Psychographic profiling is a technique where people are profiled based on their behavioural pattern. Two people born with similar family background, and brought up in similar environemnt, may still display different personality traits with respect to value, attitude, interest etc. Market researchers have long tried to identify, understand and if possible, quantify number of people with certain traits. Such a profiling may help them to arrive at a strategy to create a market for their products and eventually sell them.
More innovative business groups have expanded scope of psychographic profiling technique to identify people who vote in certain way. In the process societal fault lines are identified along religious, ethnic and caste lines. Dormant fears of people are identified, and potential voters are messaged in a subliminal manner to arouse their base instincts and influence their decision making. One such company is Strategic Consulting Limited (SCL) which later became Cambridge Analytica. Foot print of Cambridge Analytica is found in bitterly fought election campaigns in the US, UK, Kenya, Nigeria to name a few. Almost all the campaigns were fought on bitter divisive agenda where one community was pitted against other. Peoples fear and societal fault lines were explored and exploited.
Evidence has emerged that SCL and Cambridge Analytica had set up base in India. Did Cambridge Analytica influence Indian voters? If yes, for which party and when? Congress party has blamed BJP for engaging the services of Cambridge Analytica before 2014 general election. On the other hand, BJP pointed finger at Congress party. Interestingly, both parties had rejected any engagement with Cambridge Analytica. However, the following evidence emerged :
- An article published around Gujarat election of 2017, suggested that congress party had sought help of Cambridge Analytica to spice up election campaign of Mr. Rahul Gandhi.
- More recently, Christopher Wylie, a whistle-blower employee of Cambridge Analytica, has named congress party as a client of his company. His statement was part of a sworn testimony in the presence of members of British Parliament. Mr Wylie has asserted that he has documentary evidence to support his claim.
- Mr Wyllie has also revealed that, “In 2012, it says SCL India carried out a caste census in Uttar Pradesh on behalf of a national party, but doesn’t specify the name. which said the company has a database of over 600 districts and seven lakh villages…….. Our micro-level information includes household level demographics, specifically focussing on caste data, linked to online mapping applications.”
It must be understood that statement of Christopher Wyllie does not absolve BJP of any association with Cambridge Analytica. More so, when Mr. Wyllie has claimed that JDU, an alliance partner of BJP in Bihar state, had engaged services of SCL. However, at this moment assertions of congress party spokespeople and its president, that congress party had never used services of Cambridge Analytica, stands exposed.
More I read about electioneering strategy employed by Cambridge Analytica in Kenya and Nigeria, I see uncanny resemblance to some recent Indian elections. It is possible Gujarat was a test case to be expanded to all over India? In Kenya and Nigeria, elections were fought on agenda where one community was pitted against other. Compare this to election strategy in Gujarat, where electorate was divided into segments of Patel, OBC, Muslims and others. Misinformation was spread on GST, demonetisation etc. Leaders visited temples and mosques. Church leader exhorted followers not to vote for certain party. There was a spring in the steps of so far reticent and uncomfortable political leader. All this, though no one has admitted, suggest clear imprint of a well designed and defined strategy. Take it forward in upcoming Karnataka election, a similar approach is being employed. Voters are being fragmented along religious lines.
Beyond politics of congress and BJP, broader question is what is wrong if a political party takes external advice to target its voters? Besides, every party tries to induce voter by promising job reservation, protection, cheaper food etc. Such a promise is generic and global. By profiling voter population, one can design custom made promise. Such a promise is harmless, provided, ofcourse, targeting does not arouse inherent basal instincts like fear, hate, jealousy in target population and create division.
A second important issue is how the data being acquired. Does a person know that he / she is being profiled? Even when a visitor to a site gives his / her permission for further processing of data, does he really understand the implication of such a consent? Does the person know if his / her personal information is going out of country, if it is changing hands, if it is being sold for commercial benefit? Data mined by Big Data companies may have the potential of using against an individual and community, whereby a population may be nudged towards buying certain products or to vote in a certain way. In a divisive setting, our caste, community, religious and linguistic identities may assume primacy over our Indian identity.
We know that caste based data was collected in India, may be to reach voters better by selecting right candidate or may be to exploit fault lines. We still do not know if Indian voters were influenced by selective messaging or not. From now on, we should be wary of clicking on App buttons on social media space. We may inadvertently end up surrendering information which has the potential to be used against us. It appears, Indian voter has lost its innocence.