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Tek Fog and science

If you haven’t read The Wire‘s Tek Fog investigation, do so right away – not just because it’s necessary preamble to this post but because it concerns you either because you’re an Indian citizen and you need to update your awareness of what the BJP is capable of or because device-hacking, which is one level of abstraction beyond app-hacking, is not as esoteric an occurrence as you might believe. If you have read the investigation – an important non-trivial finding was the following:

By using Tek Fog and amplifying the visibility of a topic on the social media, the Hindutva brigade in India can make discussions on the topic – or even support for it – appear to be more widespread than they really are. This brings to mind the work of historian Daniel Boorstin and his study of the concept of celebrities, especially those who are famous for being famous, and the consequences for what we the people consider to be real. Boorstin coined the term ‘pseudo-event’ to refer to events that we consider to be real because the media – social, news or otherwise – treats it as if it were real, and not necessarily because it is real per se. Tek Fog, and in fact the broader IT ecosystem within which it operates, is essentially software engineering that allows Hindutvawadis to efficiently create and manage pseudo-events.

It’s not hard to imagine how this ability alone – without factoring in the app’s other abilities – can be deleterious to public dialogue as well as good democracy. I’m tempted to find a metaphor for the effect of pseudo-events in physics. When a pair of virtual particles is created at a black hole’s event horizon, the particle inside the horizon falls into the black hole, never to be heard from again, while the particle just outside escapes into space – just as pseudo-events come and go, but we’re left to deal with their very real and persistent effects on people. I’m particularly interested now about the effect of Tek Fog’s pseudo-events on conversations about science in the public domain. Actually, what follows is more an observation, and not necessarily any sort of insight, pertaining to the intersection of science, science communication and Tek Fog’s abilities.

Since it assumed power at the Centre, India’s ruling BJP government has, among other things, made a few nexuses more robust than they’ve ever been. For example, I’ve written that a film like Mission Mangal couldn’t have expected to be as successful as it was if the Narendra Modi government hadn’t fortified the business-politics and spaceflight-nationalism links to the extent that it did. But just these toxic relationships also vitiated the atmosphere around ISRO’s Chandrayaan 2 mission, especially after the mission’s Vikram lander crashed on the Moon instead of slowly touching down.

Another toxic relationship is the pseudoscience-nationalism nexus, wherein, for the sake of promoting a vaguely defined ‘national interest’ and local businesses, the government has really promoted nonsense (homeopathy, pseudo-ayurveda, phytotherapy, etc.) as science. And these promotional exercises have often shown up on our Twitter timelines, as both hashtags and links to ‘news articles’ from weirdly named outlets (like “BreezyScroll”) in the ‘trending’ sections of both Twitter and Facebook, and as WhatsApp forwards. But now, we must at least consider the possibility that Tek Fog allows a very small number of people to influence a very large number of people on matters science to, say, believe that something is true or that a particular ideological stance is valid even though it really isn’t.

Notable here is the idea of knowledge that exists simply because we think someone else knows it. Most people don’t believe in science because they know the facts and the principles; it’s because they trust someone who they believe knows the facts and the principles. This is why I take an Allegra if I’m experiencing an allergic reaction: I have no clue how it works, but I trust the processes that gave rise to it (including the doctor’s consultation), which are guided as much by science as by the need for public accountability. But Tek Fog can effectively ‘hack’ this way of believing, this way of choosing the objects in which we vest our faith, by manufacturing pseudo-support for only those objects that fit the BJP government’s agenda.

And this way, the BJP can ‘win’, in a manner of speaking, by doing three things: creating additional pseudo-events (as Boorstin has said all pseudo-events tend to do) that occupy those ‘fighting back’ with fact-checks and such, short-circuiting a section of people into believing something by duping them into thinking many others do as well, and sustaining the belief that the party’s supposedly numerous supporters will contest every inconvenient claim tooth and nail. But like the virtual particle that set off into space after the black hole swallowed its antiparticle counterpart, the belief that the BJP has manufactured using Tek Fog will last, even as the instruments it used – Tek Fog, its WhatsApp messages, Twitter trends, etc. all included – will vanish. Do we need to adapt differently to fight this foe?