Publication Type:

Conference papers


Raphael Susewind


Digital politics in millenial India, March 15-17, Delhi (2018)


Big Data increasingly shapes Indian politics. Prime minister Narendra Modi’s success is attributed by some to his strong social media following. Political parties supplement their manual vote-bank guesstimates with advanced linguistic algorithms. Activists use similar technologies to hold candidates accountable during election campaigns. State governments often dump huge datasets with personal information on the web in rushed attempts to lead on e-governance and transparency. Newsrooms in turn advertise positions for data journalists to be able to convert these dumps into new kinds of visual stories. And in a historical first, the Supreme Court recently declared a fundamental right to privacy in its decision on the Aadhaar scheme, the world’s largest biometric database.

Over the past years, my own research took me in midst of this brave new world: I wrote algorithms, scraped data, intervened in charged debates but also watched election campaigns up close using more traditional ethnographic methods, which not least gave me a sense of the substantial continuities to earlier ways of doing politics. My presentation thus attempts both an initial description of an emerging field (including its limits) and an ethical reflection about scholars’ participation therein. What happens to democracy if political decisions are increasingly outsourced to IT consultants as the boundaries between journalism, academia and politics are re-negotiated? Do we need to update our research ethics guidelines if unstructured data in the public domain suddenly becomes an electoral asset? Is openness and data transparency always warranted? Who gets to use the powerful new tools that data science provides, both within India and across global, postcolonial knowledge hierarchies? And last but not least: how is the Indian data science community both its open part and its for-profit part debating these questions?

Rather than answering these questions, I’d like to throw them up for discussion; Big Data is still a new phenomenon, and the workshop seems a good sounding board to come to grips with its ethical implications for both Indian politics and global academia.