I hope, for the sake of my country, the words contained in this article do not become prophetic. Guyana’s national and regional elections are no longer quiet events that occur every five years in the near and far reaches of South America’s only English-speaking country. Ever since Exxon announced its first oil discovery in 2015, the game has changed in a cataclysmic way. Guyana’s political system will never be the same. As a consequence, social media, which is a key mechanism of communicating and getting to the hearts and minds of the masses in this modern era, cannot escape the feverish pitch at which Guyana’s electoral system now operates. There is no doubt, based on global trends, social media will become ground zero for electioneering. This source of information is a beautiful tool to be utilised by incumbent governments to argue their case but the flipside is that those who are outside of power, can use social media for the spread of disinformation and extensive disruption schemes.
In 2018, social media was used to influence elections in at least 18 countries, according to the democracy advocacy group, Freedom House. This civil society organisation documents how Russia and China have created virtual internet armies with ‘Bots’ and ‘Algorithms’ that are programmed ‘opinion shapers’. This means these countries can design programmes that can scout the internet activities of citizens from any country, create fake profiles that are computer generated and these can comment and post based on the issues being highlighted from a particular geographic area. In the case of Guyana, programmers can study Guyana’s Facebook activities all the way from Moscow and Beijing and identify what are the issues affecting citizens in Berbice and direct information that suits their interests. This activity will be conducted by fake profiles being operated out of these foreign capitals and it will be consistent with the interests of the countries behind this operation.
How vulnerable is Guyana to this development? In reference to the above caution, the results of Guyana’s elections have implications for geopolitics and spheres of influence. It therefore follows; many global power players will undoubtedly seek ways to influence the outcome of these elections. There is a clear precedent for this. On April 4, 2018, the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerburg admitted that up to 87 million users of Facebook may have been affected by a data breach spearheaded by a British political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica (CA), initiated by Cambridge Professor, Aleksandr Kogan. Professor Kogan procured the data of 300,000 by placing a Facebook-linked app, ‘thisisyourdigitallife’, on this social media platform. Professor Kogan was able to access the personal information of the ‘friends’ of the 300,000 users whose data he captured without their permission. Through this app, Facebook users were paid to participate in a personality test under the pretext of academic research. This information was taken and stored by Professor Kogan. It was then sold Cambridge Analytica for US 800,000. Cambridge Analytica used this information to create a software platform for influencing the US elections and sold it to the Donald Trump campaign. In a country with a population of 800,000 with most persons on social media, it is a cake walk for any lobby group to use these processes to advance the cause of their client.
It has to be noted, social media is not restricted to Facebook, even though this platform has the largest global following. Whatsapp, Snapchat and Instagram hold significant sway over the modern way of communicating. Among them, Whatsapp teems with equal danger if misused and abused. For example, imagine a scenario where someone in Linden creates a fake video of Afro-Guyanese beating an Indo-Guyanese, this video can be shared across the various social communication platforms and spread mass frenzy and confusion. In a nation with a history of polarisation such as Guyana during an election period, this sordid development can provide the ultimate exemplar of the double-edged sword effect of social media. The world is presently replete with the aforementioned frightening prospect.
Whether fake or real, messages can go viral on Whatsapp and reach enough citizens to cause social unrest. India provides the starkest example of this disheartening scheme. By February 2019, Whatsapp rumours have led to 30 deaths in India, the country that has the largest market for Facebook and Whatsapp with 500 million users. Hindu extremist groups such as the Popular Front of India continue to demonstrate the menace of modern communication when the persons behind the keyboard have diabolical intentions. Recently, the government of Sri Lanka has been forced to block Facebook due to numerous attacks on Muslims.
Social media can be a beautiful tool for spreading positive information, emergency notices, rescuing people in times of natural disasters and exchanging differing political views but when those with evil intent get their hands on this tool, it becomes a political double edged-sword.