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Cambridge Analytica row: EC calls meeting to check voter influence threat

Both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica are at the centre of a controversy over allegations of harvesting and use of personal data of 50 million people o try and influence the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit vote in the UK.

india Updated: Mar 23, 2018 07:24 IST
Smriti Kak Ramachandran
Smriti Kak Ramachandran
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Cambridge Analytica,2019 General elections,Election Commission
Posters depicting Cambridge Analytica's CEO Alexander Nix behind bars, with the slogan ‘Our Data Not His. Go Straight To Jail’ are pictured at the entrance of the company's offices in central London on March 20, 2018.(AFP Photo)

The election commission will hold a meeting on Tuesday, March 27, to discuss measures to protect Indian elections from the kind of influencing that’s been shown to be possible with recent revelations that political consultant Cambridge Analytica (CA) harvested Facebook data of millions and used it to subvert poll outcomes.

According to a senior official aware of the development at the Election Commission of India, which conducts elections to the Lok Sabha and state assemblies, the body will discuss steps required to ensure that “forces that subvert the electoral process are neutralised”.

“We have to ensure that polling is not adversely affected by undue influence on the electorate by manipulating social media,” the official added, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The commission, including the chief election commissioner, the two election commissioners and senior officials, meet every week on Tuesday to take up poll-related issues.

“Anything which affects elections is on the commission’s radar. At the next meeting on Tuesday, we will look at the dimensions of the issue (data harvesting) that need to be analysed and on what points action will have to be taken,” the official said.

Both Facebook and CA are at the centre of a controversyover allegations of harvesting and use of personal data of 50 million people on the social media platform to try and influence the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit vote in the UK.

The election commission’s social media cell is also expected to draw up a report on allegations by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that the Congress party’s campaign in the recent Gujarat assembly poll was managed by CA. The Congress has denied the charge, which was repeated by law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on Thursday.

TheBJP and the Congress continue to trade charges on the issue. The BJP claims the Congress has also engaged or is in the process of engaging CA for the 2019 polls, and that it used the firm in the Gujarat assembly elections last year. The Congress has claimed that it was the BJP that used CA in the past, including in the 2010 Bihar polls and that the firm’s Indian partner Ovleno Business Intelligence talked of having achieved “Target 272+” in 2014 in Parliamentary elections that the BJP won (with 282 seats).

The Ovleno Website, which went offline on Thursday, listed the BJP, Janata Dal (United), and the Congress.

On Thursday, law minister Prasad cited three media reports from October and November last year that said CA had been hired by the Congress. He further added that CA itself had been founded in 2013, making it impossible for the BJP to work with it in 2010. However, Ovleno’s parent SCL has claimed on its website that it worked on the 2010 Bihar election.

The poll panel refrained from commenting on the BJP’s accusations, pointing out that it “has taken cognisance of the law minister’s statement and media reports on the issue”.

In August, Chief Election Commisioner OP Rawat told mediapersons that the poll panel was drafting a media policy that would allow it to monitor content that transgresses the code of conduct and also checks the misuse of the medium for surrogate publicity.

“It has come to the EC’s notice that some public relations firms are actively being deployed to shape public opinion online. With increasing use of mobile-internet technology, the influence of social media has also risen and it is high time that social media’s content is monitored,” Rawat had said then.

Ovleno is run by Amrish Tyagi, son of JD (U) leader KC Tyagi, who was on Thursday asked by his party to explain his son’s relationship with CA.

First Published: Mar 22, 2018 23:34 IST