The news media has been carrying out 24X7 coverage of the alleged use by Cambridge Analytica, a British company, of personal data of millions of Facebook users to influence elections in favour of political parties which buy their services.
According to news reports, Cambridge Analytica carried out a personality test of users of Facebook and correlated it with their “Likes” on Facebook. From this, the Company worked out how to target different sets of people with different propaganda material based on their “Likes”. The propaganda material could be designed to make a set of people vote for a particular political party. It could on the other hand be designed to make a set of people who were likely voters of a particular political party, to desist from voting for that party on voting day.
Cambridge Analytica aggressively marketed its services internationally. It was used by the Trump Campaign in the US and the Brexit campaign in Britain, amongst others. As part of its marketing, it boasted of influencing election results in diverse ways in a number of countries. In India, the BJP and Congress party are accusing each other of using its services. Now that the company and its activities are being questioned in the US and UK, there is a scramble amongst the ruling class parties in India to disassociate themselves from the company.
A big issue is being made about influencing of elections in India by private companies, including foreign ones. The danger of China or Pakistan influencing Indian elections is being raised. This propaganda is silent about the fact that the biggest imperialist powers such as US and Britain have always tried to influence Indian elections. It also hides the fact that the biggest capitalist monopolies always try to manipulate voters’ minds and influence the electoral process in order to achieve the outcome that will best advance their interests at that time.
The biggest capitalist monopolies regularly finance parties such as BJP and Congress. The election campaigns of these parties run into thousands of crores of rupees. They are run like corporate advertising campaigns. Amongst other methods, these parties hire various campaign agencies, both Indian and foreign, including Indian branches of foreign companies like Cambridge Analytica for different aspects of their campaign.
Internationally, there is a big and growing multi-billion dollar business for marketing of political parties in elections. Cambridge Analytica is just one such company. There is cut-throat competition between these companies for clients in different countries. At the same time, companies like Facebook and Google have made billions of dollars from business models based on compiling user data and selling it to companies to enable highly targeted advertisements.
There is a lot of discussion about how the right to privacy is being violated by Facebook and other social media companies. The fact is that the owners of Facebook, Google, and other such companies have become some of the richest people on earth, precisely by selling the information regarding their users to various companies for targeted marketing. Anyone who has used these applications for searching for a product or buying it knows how they become the victims of targeted bombardment by companies marketing the same or similar products.
Now Facebook’s owners are pretending that they were not aware of how their data was “misused”, apologizing for it and committing to take more serious steps to secure their user related data. This is an attempt to cover up the fact that their very purpose is for well-planned targeting of specific users – whether for the benefit of big corporations through advertisements or for political parties to swing votes. They do this in the interest of the capitalist class, to further consolidate the rule of the biggest monopolies against the interest of the working class.
Political parties have used the TV and print media in the past, and presently, social media has become the significant tool for their purpose. For instance, it is widely known that the BJP used not only the TV and print media, but also the social media aggressively, during the 2014 general elections. The Congress party is also using targeted election campaigning through social media. The fact that companies involved in marketing of political parties for elections are developing methods of using personalized data of users of Facebook, Whatsapp, Google etc., is not something new. They have been using it for a long time and as the social media develops further in reach, it will be used more and more for this purpose.
In their effort to prove their superiority over their rivals, companies such as Cambridge Analytica boast about their achievements and exaggerate their successes. They do not hesitate to pull down their rivals through exposures. In the present case, the activities of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook have come into public view because of the bitter struggle between rival factions of the ruling circles in both the US and Britain, as revealed in the election of Trump as US President, and the vote on BREXIT in Britain.
The entire discussion on the use or misuse of data of individuals for election campaigning and manipulating election outcomes serves to cover up the central issue that the elections and the entire political process of capitalist multi-party democracy offers the citizens no other role beyond casting their votes. People have no mechanism to select the candidates for election. They cannot hold their elected representatives to account or recall them. People have no mechanism to initiate legislation. People have no means to take decisions regarding vital issues concerning society. The agenda for society is set by the ruling class led by about 150 biggest monopolies. Elections are merely a means to temporarily resolve the contradictions within the ruling class by bringing to power that party which can best implement the agenda of the capitalist monopolies and at the same time fool the working masses. For this, all kinds of methods have regularly been used in India -- organising communal massacres, deepening sectarian and caste divisions, inciting chauvinism and hysteria against other countries and peoples, manipulating electoral rolls, rigging EVMs and now targeting individual citizens and communities using data on social media.
At the present, the contradictions amongst the ruling circles in the most advanced capitalist countries such as US and Britain have sharpened to such an extent that their system of rule is getting increasingly discredited. To hide the real problem in this present system of capitalist multi-party democracy, – i.e. the complete marginalization of people – and to try to retain some credibility, the ruling circles in these countries are making some individual companies such as Cambridge Analytica the scapegoat and accusing them of “corrupt practices”, “voter manipulation”, etc., as if these were “aberrations” in an otherwise “democratic” process. According to their propaganda, what are required are some institutional changes such as stricter privacy laws etc.
In India too, the contradictions amongst the ruling circles are sharpening to such an extent that they are unable to resolve them peacefully through elections. Nor are they able to fool the people through elections. People are increasingly becoming aware of their utter powerlessness in the present system. In such a situation, the Indian ruling class is also jumping on to the bandwagon of its counterparts in US and Britain, making out that social media and some companies such as Cambridge Analytica are the problem. The BJP and Congress Party are vying with each other to try to prove which of them used these companies’ services and to what extent. They too are calling for stricter privacy laws. They are completely hiding the fact that howsoever the voting may be manipulated, beyond casting their vote, people have no role whatsoever is setting the agenda for society.
This is yet another exposure of how capitalist democracy works in these “great democracies” - the US, Britain or India. What it reveals is the total monopolisation of economic and political power by a minority within this façade of free elections and all other trappings of their “democracy”. The need of the hour is to raise the consciousness of people as to who is actually ruling, behind this whole façade, and build an active movement for bringing about such changes in the political system and process that will end the marginalization of people.
The deepening contradictions between various sections of the capitalists in the present system points to the opportunities for the working class and toiling masses to advance the struggle for empowerment of the people.