Mrinal Pande: Qs from a net ‘idiot’ on social media warriors

Are we ‘Net idiots’ fully aware of what the software is constantly up to, mulching and selling for mega sums what we think is friendly or formal communications?

Photo Illustration by Chesnot/Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Chesnot/Getty Images

Mrinal Pande

In ancient Greece, an ‘idiot’ meant a common person without access to knowledge and information. By that definition, in the aftermath of the revelations about Facebook selling personal data commercially to corporates and companies helping political players manipulate voter opinions, most of us today are shown up as intensely naïve Net idiots.

We are no longer able to make judgments or choose options that we really identify with. If 354 young Indian Facebook users can manage to access over five million other users’ personal data which was then sold by the company to third and fourth parties like Cambridge Analytica, who then made mega bucks by helping profile voters for various political parties, all political options begin to seem stupid or far-fetched.

We may have believed Europeans to be more vigilant. But now in Germany too, 35 Facebook users have been found to have similarly violated the privacy of over a lakh Facebook users, and leaked the data thus accessed to a company which again sold it further to commercial users.

Even more insidious reports are floating in from Myanmar about the use of Facebook and various social media portals to plant vicious fake stories and campaigns against the ethnic minorities, and how that led to a near total cleansing of Rohingyas from their land. Who in this chain of deceit knew and exactly how much? How did tiny start-ups born often out of family garages or student dorms suddenly become the biggest global threats to democracy, freedom of expression and privacy ?

Few among us Net idiots took notice of the future dangers of software misuse. When offered free access to information and interesting apps in exchange for personal details, we all grabbed it with both hands without pausing to look the gift horse in the mouth... Eventually, old style ideas of privacy were trumped and the fields made ripe for a million hands sowing a mixed crop of news and fake news.

Old timers both in politics and the media have been smugly claiming a longer and deeper association with the world of communication and being more aware than most, of age-old traditional systems of forgery and/or political smear campaigning. But things have changed. In the new complicit global cyber space, the democratic state is no longer what it used to be.

Standing ovations and hugs are no longer limited to visiting heads of state and investors. Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Sundar Pichai were received and embraced publicly by national leaders with great fanfare. Then there were the ‘now-on, now-off’ auctions of airwaves and the banking scams that showed us Net idiots that the state in India is no longer unwilling to deregulate in order to privatise gains, or to regulate once again to nationalise losses.

Suddenly, a benign intervention by social liberal groups or an ideologically committed political party responding to ‘pressures from the stalwarts of the civil society’ looks like another story from a bygone era.

Neither do international boundaries, nor old style concepts of privacy seem to have the same relevance as before. By 2011 the US Federal Trade Commission was receiving complaints alleging Facebook’s early data practices to be deceptive. But few among us Net idiots took notice of the future dangers of software misuse. When offered free access to information and interesting apps in exchange for personal details, we all grabbed it with both hands without pausing to look the gift horse in the mouth. Political parties went into overdrive mounting electoral campaigns and seeding the social media with all kinds of real and fake news and damaging information about rivals. Eventually, old style ideas of privacy were trumped and the fields made ripe for a million hands sowing a mixed crop of news and fake news.

Today suddenly all of us, citizens, media and political parties, are collectively locked in a space where it has become hard to tell news from fake news or claim the old style morally superior space. It is somewhat comical to see political parties, corporations and lobbyists wandering around like many ancient mariners, boring TV and social media audiences about how the new information technologies have played havoc with the human mind and how fake news has trounced the real thing!

Today suddenly all of us, citizens, media and political parties, are collectively locked in a space where it has become hard to tell news from fake news

What of the +18 exam warriors you may ask, the big vote bank for 2019 ? As Noah Smith has pointed out in a recent article, a large number among these are not particularly bothered by morality questions. They have grown up in an extraordinary autistic world where virtual connectivity, Facebook likes and emoticons matter much more than actual familial relationships, political ideologies or democratic debates.

Whether walking the streets, sitting in TV studios or in a bus or metro coach, plugged into their little algorithm driven world, they have the look of an addict on the downside of addictive drugs. Facebook has created a world of young zombies. According to Zuckerberg’s own (New Yorker) profile, his own Facebook page listed some of his interests as minimalism, revolutions and ‘eliminating desire’. This logic has rolled on by 2018, to mean it seems if one hides nothing from one’s Facebook page, why have more privacy than is needed? As part of this minimalist world, democracies are fast shrinking and the social media is redefining for the young, the concept of privacy, language, and human relationships.

In life we all know is that information is not always knowledge, and that reality is infinitely more nuanced. But try saying that to young users hunched over their iPhones and iPads, their faces wearing a far-away look. Can having a million followers or Facebook friends ever be a substitute for the real thing? Are we Net idiots fully aware of what the software is constantly up to, mulching and selling for mega sums what we think is friendly or formal communications?

But after this gyan, even if we were to opt out of the social media scene altogether now, the big question is, is it possible any more to ensure our complete removal from it?

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