships and Big Tech find it easy to come to an agreement on how to operate in tandem. Democracy — weakening with every second and every retweet at its very foundation of the wisdom of We, The People — is left to fend for itself.
Human history, if we won’t find an answer quickly, will be a cycle — what began with the American Freedom Movement, French Revolution, Indian Freedom Movement — will soon die on the altar of the Californian Tech Revolution.
And it would not matter that we told you beforehand because whether you read this or not, is decided not by you or us but by a code of 0s and 1s.