Recently, even as Indians were grappling with revelations that their government is allegedly surveilling on citizens using spyware like Pegasus, the Centre made a confounding statement in the upper house of Parliament—No deaths due to lack of oxygen were specifically reported by states and Union territories during the second wave of the covid-19 pandemic. While journalists and civil society extensively debunked this claim on social media, such assertions, based on half-truths or blatant lies, are par for the course even in so-called liberal democracies, as former US president Donald Trump’s term proved many times over.
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Political analyst Shivam Shankar Singh and cybersecurity expert Anand Venkatanarayanan paint a chilling portrait of the nexus between nation states, conspiracy theories, and nefarious propaganda campaigns in their new book, The Art Of Conjuring Alternate Realities. Drawing on behavioural psychology, Big Data, corporate complicity, and the rise of alt-right movements, they explain the processes by which societies are manipulated en masse to stoke paranoia against minorities, vote banks are swung, and democratic values weakened by co-opting the judiciary. The authors spoke to Lounge on the book and their sense of present and future crises. Edited excerpts from an email interview:
While you mention Pegasus in passing in the book, what are your reactions to the controversy now that it is out in the open?
We have mentioned that the government used Pegasus in the run-up to the 2019 general election for the surveillance of journalists, activists and politicians. We had also theorised that the list would include journalists who talk to many sources rather than big-name TV anchors perceived to be against the ruling party. As the names of those under surveillance emerged, we were honestly surprised at how accurate this turned out to be.
What struck us the most was the global scale of Pegasus usage and the NSO group’s reach. Tools like Pegasus that are hard to detect but can take over your device, including remotely activating the camera and microphone, had long been the domain of a handful of intelligence agencies. It was a revelation to see the extent to which a private entity had commercialised such a tool. It has led us to the conclusion that a global framework for the regulation of cyberspace is essential, while noting that it would be a long-haul fight. The source of power in the modern world is control over the information environment, and a large part of this is control over cyberspace. So the prevalence of ransomware, spyware and other cyber instruments that warp cyberspace will only grow, especially as the war for dominance between China and the US progresses.
What should worry everyone is that a national security device (espionage) that is supposed to be used on external operators is now being used on the internal population. We have outlined the impact it has on national security—officials are so scared to tell the truth because of narrative suppression devices (used on them) that we have lost the capability to process intelligence. The loss of the capability to analyse and understand reality is the side effect of Pegasus when used indiscriminately against anyone you disagree with. It’s a huge national security threat because it has corrosive long-term implications (like losing touch with reality itself).
Propaganda and spin have always been around, be it in the form of myths or Hitler’s project in Nazi Germany. How have such strategies for consolidating power become so dangerous in the 21st century?
In the 21st century, two major transformations have taken place. First, the speed of information dissemination has increased so much that now most individuals can be continuously bombarded with constructed information that is custom-designed to exploit their individual biases. Second, the cost of propaganda has decreased, and people can be reached more cheaply. This means that creating an alternate reality is no longer the exclusive domain of the state; multiple actors now engage in the practice, leading to simultaneous and conflicting versions of reality.
What makes the population vulnerable to these tools is that most of our educational systems are focused on survival and do not teach critical thinking that can detect alternate reality propagation. This creates a big population that is educated but can be easily swayed by emotional messaging. When you have social media that is instantaneously streaming to a billion people via smartphones, it is triggering just the emotional part. Without critical training, they can be made to behave like bots. All this makes propaganda much more dangerous because it will inevitably lead to larger conflicts within society as different people start to believe in entirely different versions of reality. For most of human history, power was attained using military or economic might, then propaganda was used as a tool for retaining it and building public support. Now creating reality is the means of acquiring power.
How would you compare the performance of Narendra Modi’s India, Xi Jinping’s China, Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the US under Trump when it comes to the art of conjuring alternate realities?
These nations form a spectrum that is quite illustrative. China and Russia occupy one extreme, where the head of state is in control of what the nation’s reality is. In the US, Trump tried to reshape reality but could only do so for his supporters as he did not control the nation’s institutions. Most institutions in the US refused to accept his version.
India under Modi is undergoing a massive transformation when it comes to who shapes reality. Since independence, India has largely been a nation where no single entity had control over reality or national institutions. Now Modi is trying to take control of institutions and bring India closer to China and Russia—where he is the sole arbiter of reality. The book covers the processes being used and highlights the potential dangers because of this, both within and from foreign adversaries. The quest for more domestic control inevitably creates tremendous external vulnerabilities and these are sadly becoming quite evident in India.
You have cited many instances of how the government has sold its narrative to its support base. Why have the opposition parties been unable to counter this with their own versions?
There are multiple reasons, primary amongst these is that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a clear version of the reality it is trying to perpetuate. To counter it, the opposition needs a well-defined version of its own and that hasn’t happened yet. Looking at the 2019 election campaign, it was clear that within the opposition many leaders continued with their own message instead of supporting, say, Rahul Gandhi’s message on the Rafale deal or the income guarantee scheme, NYAY. When the BJP decides on a message, everyone from the prime minister to the local karyakarta hammers it in even if it is devoid of factual backing.
At this point, many parts of the nation’s institutions, including the media and investigative bodies, have been weaponised to ensure the opposition’s version fails. As the Pegasus revelations illustrate, state machinery is actively working against the opposition, and this makes their job extremely difficult. Focused messaging coupled with a great distribution network will always win against diffuse messaging with weak distribution.
Do you think the devastations of the pandemic have weakened people’s faith in alternate realities? Or, as with demonetisation and GST, all will be forgotten, and the ruling dispensation will emerge unscathed?
The pandemic has indeed exposed cracks in the reality that the BJP created around PM Modi’s leadership abilities and greatness. Many people who had wholeheartedly supported the BJP acknowledge the mismanagement and lack of leadership during the second wave, and the ruling dispensation clearly hasn’t gotten away unscathed. Whether this will have an impact electorally remains to be seen, because a large part of the BJP’s conjured reality is also the fact that no one could have done better and that there is no alternative to Modi. Much of the opposition leadership has been successfully rebranded as either incompetent or against the interests of Hindus, which is still a strong emotional message as it touches people’s core identity and is built over time. Unless the opposition dispels these notions, even after acknowledging the failures during covid-19, voters would continue to support PM Modi and BJP, and given the “first past the post” electoral system, it has a good chance of success.
What are the best- and worst-case scenarios that you envision for India if the status quo continues?
The worst-case scenario is incredibly bleak. Political power will be concentrated with the BJP but it will come at the cost of the economy and national security. In its quest for political dominance, the BJP has worked to weaken institutions that could present a challenge to its conjured reality—but these same institutions were also what kept India’s economy, society and security going. The worst-case scenario is an economic collapse and internal strife while India faces external aggression from neighbouring nations.
The best-case scenario isn’t too grand either but it is a long way off from collapse. India’s economic and societal outlook doesn’t look great but we could remain on course and become a middle-income country. The social fabric has been damaged, but in the best case, this damage will not spiral out into outright conflict.
The book is out on 2 August.