Stalk, troll and control: Indian government wants to track your online activities more effectively

Stalk, troll and control: Indian government wants to track your online activities more effectively

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP government at the centre has been quite social media savvy. Ministers and members of Parliament routinely tweet about government policies and programmes, a large base of supporters has been culled and are engaged with on a regular basis, important announcements are made and photo opportunities are given full promotional blast.

However, like most governments, the Indian government understands that social media is more than just optics. There is a darker side to its online strategy. Active and outspoken dissenters are identified and hounded by BJP’s army of online ‘supporters’. News and soundbites that are anti their rival outfits, the factual basis of which is highly questionable, are thrown around with abandon.

So, now what?

The government wants to build a team, made up of roughly 20 social media analytics professionals, to monitor the online activities of Indians. As per a tender that was released last month by Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Limited (BECIL), a public sector enterprise acting under the auspice of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the government is looking to establish a “New Media Command Room” and build a technology platform to expand its social media operations.

While the tender has largely flown under the radar since it was released, it was the subject of a think piece put out by Bloomberg on Tuesday.

Here are some of the key requirements of the platform and activities as specified in the tender’s ‘scope of work’ section:-

  • It should trawl a variety of websites like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram and even email accounts to collect data on individuals and gauge public sentiment.
  • The platform, which is expected to be deployed on a large scale across a range of devices, should help the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting assess the impact of social media campaigns and identify ways to “make a particular topic trend”.
  • Social media conversations should be categorised as “positive”, “negative” or “neutral” while social media accounts should be segregated on the basis of how urgently they “require action”.
  • The social media team, which is expected to work 24x7 in two shifts, will be responsible for publishing content in a number of regional languages on all platforms of the government and its ministries.
  • The platform should be able to “predict” future news headlines and the public’s reaction to them.
And while some of this might sound relatively harmless, here’s the real kicker.

The goal of the New Media Command Room should also be able to mould the public’s perception and spread “nationalistic feelings”. It will also be tasked with improving India’s perception abroad, spinning stories in a positive light and countering the “media blitzkrieg of India’s adversaries”.

The bids for the tender closed on 17 May, so as I write this, the proposals are in all likely being assessed. The social media tool, once launched, will be identifying articles like this one and will be focusing on countering individual opinions. The possibility of privacy infringement and the curtailment of free speech rights is extremely high.

The government will be paying stricter attention to what we do and it behooves us to do the same.