Manipulating information to perpetuate power

Is India becoming an informational autocracy?

November 26, 2019 12:05 am | Updated 12:05 am IST

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Vector vintage poster with megaphone on halftone background. Black megaphone on vintage background.

Social science researchers across the world have expressed concern that the Indian government’s statistical machinery is in a state of disarray. The government rejected adverse consumer spending data this month. Earlier, the Centre delayed and then belatedly released the 2017 National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data. It also tried deflecting the public’s attention from unemployment data. Also, broader concerns on information manipulation have stemmed from attempts to distort the facts on events like Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination.

Yet, given what we know about modern-day repressive regimes relying on information manipulation to perpetuate power, this might only be an indication of what lies in store. Recent research provides supporting evidence.

Arturas Rozenas and Denis Stukal from New York University wrote a paper for the Journal of Politics documenting how, in Russia, state-controlled television censors economic facts, especially when some of those facts are bad and inconvenient for the ruling government.

Analysis of reports from Russia

Using a corpus of daily news reports from Russia’s largest state-owned television network, they showed that when the news is bad, it is not explicitly censored but framed as being related to global external factors; however, when the news is good, it is systematically attributed to domestic politicians. Such strategic use of attribution is especially prominent, they found, during politically sensitive times and when the leadership is already enjoying popular support. They outlined this as a phenomenon of direct selective attribution and association.

Economists Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman, in their article ‘Informational Autocrats’, published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives , complemented the findings of Mr. Rozenas and Mr. Stukal. They found that, in contrast to old-style overt dictators, modern-day authoritarians survive and sustain their rule by demonstrating a façade of democracy, supplemented by information manipulation. They do this specifically by buying the elites’ silence, censoring private media, and broadcasting propaganda.

Role of technology

The writers said one reason for the rise of informational autocrats is the proliferation of technology and social media. A classic example of informational autocrat is Peru’s Alberto Fujimori, who used his unsavoury intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos to bribe television stations with million-dollar pay-outs to skew media coverage. An outcome of informational autocracy, Mr. Guriev and Mr. Treisman pointed out, using data from the Virginia-based Centre for Systemic Peace, is that explicit political killings in such countries reduce over time. Instead, what arises is a calibrated environment of short-duration imprisonments, for non-political reasons, creating an environment of fear.

Finally, Mr. Guriev and Mr. Treisman also discussed whether informational autocracies can constitute an equilibrium position. This, they argued, depended on two factors: the size of the informed elite and the state’s control over the media. The faster the speed of development, the higher is the expected size of the elite. So, democracy is the expected outcome in such cases. However, in sub-steady transitional states, informational autocrats continue, also engaging in succession planning.

If indeed India is becoming an informational autocracy, with a façade of democracy, there remain troubling questions over whether there will be a mean reversion in the future. Even more, the forces driving the country in this direction will have to be studied, perhaps even challenged.

Chirantan Chatterjee is a Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University and Faculty Member at IIM Ahmedabad

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