Technology both an enabler and a polarising factor in emerging economies like India: Pew Research Centre

A crew member walks in front of a hoarding displaying the logo of BOOM, one of Facebook Inc's fact-checking partners in India, at a studio in Mumbai, March 12, 2019. Image credit: REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas/Files

Over the past few years, technology has proved to be both a means of empowerment and a platform for potential misuse. Across the world, while it has given rise to social and political movements such as #MeToo, the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Arab Spring, it has also fueled unrest and mistrust with the growing amount of fake information and hatred, political manipulation during elections, and harmful content that has the potential to spread swiftly across the globe via social media and other digital platforms. The live streaming of the New Zealand mosque killings, where 200 people reportedly watched the act, is a demonstration of the terrifying ways in which technology can be manipulated.

While the immediate shut down of several of the country’s social media sites after the Sri Lankan Easter Sunday bombings led some technology enthusiasts to applaud the decision, many also wondered whether technology was moving from being an enabler to a corrosive agent which could instil fear and hatred and threaten democracy.

A double-edged sword

This apprehension has been corroborated by findings from a recently released survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre. The survey, titled 'Mobile Technology and Its Social Impact Survey', 2018, conducted in 11 emerging economies, found that while a majority of those surveyed acknowledged the benefits of access to technology, many were also apprehensive about the risks associated with it.

Among the 11 countries surveyed, the majority in 10 of the countries felt that technology had made it easier to manipulate people with false information and rumours. A median of 64 per cent across the 11 countries also said that people should be very concerned about exposure to false or incorrect information while using their phones.

Similarly, while many of the respondents felt that social media has increased the influence of people in the political process, majority of the people in eight of these 11 countries also felt that the platforms have upped the risk of people being manipulated by domestic politicians.

Also, more than half of the respondents in eight countries also believed that the platforms could increase the risk of foreign players interfering in their country’s elections. While 73 per cent Columbians felt that there was a risk of manipulation by domestic politicians, in Vietnam only 39 per cent believed so. In India, 42 per cent of the respondents believed that social media had increased the ability of normal people to have a say in the political process, while 42 per cent also thought that it had made it easier for manipulation by domestic players.

India is amongst the nations that are most divided when it comes to perceptions of the benefits of technology and its possible dangers. Around 65 per cent of those surveyed in India felt that people are more aware of current events thanks to technology, however, 60 per cent also felt that technology has made it easier to manipulate people with false information and rumours.

Findings from the survey have also suggested that while more Indians are using mobile phones to get news, they also have mixed opinions of whether the information is correct or not. About four in ten Indians felt that mobile phones and the internet have had a good influence on politics.

Education, deciding factor

Education is a major deciding factor when it comes to perceptions. The survey has classified respondents based on their educational levels, as per UN International Standard Classification of Education. While those designated as ‘less education’ are those without secondary schooling, respondents with ‘more education’ are those with a higher level of education. Hence, as per the report, Indians who had a higher level of education were likely to be both pessimistic and optimistic about technology.

For example, while only 39 per cent of the less educated respondents felt that technology had made people more accepting of people with different views, among the more educated people, the figure was much higher - at 60 per cent.

A larger percentage of more educated respondents (77 per cent) felt that technology helped people stay up to date with current affairs as opposed to only 59 per cent of respondents who were in the ‘less educated’ category.

Immoral and dangerous content

Another concern shared by a large majority (79 per cent) of respondents from the 11 countries surveyed was children’s exposure to harmful and immoral content. 63 per cent of the people surveyed also stated that exposure to mobile phones has had a bad influence on their children.

However, parents are also taking steps to regulate what their children are watching. 52 per cent of the people surveyed said that limit how much time their child spends on their phone, while 50 per cent said that they monitor and regulate what their child is watching or doing on their phones.

The findings were from corroborated from surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center among 28,122 adults in 11 countries in 2018, apart from focus group studies conducted participants in Kenya, Mexico, the Philippines and Tunisia in March 2018.