India plans to step up scrutiny of social media posts, e-mails

India hopes to monitor Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Internet forums and e-mails to identify "fake news".
India hopes to monitor Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Internet forums and e-mails to identify "fake news".PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

Govt tender seeks new firm to identify fake news, 'neutralise' enemy media campaigns

NEW DELHI • The Indian government is looking for a firm to analyse social media posts to help boost nationalism and neutralise any "media blitzkrieg by India's adversaries".

In a lengthy tender posted online, India's Ministry of Information and Broadcasting said it wants a firm to provide analytical software, and a team of at least 20 professionals to "power a real-time New Media Command room".

They will be expected to monitor Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Internet forums and e-mails to analyse sentiment, identify "fake news", disseminate information on behalf of the government, and inject news and social media posts with a "positive slant for India", the tender said.

Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration, India's ministries and Cabinet ministers have been active on social media, tweeting new policies and interacting with citizens. But the tender suggests that the government now wants more powerful social media tools to shape a positive narrative about India, and encourage nationalism among its citizens in the lead up to state and national elections.

"Essentially, the hub will be a mass surveillance tool," said Mr Nikita Sud, an associate professor of international development at Oxford University.

He said: "Nationalism seems to be equated with agreement with the government of the day, or even with the party in power. There are grave implications here for India's democracy, and for the fundamental rights to free speech and expression guaranteed by the Indian Constitution."

NARROW DEFINITION

Essentially, the hub will be a mass surveillance tool. Nationalism seems to be equated with agreement with the government of the day, or even with the party in power.

MR NIKITA SUD, an associate professor of international development at Oxford University.

India is the latest Asian country looking more closely at fake news and social media. In the run-up to the Malaysian polls, the government of former prime minister Najib Razak introduced a fake news law that was used to probe his chief opponent Mahathir Mohamad, who won the election and is reportedly planning to repeal the law.

In Singapore, a parliamentary select committee recently held public hearings over the issue of imposing new restrictions on fake news.

In the tender, India seeks the ability to track trends, topics and Twitter hashtags relevant to government activities. But it also seeks the ability to monitor individual social media accounts, create historical archives of conversations, and help shape a positive narrative about India.

It suggests that the social media tool should use "predictive modelling" and "data mining" to "make predictions about the future or unknown events", including the impact of headlines in publications like the New York Times.

It aims to find out the "global public perception" of such news, how public perception can be moulded in a "positive way", and how "nationalistic feelings can be inculcated in the masses". The tender also seeks to find out how the "media blitzkrieg of India's adversaries can be predicted and neutralised", and how social media and online news can be given a "positive slant for India".

Mr Saksham Khosla, a research analyst at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's India office, said: "This tender contains a worrying emphasis on isolating and countering individual views. Will it collect other personal data?" He added that "without rigorous privacy safeguards and oversight, the potential for misuse and overreach is high" .

The government tender, dated April 25, closed on May 17.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2018, with the headline 'India plans to step up scrutiny of social media posts, e-mails'. Print Edition | Subscribe