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Influencing Electoral Outcomes: The Ugly Face of Facebook

Facebook sits on a stockpile of data which could be used to drive election campaigns towards any preferred outcome.



Free and fair elections are the backbone of a democratic system of governance, and they are often celebrated as the “festival of democracy”.

Election campaigns of political parties and candidates employ a wide variety of strategies and tactics to influence voters. The digital era has added a whole new flavour, be it the eye-catching colossal digital campaigns or instances of foreign governments interfering in the electoral process.

Last year, the Presidential elections in both the US and France were controversial due to hacking incidents and data leaks at the campaigns of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and En Marche, respectively.

In general, cyber means of intervention appear to be becoming an inevitable part of the electoral process. The Cambridge Analytica incident proves that India is no exception to this trend. During the next general elections in 2019, the Election Commission of India has an uphill task to thwart both external interference and the abuse of social media platforms to influence voter behaviour.

While there is a long history of external interference in elections both through covert and overt means, digital platforms add a new dimension. News and online content over digital platforms can spread at lightning speed, without paying heed to the credibility or authenticity of the source.

Moreover, social media platforms generate vast amounts of data related to the socio-economic conditions, purchasing behaviour, interests, hobbies, and political inclinations or orientations of the users. These details are captured and treasured for commercial purposes. Business analytics feed on this data to generate business intelligence and derive monetary benefits for informed decision making.

Present day electoral campaigns are also data driven and they are well-funded to let the campaigners harness data for their own political advantage.

Data analytics tools can harvest data from user profiles and sift through the trove to support research, augment targeted campaigns and help political parties in assessing and evaluating their performance.

These have been quite effective in targeting swing voters and behaviour forecasting.

As the popularity of social media platforms hits new heights, Facebook and Twitter, in particular, have been under the scanner of both intelligence agencies and election watchdogs.

With close to 2.2 billion active users (by the end of 2017), Facebook alone sits on a stockpile of data which could be used to drive election campaigns towards any preferred outcome. Data in itself is worthless, but data science and the corresponding analytical tools turn it into a goldmine for both businesses and political strategists in the digital age.

Cambridge Analytica, the London-based political consultancy firm presently under the scanner, has an eight-year-old association with Indian elections. It undertook an in-depth electorate analysis for the Bihar Assembly Election in 2010 and, as per the case study details on its website, “the client (political party) achieved a landslide victory, with over 90 percent of total seats targeted by Cambridge Analytica being won.”1 This was carried out through Ovleno Business Intelligence, which is an Indian affiliate of Cambridge Analytica’s parent firm Strategic Communications Laboratories.

The firm had hit media headlines for its association with Donald Trump’s election campaign, which it has referred to as “A Full-Scale Data-Driven Digital Campaign”.

Bringing together the expertise of data scientists, researchers, strategists and content writers in three integrated teams (research, data science, and digital marketing), Cambridge Analytica’s campaign helped Trump win the elections.2

The above case studies, mentioned in the Cambridge Analytica website, are prime examples of the vital role data science has begun to play especially in devising techniques to change voter behaviour in the targeted population or audience.

Facebook has played a central role in this entire episode. In a statement, Facebook has accepted that in 2015 a research app for psychologists with the name “thisisyourdigitallife”, developed by a psychology professor at Cambridge University, was used for commercial purposes by Cambridge Analytica and other firms in violation of its platform policies. The app, meant for personality prediction, had around 270,000 downloads. Users revealed content related to their likes, preferences, and their own social circles according to their privacy settings.3

The access to Facebook content, in technical terms, was legitimate and through proper channels but the information was passed on to third parties likes Cambridge Analytica and Eunoia Technologies, which exploited it for commercial gains.

However, Cambridge Analytica has outright denied allegations of using Facebook data as part of the services rendered to the Trump presidential campaign and while working on the Brexit referendum in the UK.4

As of January 2018, with 250 million users, India is the largest user-base for Facebook. It is also an important tool for the government to take forward its flagship programmes to the wider populace. Facebook is one of the top contenders for partnering with the government’s societal development and digital inclusion plans. The Election Commission of India had also partnered with Facebook in 2017, launching a nationwide voter registration campaign.5

Indian users, paying little regard to the privacy terms and condition of social media platforms, uninhibitedly share images, pictures and other content, and are extremely vulnerable to the tools, techniques and campaigns devised for influencing both commercial and political behaviour.

Against this backdrop, the government’s concerns have been raised by Cambridge Analytica’s alleged mining of data from the profiles of 50 million US Facebook users without their consent.6 If such an incident were to occur in India, it would constitute a serious violation of the IT Act.

Not just in India, Cambridge Analytica is also at loggerheads with the Electoral Commission in the UK over its alleged role in the BREXIT vote and in Europe for violating EU privacy laws in collusion with Facebook.

Although Facebook has tendered an assurance of data security on its platform for the upcoming elections in India (2019) and Brazil (October 2018), the incident has caused severe damage to its reputation even as a development partner for governments in the digital inclusion or other societal benefits plans.

As the stakes in elections go up, political parties are unlikely to shy away from leveraging the technical expertise of data analytical firms like Cambridge Analytica fed with expansive data sets harvested from prominent social media platforms.

Data is being extensively harvested and harnessed for commercial purposes, targeted marketing campaigns and to influence consumer choices.

It is ethically and legally controversial when information derived without the consent of the users or through dubious means is leveraged to influence political choices.

Flourishing in the void of effective legal and regulatory regimes, such incidents seriously undermine the trust of people in the democratic process. To an extent, users understanding the perils of sharing unwanted details or content on social media platforms and aware of their privacy settings is pertinent for containing such instances of abuse.

For India, as a functioning democracy, the Cambridge Analytica episode highlights the need to expedite the process of developing a data protection framework and probably amend the IT Act in accordance with the changing realities of cyberspace. The earlier this is realised, the better it would be for the healthy functioning of our democratic systems and processes.


Disclaimer: The facts and opinions expressed in this article are strictly the personal opinions of the author. League of India does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses ( here.

Munish Sharma
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Munish Sharma is Consultant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is an engineering graduate and holds a masters in Geopolitics and International Relations. His areas of interest include Cyber Security, Critical Information Infrastructure Protection, Space Security, Defence Technologies.

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Moving Towards Better Definitions of ‘Urban’ in India



According to the 2011 Census, 31% of the country is ‘urban’. Using definitions of urbanisation that are different from those used by the government, this column demonstrates that this figure may be an underestimate. It is important to recognise and fix the flaws in the current method of defining urban areas as it forms the basis for important policies such as eligibility for government schemes.

According to the 2011 Census, India is 31% urban – a statistic that is much-relied on to shape development strategies and perceptions about the country. The percent of India governed as urban – that is, administered by urban local bodies such as municipal corporations – is even lower.

In recent research, we compare the urbanisation rate of India using the two government definitions – the administrative definition and Census definition – which can be discretionary in nature, with two alternative definitions that make use of objective population threshold criteria (Tandel, Hiranandani and Kapoor 2016).

We argue that alternative definitions are better suited than the administrative definition used by the government to determine policies like eligibility for Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA).

Administrative and Census Definitions:

State governments ultimately determine the administrative status of settlements. The default category of a settlement is rural and it becomes urban only after the state government converts it following a requisite legal process.

Although there are guidelines that propose population and other criteria in order for settlements to be governed as urban, these are not binding on state governments. As a result, the decisions to convert settlements from rural panchayats to urban local bodies can be arbitrary and may vary across states. There may even be pressures or incentives (such as being able to access rural schemes) to not convert settlements to the urban category, even when they are de facto urban in nature.

The Census of India acknowledges the existence of settlements that are de facto urban but are governed as rural by creating a category called “Census towns” to identify such settlements. The criteria for being a Census town are having a population of at least 5,000, density of at least 400 persons per square kilometre, and at least 75% of the male main1 working population engaged in non-agricultural activities.

However, contrary to common perception, even the Census uses discretion in actually identifying these towns (Pradhan 2013). The Census includes these Census towns together with settlements that are urban as per the administrative definition in its definition of urban.

Alternate Definitions Based on Population Criterion:

As a counterpoint to the administrative definition and the census definition of urban, we study how the scenario would change if India used a population criterion of 5,000 or a population criterion of 2,500 for defining urban. These definitions are used by countries such as Ghana, Qatar, Mexico and Venezuela2.

We find that while India is only 26% urban using the administrative definition, it is 31% urban by the census definition, 47% urban by the 5,000 population definition, and 65% urban by the 2,500 population definition. The differences in urbanisation rates using different definitions are even starker at the state level.

For instance, Kerala goes from being 15% urban by the administrative definition to 99% urban by the 5,000 and 2,500 population definitions.

Urbanisation Rates and Socioeconomic Indicators:

It is difficult to find a precise definition that could capture the true nature of all places. However, studies like Buckley et al. (2009) and Khan (2000) have established a link between urbanisation and socioeconomic indicators, and one way to assess the suitability of various urban definitions is to examine the relationship of urbanisation rates using different definitions with these socioeconomic indicators.

In a system that justifies special treatment to rural areas because they are thought to be more deprived or agrarian, an examination of the relationship between the chosen definition and development or agricultural indicators is warranted.

We conduct a state-level comparison of the relationship between urbanisation rates as measured by the administrative, Census, and alternative definitions, and poverty rates, per capita net state domestic product, and share of working population engaged in agriculture and cultivation.

We find that the census definition and 5,000 population definition have a stronger relationship with these characteristics as compared to the administrative definition.

Eligibility for Government Schemes:

Using inaccurate definitions of urban and rural can be costly since, among other reasons, these categories are used as the basis for determining eligibility for various state and central government schemes, and standards of public goods and services delivery. For instance, MNREGA – the world’s largest employment guarantee programme in terms of a number of beneficiaries (Honorati, Gentilini, and Yemtsov 2015) – makes use of the administrative definition to identify rural areas and allocate funds to them.

A faulty or arbitrary way of defining settlements as rural implies that there is arbitrariness in the way in which people across the country are eligible for an employment guarantee. There is also a possibility that MNREGA funds are being allocated to settlements that are actually urban but are classified as rural by the administrative definition.

We compare the use of MNREGA – which has in-built self-selection mechanisms of providing unskilled manual work at close-to-minimum wage so that only the most deprived people demand it – with the four urban definitions, and find a surprising trend.

According to the administrative definition, more urban states3make more use of the scheme, while according to the other three definitions more rural states make more use of the scheme.

Figure 1. The relationship between MNREGA expenditure and urbanisation in Indian states and Union Territories (UTs)

Note: Eligible population is urban population when using the administrative definition.

This observation prompted us to undertake a district-level study of the relationship between urbanisation rates and MNREGA use. We control for other factors that could affect MNREGA use such as state-level effects, district development indicators, and political characteristics. We find that when using the administrative definition, more urban districts make more use of MNREGA, whereas using the 5,000 and 2,500 population definitions, more rural districts make more use of MNREGA.

There may be several explanations for this. For instance, district administrative staff of more administratively urban districts may be more adept at using government resources, or information asymmetries may be less in more urban districts leading residents to demand more of government schemes.

However, we believe that it is more plausible that the relationship indicates that the administrative definition is a poor indicator of the urban character of the district. This is supported by the fact that alternative definitions relate better with development indicators, and that we do not find evidence that more rural districts by the administrative definition as compared to alternative definitions (in other words, districts in which the administrative definition overestimates rural rates to a greater extent) make more use of MNREGA. This suggests that the scheme’s self-selection mechanisms broadly work in this respect.

Recognise and Fix Flaws in Current Urban Definitions:

Taken together, the results present a strong case that alternative definitions of urban are better suited than the administrative definition to reflect the urban character of settlements in India.

A precise and perfect method for defining urban and rural areas may be difficult and costly. Therefore, it may be more prudent to reduce the stakes of such definitions, to make definitions more reflective of ground realities, and to reduce the scope for political exploitation of subjective categorisation.

One way to reduce the stakes of definitions is to use objective criteria such as poverty rates and proportion of agricultural workers to determine eligibility for government schemes and policies and access to social services, wherever possible. Where this is not possible, instead of a standard definition for all scenarios, it may be worthwhile to explore using different definitions to determine eligibility for particular programmes.

Such an approach is used in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, where different concepts of rural are used for different government programmes, depending on their objectives.

However, there is still merit in moving towards a more accurate and general definition of urban since characteristics such as population and population density themselves alter the nature of places and prospects of their residents, justifying the need to treat places differently.

Hence, while we adapt and reduce reliance on urban-rural categorisation, it is also important to recognise and fix the flaws in India’s current method of defining urban areas.


  1. Main workers are defined by the Census as those who “worked for the major part of the reference period (six months or more)”, as opposed to marginal workers.
  2. More countries, like Argentina and Ethiopia, use a 2,000 cutoff rather than 2,500, but we use the more conservative number as the threshold.
  3. More urban states, by the administrative definition, are states with a higher proportion of their population living in settlements that are categorised as urban by the administrative definition.

Disclaimer: The facts and opinions expressed in this article are strictly the personal opinions of the authors. League of India does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

Published with permission from Ideas For India (, an economics and policy portal.

Komal Hiranandani

Komal Hiranandani is Consulting Senior Associate at IDFC Institute and a graduate student at Cornell University's Applied Economics programme. She also holds a B.A. (Hons) in Government from Georgetown University and is awaiting her L.L.B. (General) degree from Mumbai University. Her previous positions include Programme Officer at Asia Society India Centre.

Mudit Kapoor

Mudit Kapoor is an Associate Professor of Economics at Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi Centre. Before this, he was Assistant Professor of Economics and a Research Fellow at the Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad. Prof. Kapoor’s research interests are in Development Economics, Gender and Political Economy.

Vaidehi Tandel

Vaidehi Tandel is Senior Associate at IDFC Institute, Mumbai. She has a PhD in Economics from the University of Mumbai. She has published co-authored papers in peer-reviewed journals and has co-authored a chapter in an edited book on the Indian economy. Her research interests lie in the areas of new institutional economics, urban economics, urban and metropolitan governance, and political economy.

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First Meeting of Think Tank on Framework for National Policy on E-Commerce Tomorrow

It will provide a credible forum for an inclusive and fact-based dialogue leading to recommendations for informed policy making.



NEW DELHI: Minister of Commerce & Industry Suresh Prabhu will chair the first meeting of the think tank on the ‘Framework for National Policy on E-commerce’ to be held on April 24, 2018.

Senior officers of the ministries/ departments of the Government of India involved in different aspects of e-commerce; high-level representatives from the industry bodies, e-commerce companies, telecommunication companies and IT companies; Reserve Bank of India; and independent experts have been invited to participate in the meeting.

The think tank on the Framework for National Policy on E-commerce has been established recently by the Department of Commerce. It will provide a credible forum for an inclusive and fact-based dialogue leading to recommendations for informed policy making, so that the country is adequately prepared to take advantage of the opportunities, and meet the challenges, that would arise from the next wave of advancements in the digital economy.

The think tank on the Framework for National Policy on E-commerce will seek to collectively deliberate on the challenges confronting India in the arena of digital economy with a view to developing recommendations for a comprehensive and overarching national policy on e-commerce.

Some of the issues that will be discussed by the think tank include the following aspects of e-commerce and digital economy: physical and digital infrastructure, regulatory regime, taxation policy, data flows, server localisation, intellectual property rights protection, FDI, technology flows, responding to disruptions in industrial organisation, need for skill development and trade-related aspects.

Developments in e-commerce at the WTO and evolving appropriate national position on the underlying issues would be another important dimension of the discussions of the think tank on the Framework for National Policy on E-commerce.

The think tank will explore options for providing a fillip to entrepreneurship in the digital economy. It will identify specific policy interventions for nurturing domestic firms and create jobs in e-commerce.

Representatives of almost fifty organisations are expected to participate in the first meeting of the think tank on the Framework for National Policy on E-commerce to be held on 24 April 2018.

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India Exploring Signing of MoU for ‘Road Information System’

This would be developed on lines of the system run by the Express Highways Information Corporation of South Korea.



NEW DELHI: Union Minister of Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari has said that India is exploring an agreement with South Korea for the introduction of Highways Information System in the country.

This would be developed on lines of the system run by the Express Highways Information Corporation of South Korea, with integrated monitoring of a highway at a centralized control room.

Inaugurating the 29th National Road Safety Week in New Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan today, the Minister spelt out the ministry’s priorities in ensuring safety of road users in the country.

He informed that he has fixed a target of bringing down the number of road fatalities to half from the around 1.5 lakh accidental deaths reported when he took over.

Gadkari said though progress has been achieved in this respect, he is still not satisfied and aspires to keep working in this direction.

The Ministry organizes the Road Safety Week every year to create awareness among general public and improve upon the safety of road users.

This year, Road Safety Week is being organized from 23rd to 29th of April and the focus is on schools and commercial drivers.

Addressing the participants Gadkari requested that every student be made a road safety ambassador for his family and for the society. Various activities have been organized for school / college students, drivers and all road users.

The Minister gave away awards to fifteen school children who won the national level essay competition on road safety. The top three winners were given cash prizes of Rs 15,000, Rs 10,000 and Rs 5,000 and a certificate each. Gadkari also administered the road safety pledge to all those present on the occasion.

Outlining the initiatives and steps taken to improve vehicle safety and overall road safety, the Minister said his ministry has adopted the 4E principles of Education, Enforcement, Engineering and Emergency care to address the problem of road safety.

For ensuring vehicular safety, the standards of buses have been upgraded, air bags and speed alert device have been made mandatory for all cars, and every two-wheeler will have ABS to avoid skidding. He said, the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, 2017, passed by Lok Sabha is waiting to be cleared by Rajya Sabha. This bill comprehensively promotes safety on the road. It would also promote the development of an efficient, seamless and integrated multi-mode public transport system.

The Ministry of Road Transport & Highways has launched a scheme for setting up of Driving Training Centre to provide quality training to commercial vehicle drivers, improve road and environment safety and strengthen overall mobility on roads. 789 road accident black spots have been identified on NHs of which 139 black spots are rectified, work on 233 black spots are awarded and in progress.

Ministry had issued guidelines for taking up of Road Safety Audits on National Highways either as part of all new projects. Detailed Road Safety Audits in a length of 610 km have been sanctioned on National Highways in last two years.

Installation of crash barriers at accident prone locations on National Highways in Hilly Terrain has been sanctioned in a length of 183 Km at a cost of Rs 108.25 crore.

Shri Gadkari also released a paper on road safety by Indian Road Safety Campaign. IRSC is a youth led national mission promoting road safety, led by students and alumni of IIT Delhi. It is currently working on creating awareness on road safety, developing technologies, simplifying laws and improving the post-accident emergency care system.

IRSC organizes an annual road safety championship called as the Safer India Challenge in collaboration with the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways and various state polices involving the youth to come up with innovations in this area.

The Safer India Challenge’18 was launched on the occasion. In addition to this the Minister also released a short story collection on road safety theme entitled “Have a safe journey”

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