/ Politics

Disinformation and Public debate

What public issues do you care about today? It can be anything. Like:

  • Do you support Aadhar or it is too insecure to be trusted?
  • What is the real truth behind Rafale scam? Was preferred treatment given to a particular company or not?
  • Should you worry about the Rohingya refugees or they are just too small to worry about?

Do you really have a strong, well-researched viewpoint on any of the above or you have just formed an opinion based on the numerous Whatsapp forwards and Facebook shares you have seen?

To tell you frankly, I am kind of numb. Unless any of these things affect me directly I can't figure out what is true from untrue. There are so many sources of information on every topic, I am not sure who is correct, and who is just taking a particular angle for his own incentives.

Take the case of Aadhar issue before the SC judgement. There were different sources of information. The activists were criticising Aadhar for its security loopholes and citing the different hacks which have come in public light. The government /UIDAI, on the other hand, was pointing to how Aadhar helped in direct benefit transfers to the poor.

I spent a significant amount of time going through the reports of both sides and found that the activists were better researched, while the Govt./UIDAI was just giving evasive statements like "13 feet wall", etc.

But I am sure not many people spent too much time on it. If giving Aadhar helped them get a service easily, they would do it. The underlying assumption is that there are more qualified people who are taking care of the security and privacy aspects of Aadhar.

But, is this assumption well founded?

There was so much information around Aadhar that it was almost impossible for a common person to parse all the arguments and counter-argument. Who was telling the truth and who was not - normal people don't care. They have bigger problems to care about. Most people took one side based on the limited information they had and stuck to it. Irrespective of new facts coming to light. This is the classic tendency to avoid cognitive dissonance. Once you take one side, you want to stick to it.

Has more information led to a more balanced discourse

I would argue, No.

The advent of so many channels of communication has led to a situation where the information is too much to process. You have WhatsApp forwards, Facebook shares, media websites and TV channels with everone sharing their point of view. What do you do? You choose a point of view and follow channels which confirm your point of view. Less cognitive dissonance, less energy to be spent in understanding new facts. Ezee, Pzee. You live in your own echo chamber.

Interestingly availability of more information has not made the public discourse more balanced. It has made it more polarised. You now have facts to support any point of view you may have. It's immaterial if that is analysed in the complete context or not.

Information Overload - Malady of the new age

Disinformation - The new tool of control

According to Wikipedia, disinformation is false information spread deliberately to deceive. Disinformation is a tool in the hands of more powerful.

Today, facts are generated to support a point of view. This is the classic phenomena of fake news. This is only possible because the legitimacy of a certain point of view has come to be dictated by how many people hold that point of view - irrespective of the fact whether it is true or not.

This fact is well understood by governments and political parties. They use disinformation as a tool to shape public opinion. Recently Shivam, a young karyakartaa resigned from BJP. In his account, he elaborates how BJP was using propaganda techniques for political gains.

This is an example of UIDAI using emotional appeal to generate public opinion in favor of Aadhar

This numbness from information overload is dissuading people from engaging in public debates. What we don't realise is that why our apathy to engage in public debate and politics is leading to a bleak future for the nation. I have written more about it here.

What could be a possible solution?

  1. Increase public debate on important policy issues with reasons for decisions being explained. Bodies like TRAI already do a public consultation. Similar initiatives should be done by bodies like Niti Aayog, etc. when drafting policy initiatives.
  2. Third-party audited metrics to understand if a particular scheme gave the benefits that were expected. Case in point, there has been no 3rd party audit of the benefit claims made by Aadhar.
  3. Fix accountability. Who is going to pay the price if some scheme didn't give the expected benefits. Share the results in the public domain.
  4. Organize debates in public with people actually taking the decisions and not by political spokesperson etc. Get into details of arguments and don't just appeal to the emotions of the viewer.
    TV show debates don't work. They are sensationalised to increase viewership and are often censored by the need to tow a particular party line. I like US Senate hearing formats for this. The parties are well researched and knowledgeable and pointed questions are asked. A sample questioning here.

To summarise

  1. Increase in availability of information has made us numb. We are more inclined to chose sides, then stick to it - than critically evaluate all the facts and reach an informed view.
  2. Public discourse has become more partisan (my side vs your side) rather than evaluating facts. It has reduced the overall quality of discourse.
  3. Disinformation is a tool which works in favor of the powerful. Govts/political parties can spend money (e.g. BJP whatsapp groups/social media org) and thus have an undue advantage over volunteer-based activist organizations.
  4. Possible Solution - Increase in organized public participation and demand for scrutiny in public with experts.