Data mining, artificial intelligence (AI) and social media have strengthened sectarian identity, reinforced biases and sharpened societal divides rather than promoting cross-cultural understanding and dialogue, claims a new book. Kiran Karnik, a former NASSCOM president and ex-member of Prime Minister's Scientific Advisory Council and the National Innovation Council, discusses all these issues in recently-released "Evolution: Decoding India's Disruptive Tech Story".
He says initially it was hoped that the exchange of content and views through social media would provide a platform to discuss differing viewpoints and perspectives.
"Reality, though, has turned out differently," he remarks.
Karnik argues that increasingly these new platforms and their ever-increasing versatility are used for exchanging inanities ('Look at this ice cream that I am eating!') or passing on unverified reports which resulted in the rapid propagation of rumours and falsehoods through the amplifying effect of "forwards".
"Anecdotal evidence indicates that the more sensational or outrageous the post, the faster and wider it gets circulated, with the impact multiplied by the echo chamber effect. This has encouraged the planting of fake news, which is capable of not only creating fear, enmity and hate, but even triggering riots. As a result, there is growing global concern over fake news," he says.
Data mining and clever algorithms verging on AI enable platforms like Google, which take into account the interests and preferences of users, are now being used to customise news.
"Reading news true or fake that interests you and matches with your world view obviously adds to the echo chamber effect. There is also concern about trolling, abuse and threats on social media," he says in the Rupa Publications' book.
The author notes that rooting out fake news, rumours and abuse is not easy.
These developments, and the way social media tends to be used, have done little for the promotion of cross-cultural understanding, or reflection and dialogue based on varied perspectives.
"Instead, in many cases, they have strengthened sectarian identity, reinforced biases and sharpened societal divides. The hope that these technologies would democratize, empower and enlighten seems to have been thwarted. Maybe it was a false dawn, after all, he says.
But not everything about the social media is gloomy, according to Karnik as he argues that technology has also provided common interest platforms, identity strengthening and the sharing of a viewpoint, which help in mobilising people and creating mass movements.
"In India, this power of social media was first strongly seen after the horrific Nirbhaya incident, when tens of thousands of people assembled for protest demonstrations, mobilised primarily through social media, he says.
"The fact that this force is also used for negative purposes is not necessarily the fault of social media. Yet, there are concerns regarding the dangers of polarization and majoritarianism that social media engenders, and the effect of controversial content? whether true or doctored on groups already susceptible to a certain viewpoint," he added.