As Congress, BJP Trade Blows Over Cambridge Analytica, Facts Go Out the Window

Law and IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad also warned Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg of potential repercussions under the IT Act in case it was proved that the data of Indian citizens had been stolen.

New Delhi: Even as the global controversy over Cambridge Analytica’s illegal collection of Facebook data continues to rage, the Congress and the BJP have taken to the media to accuse each other of having used the services of the controversial data analytics and election strategy firm to manipulate public opinion.

Both parties – using media reports and other publicly available information – traded allegations of data theft and of the other party having used Cambrige Analytica’s services to swing elections in the country.

Law and IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad also warned Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg – who has over the last four years enjoyed a warm professional relationship with the Modi government – of potential repercussions under the Information Technology Act in case it was proved that the data of Indian citizens had also been stolen.

“Mr Mark Zuckerberg, you better note the observation of the IT minister of India,” Prasad said, speaking of himself in the third person.

“We welcome the FB profile [sic] in India, but if any data theft of Indians is done through the collusion of FB system, it shall not be tolerated. We have got stringent power in the IT Act, we shall use it, including summoning you in India,” Prasad warned.

However, in the din and commotion of the political blame game, the facts have fallen by the wayside. The Wire looks at each party’s allegations to see what’s backed up the facts and what’s not.

Ravi Shankar Prasad – Round 1

Prasad kicked things off first, citing multiple media reports over the last year, and alleged that the Congress had engaged Cambridge Analytica for the upcoming 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

“The Congress must explain if it has engaged in data trade with Cambridge Analytica,” the minister said at a press conference.

“Will the Congress now depend on data manipulation and theft to woo voters? These days, there is a lot of news about CA and how it has been involved in data theft, psychometric analysis, data manipulation and subversion of democratic processes. Can the Congress deny that?” he added.

While Prasad is right that there were at least a couple of media reports in 2017 that indicated the Congress was in talks with CA, he fails to note in the last few days, multiple other reports (including The Wire) have indicated that top-level officials of Cambridge Analytica met with both the BJP and Congress for potential 2019 general election contracts.

If the law minister is willing to go on the basis of anonymously-sourced media reports, it would only be fair to include what all media reports have said.

OBI's website, which claims the BJP, Congress and JD(U) are all clients. Credit: OBI

OBI’s website, which claims the BJP, Congress and JD(U) are all clients. Credit: OBI

The IT minister also conveniently leaves out the fact that the India partner of Cambridge Analytica, Ghaziabad-based Ovleno Business Intelligence (OBI) lists the BJP as a client on its website (as the picture above shows), and has employees who have worked on elections for BJP leaders.

As The Wire reported on Monday, Amrish Tyagi, the 39-year-old head of OBI, also admits to working on a number of political campaigns for BJP leaders including Rajnath Singh. The organisation’s second-in-command, Himanshu Sharma, also lists out working on the BJP’s ‘Mission 272+’ campaign in 2014 as part of his resume.

Congress – Round 2

To counter the BJP, the Congress held a press conference a little later in the day, sharply denying the allegations.

“The Congress or its president have never used or hired the services of Cambridge Analytica,” party spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said. “This is fake agenda, a white lie being dished out on fake facts by the law minister. And this has become a daily order with Prasad.”

Where Surjewala trips up though is when he goes onto cite OBI’s website – the company as The Wire reported, is run by the son of  Janata Dal (United) leader KC Tyagi – to show that the company’s services had been used by the BJP and JD(U).

“Cambridge Analytica’s linked website shows that in 2010 its services were used by BJP-JD(U). Firm’s Indian partner Ovlene Business Intelligence is being run by BJP ally’s MP’s son. OBI company’s services were used by Rajnath Singh in 2009,” Surjewala told mediapersons at a press conference.

While the Congress spokesperson is right, what he forgets to mention is that OBI’s website also lists the Congress Party as a client.

If he believes that Tyagi and OBI are telling the truth, the Congress Party is also equally ‘guilty’. Surjewala also didn’t point out that Tyagi, for the moment, has denied that Cambridge Analytica had any role to play in the services that OBI has offered on the ground.

Allegations that are bizarre

In between this sniping, Ravi Shankar Prasad also made a handful of strange statements.

At one point in his press conference, he pointed out that Rahul Gandhi’s Twitter followers had risen recently and wondered if Cambridge Analytica was responsible for this “fake popularity”.

At another point, during his tirade against Facebook, he warned Zuckerberg and other social media companies that any attempt by them to influence India’s electoral process would neither be “appreciated nor tolerated”.

“…let me make it very, very clear, we fully support freedom of press, speech and expression; we fully support free exchange of ideas on social media. But any attempt, covert or overt, by social media, including Facebook, of trying to influence India’s electoral process through undesirable means will neither be appreciated nor be tolerated,” Prasad said.

File photo of Narendra Modi and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook at the latter’s headquarters in California. Credit: Reuters

There are two things wrong with this. Firstly, pointing to Gandhi’s rise in Twitter followers as evidence of Cambridge Analytica’s work is misguided. CA doesn’t specialise in procuring fake Twitter followers or boosting the reach of a candidates Twitter following. In fact, there’s some evidence to show that it may not have been the Congress party’s doing at all.

Secondly, Prasad conflates the controversy surrounding Cambridge Analytica’s so-called psychographic targeting of voters with its alleged theft of Facebook user data. Facebook by itself has not been accused of directly trying to influence any election. What it has been criticised for, however, is allowing third-party entities (such as Cambridge Analytica or the Russian government) of using its platform to influence voters.

What next?

The allegations and accusations over-shadowed the most important questions over what steps the Indian government should be taking.

For instance, when the IT minister was asked whether any probe would be initiated, Prasad merely replied that the telecom regulator TRAI could look at any specific complaints.

“We have got [a] very robust mechanism available, we will look into it. But today, this very stern observation I gave that let my warning be heard across the Atlantic far away in California,” he said.

Though the government went to the effort of organising a press conference to raise concerns, and warned a Silicon Valley CEO with provisions of India’s IT Act, it doesn’t look as if it wants to start an independent investigation here in India.

Rather than looking across the Atlantic, which is of course important, a logical first course of action would be to simply question OBI CEO Amrish Tyagi, whose father [KC Tyagi of the Janata Dal (United)] belongs a political party that is part of the ruling NDA. Even a cursory investigation would reveal to what extent OBI and Cambridge Analytica shared data and to what extent they helped one another on their respective political campaigns.

The strongest statement on this came from BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra, who emphasised that a probe would be launched.

“[The] government of the day is not going to take it lightly. Government is of course going to investigate and truth will come to the fore. Rahul Gandhi should come forward and answer the questions which have been put to him,” Patra said.

Why Patra and the BJP assume the ruling party is not similarly obliged to come forward and answer the questions that the Cambridge Analytica scandal raises about its own behaviour is not clear.