You have to dream before your dreams can come true ― A.P.J. Abdul Kalam
The announcement of the “Aatma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan”, or the policy for a more “self-reliant” India last year by PM Modi has gained further relevance after the recent Social Media ban executed on the American president, Donald Trump. While the “Aatma Nirbhar” policy was announced in response to tackling the new challenges posed by the Covid19 pandemic and China’s transgressions into Ladakh, it now needs to be applied to the social media realm as well. Creating digital self-reliance is the best form of “digital deterrence” to counter a potential digital strike!
The dangers that overshadow our digital future are not merely imaginary or farfetched, given the questionable moves and standards that have been recently displayed by social media companies. For several years, both citizens and governments all around the world have been blown away and lured by the “free services” offered by BigTech. We turned into happy addicts and refused to acknowledge the potential dangers posed by unknown algorithms, lack of privacy, and absence of alternative options. The Trump ban has served as a rude wake-up call and exposed that “online freebies” might be steadily robbing us of our basic freedoms.
We have become overdependent on platforms like Google, Facebook, Twitter etc., to the extent that we cannot even imagine a life without them. “Twiplomacy” has also become an essential part of global diplomacy. Ironically, Donald Trump was the most popular mascot for Twitter diplomacy before he was disabled and deleted by the same platform!
The ability to post and interact on social media is now an important means of daily communication and an undeniable part of modern life. However, we now realize that the right to online free speech is subject to the whims and fancies of a few foreign techies, and their lieutenants. The fact that the American president and thousands of Americans could be swiftly stripped of their online rights overnight, is a clarion call for all countries who value their sovereignty. We cannot afford to forget the lessons from the unfortunate adventures in Iraq or Vietnam, or overlook the threats posed by digital terrorism and cyber warfare. Long threads with apologies and explanations cannot repair the damages, once done.
The basic trust that existed so far between Bigtech and it’s users has evaporated, and the lack of transparent policies, or clear ways to appeal against bans, suspensions, hidden algorithms, cookies, limited organic reach, willful burying of search results, and news stories by search engines, and other alleged manipulations behind the scenes, is extremely worrying. There is neither uniformity nor procedural justice regarding fact checking, suspension, and banning. It seems quite clear that one’s ideology will determine the level of punishment for a crime. It is also apparent that some individuals might never be punished for similar crimes.
Plus, the “Big Data” that tech companies now possess on citizens, and the advances in Artificial Intelligence that allow them to profit from it should give us sleepless nights. The asymmetry in knowledge between the technology firms and their users is mindboggling. We have been willingly coerced into trading our privacy and security without being aware of the costs. The unfair manner in which the Parler app was immediately crushed should also shake us out of our complacency. A Russian spokesperson described the whole crisis very aptly by stating that it was “a nuclear attack in cyberspace”! Even Germany, France, Poland, Uganda, and Australia have raised concerns over the issue of firms becoming more powerful than elected legislators and being above the law.
Given that the digital nuclear bomb has exploded, how should India respond? The answer is loud and apparent – we need new digital laws that are accompanied by a push towards “Aatma Nirbhar” Social Media. If we can excel in space and satellite technology (eg. ISRO) despite our limited resources, and we can now produce our own indigenously designed Tejas fighter jets, we can also successfully design and run our own social media platforms. We have an ample number of exceptionally brilliant engineers and marketing professionals fit for the job. The innovations and new platforms should be properly supported with effective marketing and advertising. Doing this will shield us from being “digitally checkmated” in the future and provide the much needed “digital deterrence” for our security.
If China could design social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo and become independent, even we can easily follow suit. We are lucky to have the same economies of scale required to make these platforms successful. It would be foolish to continue at the mercy of foreign technology firms knowing that even the most powerful man on earth was an easy target for them.
The main competitive advantage that Facebook, Twitter, and Google, etc. have now derives from their cartel–like monopolistic power and the manner in which they devour competition. Professor Sinan Aral, who is the director of MIT’s initiative on the Digital Economy and author of the book “The Hype Machine” suggests that there should be a structural reform of the social economy, by the introduction of interoperability and data portability. He believes that it is the only way to create fair competition and encourage alternatives. Interoperability would allow consumers to seamlessly post and share content between social networks, putting the choice of the platform in the hands of the users. Data Portability would also grant consumers the freedom to move their information from one platform to another and give them complete control over their data.
India should introduce a new digital policy that encourages both data portability and interoperability, while it simultaneously starts building its own indigenous platforms. This is similar to mobile telephony when we enabled “number portability” for users. This allowed consumers to choose and switch between telecom service providers. Encouraging alternative social media platforms is the way forward to protect consumer rights, mitigate the loss of privacy, and diminish the threats to security.
Besides national security, there are several other reasons why we need to innovate superior alternatives. While Facebook, Twitter, and other existing platforms have delivered benefits, they are not perfect and come with some terrible drawbacks. They have been explicitly designed using psychological principles with the aim to extract maximum engagement from users and turn them into addicts. For example, “Fogg’s Behavior Model” is one of the guidelines used to keep consumers glued to the platforms. Most of us are unaware that we are deliberately being nudged into acting and thinking differently by carefully designed apps. The recent short film titled the “Social Dilemma” on Netflix, clearly explained all the dangers posed to individuals from social media in its current avatar. Some of the design features and algorithms of social media platforms might be encouraging the growing polarization and hatred between social groups that we are witnessing around the world. One factor is that the newsfeeds are customized and we’re being boxed into narrow echo chambers, and everyone is not seeing the same content.
The unchecked speed with which fake news travels online is another distressing concern. Tristan Harris, the president and a co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, claims that almost 70% of the news that we are exposed to nowadays might be Fake News, and that it travels much faster than the truth!! In a country like India where riots are a common feature, its essential to introduce strict regulations and encourage better alternatives. At present, the platforms are not liable for any of the content that users post because of the existence of “Section 230”, which is an internet legislation that grants them immunity against liability.
India should now consider adding on its own additional regulations on top of the US digital laws to limit fake news, data theft, and misinformation within our country. It is both amazing and appalling that ordinary individuals now have almost the same communication capabilities and reach as established media outlets.
We need to look no further than the devastating after-effects of the Arab Spring a decade ago, to understand the potential damage that social media can cause. Several Arab countries like Syria and Libya are now in shambles and struggling to get back on their feet after movements spurred on by social media failed. They might have started with noble aims but ended up leading to worse outcomes than status quo. Therefore, we cannot afford not to be self-sufficient in the Social Media realm. Having our own platforms based in India would give us more control over them.
We cannot allow BigTech to guide our thinking, or limit our opinions by arbitrary fact checks, suspensions, shadow banning, and opaque policies. India needs to be governed by Indian laws made by Indians. Interestingly, Europe has been setting a good example by adopting a stricter approach towards tech firms and safeguarding the interests of its citizens. Studying the European approach to digital policy might be a good place to start before we craft our own unique policy.
This is an awesome opportunity for India to become the digital “Vishwaguru” (World Leader). Our brilliant engineers have already contributed immensely to technology innovation and wealth creation in the Silicon Valley, and it’s time to recreate the same magic at home. Some of the biggest drawbacks of the existing platforms are lack of privacy and transparency, and adverse side effects like addiction, insomnia, depression, relationship issues, cyberbullying, polarization etc. India could aim to come up with superior versions that tackle all these negatives, are safer, and offer more positives. We should endeavor to design alternative apps that encourage engagement, networking, and discussion, without adversely manipulating users.
For example, they could have built in features that remind users to take periodical breaks, to exercise, and also allocate higher word limits to promote discussions rather than trolling, or retorts. We also need more reliable and transparent fact checking.
There is a growing demand for constructive apps that bring out the best in human nature rather than the worst, and restore the lost promise. Age old “Indian values” like open-minded inquiry, love of truth, nonviolence, mindfulness, belief in the universality of mankind, intellectual enlightenment, and spirituality, could be the broad guidelines. India is certainly well positioned to be the beacon of hope in the present darkness.
 Aral, S. (2020). The hype machine: How social media disrupts our elections, our economy, and our health—and how we must adapt. New York: Currency.
 Turel, Ofir & He, Qinghua & Xue, Gui & Xiao, Lin & Bechara, Antoine. (2014). Examination of neural systems sub-serving facebook “addiction”. Psychological Reports. 115. 10.2466/18.PR0.115c31z8.
 Fogg, B. J. (2009, April). A behavior model for persuasive design. In Proceedings of the 4th international Conference on Persuasive Technology (pp. 1-7).