New Delhi: All Facebook, Twitter and email users across India will soon have a new friend or a follower: the government. In a huge step with ramifications, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has invited bids for a tool that will track tweets, posts and content shared from any part of the country. The tool could possibly be one the world’s largest social media monitoring system.
Once live, the system could rival the capabilities of surveillance programmes like China's censorship platform or the American National Security Agency's infamous snooping tool called PRISM.
In a 66-page tender invited proposals from private players to build and operate a 24x7 "social media communication hub" manned by operators (including 20 for a core team in Delhi and one for each of India's 716 districts) that is able to watch over and intervene on social media and email.
The government wants the "analytical tool" to "perform like [a] search engine" and "provide reports on sentiment, reach, details related to trending about topics and hashtags as instructed by Ministry of Information and Broadcasting".
Then comes the content manipulation clause. The government wants suggestions on "how could public perception be moulded in positive manner for the country" and "how could nationalistic feelings be inculcated in the masses".
The tool should also be able to make certain topics trend on social media.
The government's proposal also includes a segment for the media. It wants the tool to identify stories that the government deems as "fake news", predict "headlines and breaking news of various channels and newspapers across the globe" and gauge "what would be the global public perception due to such headlines and breaking news".
The government's move comes in the middle of a fierce global debate about data privacy sparked by the Cambridge Analytica scandal that rocked Facebook this year, revealing how personal information was used to influence political campaigns without the consent of users.
As details of the centre's plans emerged in news reports, leaders from opposition parties called it a violation of consent and said data could be misused for electoral purposes.
"The BJP government's addiction to snooping is reaching dangerous levels. They will misuse this tool to shape the narrative, influence the voters, to adopt unethical and unfair means to grab democracy rather than earn the trust. This government can't be trusted with such a lethal weapon," Congress spokesperson Jaiveer Shergill said....