Facebook will go on a hiring spree to get India’s 2019 elections right

Going online for offline votes.
Going online for offline votes.
Image: AP Photo/Saurabh Das
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As the world’s largest democracy gears up for the election season, Mark Zuckerberg does not want another disaster on his hands.

Facebook has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons ever since the Cambridge Analytica (CA) controversy broke. Not only did CA harvest the data of over 87 million users on the social media site, the British firm reportedly used the information to meddle with the 2016 US elections by helping Russia spread fake news on the platform.

The Facebook CEO said that his firm “will hire thousands of more people” to verify pages and advertisers on its site before ”the 2018 elections in the US as well as elections in Mexico, Brazil, India, Pakistan, and elsewhere in the next year,” according to his prepared remarks released by the US House committee on energy and commerce. Zuckerberg is due to testify before Congress on April 10 and 11.

Mining data in India

Though the US election fiasco has drawn worldwide attention, CA’s track record in India has been far from clean. Up to 562,455 Indian users were “potentially affected” by the Facebook-CA data breach.

Since 2003, the SCL Group, CA’s parent company, has worked on at least eight assignments in India, according to documents obtained by Quartz.

In May 2019, India could see more than 133 million first-time voters at the polls. That’s more people than the population of France and the UK put together.

For decades, India’s political parties have been mining voter data to “read” the electoral map. However, the intimate information collected via social media takes voter targeting to another level. That’s why, during the 2014 Indian elections, social media emerged as a vital campaigning tool.

Social media-savvy voters—and candidates

A number of candidates listed their Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube handles in their poll affidavits. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) set up a “digital war room” of 40-plus professionals, mostly graduates from the elite Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management, to manage its digital presence. Prime minister Narendra Modi, the most popular Indian politician on Twitter, has even interacted with Zuckerberg a few times.

Aiming to woo one of the world’s youngest electorates, candidates will continue to use these platforms to target voters. The number of internet users in India is projected to top 520 million by 2019, with over half of them logging onto Facebook.

This level of penetration also means that millions of people will be vulnerable to CA-like manipulation efforts once again. No wonder Facebook is getting its defences in order.