Interview: ‘Pegasus is a great example of how the government wants information on everybody but will not give information in return’

The authors of ‘The Art of Conjuring Alternate Realities’ on how what we think of as ‘reality’ is shaped and manipulated by various stakeholders — from governments to godmen to advertisers

October 22, 2021 03:28 pm | Updated 03:28 pm IST

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In The Art Of Conjuring Alternate Realities , a former political consultant and a cyber security researcher, Shivam Shankar Singh and Anand Venkatanarayanan, tell the story of how information warfare shapes the world we live in. The authors speak of the growing power of alternate reality and how to tackle it in an era of information revolution. Edited excerpts:

What is alternate reality? I am asking this because conventional wisdom is that reality is something that is real, something that you have seen or experienced. In that context, the idea of an alternate reality is a bit perplexing. How would you explain it?

Shivam Shankar Singh : The way we see it, reality in itself constitutes the information that you receive. Your perception of reality is entirely based on the information you get, and the perceptions you feel. What the book is based around is that reality exists, but it’s different for every individual. So if you receive incorrect information, or just different information, your reality will be different from that of someone else. We see this more and more in society as social media takes over, as targeted advertising takes over. Living in the same geographical space, my neighbour might believe in a completely different world from me.

Anand Venkatanarayanan : Philosophically, one way to think about alternate reality is that it is kind of social. If a tree fell in the forest, and no one saw it happen, did the tree fall? So, most of what people believe and most of what people understand is very social and peer-driven. That basically leads you to ask the question, what’s really reality? The simple answer is, people see things differently because of the information environment they are brought up in, or they submerge themselves into.

How are alternate realities being conjured? What are the resources you need?

SSS : There are multiple aspects to it. The first aspect to conjure any reality is to create a distribution mechanism for your information to reach people. So, the first thing you see any political party or entity do, even an advertiser, is that they get control over information dissemination mechanisms. Take the case of the BJP. Their first focus will always be on mass media and social media. Because these are the primary sources of information. Then they come to the narrative and the sentiment.

So, the messaging in 2014 was entirely based on the Congress party being corrupt and the need for an alternative. Narendra Modi brought out a Gujarat model, a success story about how the country is going to progress, how fuel prices are going to be ₹40 a litre, minimum government, maximum governance, and so on. Then that completely transformed by 2019, and the focus was on a completely different set of messages. The ‘reality’ changed based on what the end objective was, because they already had a certain amount of control built into the mechanism for distributing information and for countering any other information that could reach people.

What kind of society accepts alternate realities? Can I say, for instance, that Trump failed to create an alternate reality around the 2020 U.S. Presidential elections? On the other hand, in parts of India, ‘love jihad’ is accepted as real despite the lack of evidence.

SSS : It’s not like Trump actually failed; there’s a large chunk of American society he did convince [that he won the election]. And that’s why people stormed the Capitol. If you look at India, not everybody believes in the ‘love jihad’ conspiracy. Whatever message you’re trying to ingrain into society, you don’t need to convince 100% of the people, which is why politicians are so successful. They know their target audience. For instance, someone criticises Narendra Modi for making a certain statement. But the thing is, someone who has been in politics this long is unlikely to make a very big mistake. If they are stating an incorrect fact, there might be a deeper reason behind it. So yes, what society will accept depends on the existing context and the existing biases that society has. And politicians are very good at figuring out these biases, like Trump using anti-Muslim sentiments during his electoral speech.

You have also written that India offers a fascinating lesson in how democracies can be turned upside down.

SSS : Every democracy is a fragile ecosystem. Inherently, it is based on the fact that power is going to change smoothly without violence, and a new person is going to come in. But the basis of democracy is not just elections, it is also a level playing field where everyone has the opportunity to deliver their message to the electorate. But if you use any means to suppress a particular message, if there’s no one left to counter the reality that you have given people, then democracy starts collapsing, even if there is a voting process in place. What is happening in India right now is that the media ecosystem is getting concentrated on one side. If you look at political financing and electoral bonds and how much money goes to the BJP versus how much goes to the opposition, you see money getting concentrated on one side. If you look at how the bureaucracy and the judicial system has been transformed, you can see signs of institutions weakening. That is how democracy ends up being undemocratic.

AV : In India, a lot of information dissemination systems belong to the state. Most of them are being blacked out. You, as a voter, don’t really understand what’s going on with the government. On the other hand, the government is asking for more and more of your data. So, over time, if you look at the spectrum, we are tilting towards the opaque side — not so democratic.

SSS : Also, Pegasus is a great example of how the government wants information on absolutely everybody but will not give information in return.

How do we tackle this? How do we escape these alternate reality bubbles?

SSS : That is one of the big reasons we wrote the book. Not just the government, there are different forces competing to create your reality — godmen, cyber scammers, intelligence agencies, advertisers. A couple of things could help. One, building a solid information structure in the population, where you have a more educated, more informed population that understands how to analyse data or information. A population that has critical thinking skills and a scientific temper. The other component, when it comes to political parties, is that the other side needs to get smart, acknowledge what is happening, how their message is being suppressed. Then they need to develop the capacity to counter it, build different mechanisms of delivering their message, and understand that what matters is a level political playing field. The third component is that people should keep questioning themselves.

AV : You become what you read, or what information you consume. So, for a person like me, who’s been in the field (of cyber security) for a very long time, the first and foremost question is: Is this emotional? Is it factual? Am I in some kind of delusion? We call this cognitive security, in the sense that it’s not about not having belief in yourself. It’s about having a healthy disbelief about your own capabilities.

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