A recently published documentary on Netflix, the Great Hack, has been an eye-opener of sorts and reinvigorated discussions of data rights and privacy concerns in media and across online forums. It was truly the Cambridge Analytica scandal that made us realize the gravity of the “data problem”.
It helped jolt us awake to the nightmare that our beloved social media platforms, that we have so generously been feeding with personal information for the last decade or so, have now been weaponized and are already being used against us.
This assault on the tenets of our basic ways of living and on everything that we hold sacred leads to mental chaos. I wouldn’t want to live in a world where every piece of information my kid runs by - true or false - has an underlying vested interest and is targeted at influencing his impressionable mind.
Such an environment where you’d have to be cynical about every awareness campaign or every plea that comes your way is surely disgusting, but that’s what we’d have to make do with.
Only the tools have evolved
But come to think of it, it's only that the tools for spreading propaganda have now become a lot more precise or personalized at targeting the “persuadable”, and it’s just that the people running the show can now get better worth for every penny spent by focusing resources on select individuals.
The propaganda or the practice of influencing gullible populace in order to swing their opinions or to toy with the decision-making process, however, has existed since always.
Before social media, the most effective tools for influencing masses were perhaps advertisements and media. That’s exactly how big corporates have been operating for the last century, making people buy stuff that they don’t really need.
Really, the only way to survive the onslaught is to understand why such persuasion works and to nurture an ability or maturity to intake and consider ideologies and opinions with an open mind, without accepting them.
To be cynical and live with a hardened heart isn’t an option
Unfortunately, we can’t progress an inch without putting faith in some sort of authority. For instance, in school we put faith in our parents that we were going to a bonafide school, we didn’t check degrees of our teacher or the CBSE certification ourselves before we started off.
When we board a train we don’t first check the license of the driver or if he is in an inebriated state. We put instead put faith in the institution of Railways and believe that there are appropriate backstops in place to prevent such laxes.
Even when scandals like ‘Diesel gate’ have proved time and again that these institutions and backstops set in place are very much fallible, what choice do we have?
Even the media can be swayed as I observed in the aftermath of Pulwama attack. The terrorist attack on India played differently in India, in Pakistan, and Globally. In India, anyone with a different opinion was lynched and demands for war from masses coupled with elections in foresight escalated tension.
What was also surprising was how quickly the demands for war receded after Wing Commander Abhinandan returned home. Such a sudden rise and recession in mass opinion shows a very vulnerable state of our nation.
I am not against the sentiment, but there was something inherently wrong with the sudden rise and equally sudden fall in patriotic fervor among people who otherwise really don’t give two hoots about nation or nationalism (at least in what they practice) through the year.
The point is that our youth can be easily swayed and persuaded into a rebellion and the results can be catastrophic.
Choose your authority with diligence
The least we can do is recognize that WhatsApp and social media are not bonafide sources for news, and double-check information we come across on such platforms before believing them.
Not only just the information we gather on Social media, but we must question every axiomatic believe we hold if just to broaden our horizon.
Since we have already talked about Nationalism, lets mull some moreover it to clarify the point we have been discussing. During World War 2 and World War 1, nationalism was used as propaganda to persuade young people to enroll and fight a war they didn’t even understand.
Of course, one might argue that to question such core tenets is a luxury of a bum typing shit on a couch and not of the soldier in the line of duty, putting his life on bargain just so the bum can sleep peacefully at night. And, I’d say the argument has some merit.
Yes, people don’t always really enlist to serve the nation, but when so much is at stake, I’d rather feel blessed for every belief that our jawans have to hold on to with every step they march.
At the same time, wouldn’t it be better if we proceed with a sense of duty to our nation rather than with just a sentiment that I love my awesome nation, just because it's “My” nation - By associativity, because “I” am so awesome? After all, the same principle of ‘i’ can be devastating and cause lasting drift when extended to a narrower context like community and religion within one's country.
In this respect, we can learn from Japanese who managed to rise from the ashes and rebuild their nation in record time, even with minimal resources and after the horrific devastation from the war that literally wiped out two major cities.
Whatever information we assimilate or everything that we have learned so far can be broadly categorized in three categories - the things we gain from sensory perception, what we conclude from inference, and what we simply accept after we put faith in a bonafide authority.
Of these, the third is the simplest way forward and what we rely on the most. Just remember, Your faith shouldn’t come easy or without questioning.