Digital Threat to Elections in India

2018 Karnataka elections saw BBC issuing a clarification that it had not commissioned any pre-poll survey in Karnataka as a fake survey claiming that the Bharatiya Janata Party would win 135 seats in the forthcoming Karnataka elections did the rounds on WhatsApp—with a BBC link provided for legitimacy. The link merely lead to BBC’s India home page. The instance is one of the latest in a long string of fake news that has plagued the build-up to the elections, and we might see similar incidents in the upcoming elections. 

Politics has always been embroiled in electoral dirty tricks and propaganda. The ease and scale with which technology can compromise our political process are new to the table. A standout example is the role social media, with its dopamine highs, played in Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election. Other instances are the US military’s experiment with “computational propaganda” in Cuba and the Middle East. Development of software for information warfare by the Russians, drug cartels in Mexico suppressing Twitter debates, and building of digital dictatorships by regimes —from China’s Citizen Score initiative to Singapore’s “data-controlled society”.

This is the evolution of espionage 2.0 in which the entire electoral process is at risk. Election machinery can be attacked, data can be stolen, information can be leaked, and systems can be brought to a standstill. India is not immune to these threats. In How BJP Wins: Inside India’s Greatest Election Machine, Prashant Jha has written about the social media wars between Indian political parties. Everyone is aware of the allegations about Cambridge Analytica’s India work. For India, the battlefield will be digital in the upcoming elections, and online citizens the newest constituency. India’s first social media election was in 2014, with an overall digital spend of Rs400-500 crore and 3-4% of the swing vote online in 24 “internet-active” states. In 2018 Karnataka elections campaign, social media was extensively used, with a reach that extends to about 58% of the electorate.

It is not just the electorate but the political parties, as well as the EC, are rendered vulnerable as they are becoming increasingly reliant on digital telecommunication. While previous attempts to rig elections included kidnappings, assassinations and booth capturing, technology makes it cleaner and easier. To top the insider threat, the threats of foreign interference increase manifold. Nothing prevents China or Pakistan from trying to hack Indian elections.


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