CPI(M)’s transition from once protesting against computers to using AI Samata

Party uses Samata to anchor weekly news bulletin

AI character Samata AI character Samata created by CPI(M)

"That was in the 1970s... that was foolish, foolish. It started when they were going to introduce computers in banks and [insurance companies]. Their employees protested and we supported it. But how can you stop modern technology? Nowadays, they have understood... We have entered a century where industries will be talent-based," said Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, former West Bengal Chief Minister of West Bengal, in 2004.

The CPI(M) leader’s comments were in reference to the Left’s protests against the introduction of computers in banks in the 1970s and 1980s. Under the leadership of Jyoti Basu, the CPI(M)-led Left Front government had infamously opposed computerisation, and in general, mechanisation and automation in several fields. This stance, coupled with the Left Front government’s decision to restrict English from state-run primary schools for over twenty years, led to the Leftists being informally referred to as naysayers to modernisation.

“The common fear was loss of jobs when Congress tried to introduce computers. CPI(M) was opposed to Congress and hence Left leaders were suspicious,” said Debraj Bhattacharya, author of the book EXPLORING MARXIST BENGAL c.1971-2011: Memory, History and Irony and currently the manager of a research centre in Azim Premji University.

He added, “It is not surprising that a Leftist party would have such suspicions. CPI(M) was not able to show any alternative path of economic growth and employment for the educated middle-class. Hence Bengalis trained in computer science and other related fields started migrating out of West Bengal and the state became a supplier of educated human resource for others.”

During the later part of their rule, which lasted for 34 years, Bhattacharjee, successor to Basu, attempted to shift the mentality of the Left Front government. He not only acknowledged that opposing computers was a mistake but also tried to spark an IT boom in Kolkata in the first decade of this century.

“By the time Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee turned towards capitalist industrialisation, other parts of India had already moved ahead a long way,” the Azim Premji University Research Manager said.

Therefore, given its traditional scepticism towards modernisation and technology, it came as a surprise on March 25 when CPI(M) West Bengal State Committee unveiled an AI (artificial intelligence) avatar named 'Samata', an anchor who reads news on the party’s official Facebook page and YouTube channel highlighting misdeeds of BJP and TMC.

“CPI(M) has always welcomed technology that can make human lives better,” said Samik Lahiri, three-time former MP and senior party leader, who is also a senior member of CPI(M) West Bengal’s social media team and the core group associated with the AI project.

“Our rival parties want everyone to believe that we opposed computers. It’s a lie. When talks were going on about the introduction of computers in banks and other government offices, employees feared that they would lose jobs and they started protesting. We supported them. After all, we are a party of workers and farmers,” he added.

Having been pushed into the oblivion in electoral politics since 2011, which has resulted in its marginalisation in mainstream media spaces as well, the West Bengal CPI(M) has made significant efforts to establish a robust social media presence. It is known for its creative and intelligent content, taking aim at both the TMC’s state government and the BJP-led Centre.

West Bengal CPI(M)’s adoption of AI technology for social media content ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, however, could be the party’s most ambitious public outreach project so far. TMC and BJP, the dominant electoral forces in West Bengal politics right now, have not yet launched AI-driven election campaigns in the state, making CPI(M)’s initiative look more fascinating.

Another important member of CPI(M) West Bengal’s social media team and the core group that is managing the AI initiative said that it was not the first time the party used AI. “We used genAI platforms like ChatGPT to generate some creative images that were shared internally among party workers. We had also started experimenting in platforms such as Canva, Dubverse.ai and Midjourney by 2023 end,” he said requesting anonymity due to “internal party policy”.

He, however, agreed that Samata was the party’s first breakthrough AI initiative. “We are still experimenting and right now Samata will only stick to weekly news bulletin shows. But the hype it has generated means that we are moving in the right direction. Also, the fact that we are the first major party in Bengal to use AI for social media outreach will help us beat the notion that CPI(M) is an old-school party.”

The social media team member added that the next thing the CPI(M) West Bengal plans to do with AI will create a bigger hype. “It will surprise everyone and it will cement our place in history that we were among the first Indian parties to go big with AI.”

AI in politics

Increasingly, global political bodies are exploring AI to sway voters. With 49% of the global population across 64 countries voting to elect their national governments this year, 2024 is seen as the start of the era of AI elections.

The 2023 Argentine Presidential election, called by New York Times the first AI election, saw main contenders Sergio Massa of the then ruling Peronist coalition and far-right populist Javier Milei, now President, extensively use AI-generated content for campaigning.

In one poster, Massa, decorated with military-style medals, gestured towards the sky as hopeful elders with disfigured faces watched. Deepfakes were shared by his team depicting Milei as an erratic leader endorsing organ trade. In response, Milei shared AI images portraying Massa as a Chinese communist and himself as a charming animated lion.

Other notable instances of AI in politics include robocalls impersonating President Joe Biden discouraging voting in upcoming US elections. There were also deepfake videos of a dead former Indonesian President criticising incumbent Joko Widodo, former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan giving a victory speech from prison and Taiwanese manufacturing giant Foxconn founder Terry Gou promoting a pro-China candidate.

In India as well, political parties have started using different forms of AI-generated synthesised contents. Earlier this year, BJP showcased Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s accomplishments with an AI-clone voice of late singer Mahendra Kapoor, known for his patriotic songs. Congress and Aam Aadmi Party delivered pre-recorded messages impersonating their candidates who took voters’ names in Rajasthan and Delhi respectively. In Tamil Nadu, Dravida Munnetra Kzhagam revived former CM and party leader M. Karunanidhi with a deepfake, while All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kzhagam shared a voice-clone message of ex-CM J. Jayalalithaa.

Thanks to its financial strength and manpower, the BJP is likely to take a lead in AI use. The party has begun experimenting with AI avatars, personalized AI-generated messages from PM Narendra Modi addressing voters by their names, and multilingual AI synthetic audio-visuals on social media. Media reports suggest even hyperlocal party leaders are producing synthetic content with the help of AI.

Given the recent history of Indian parties employing disinformation and fake news for their political campaigning on social media, and the country’s lack of dedicated regulations for AI, rights agencies and experts across the country have raised fears that Indian voters in 2024 are at the highest risk of electoral misinformation. Social media companies are also struggling to update their algorithms that can successfully contain disinformation.

Ethical AI use

The CPI(M) in West Bengal doesn’t want to get in the race where the ultimate aim is to produce more plausible and convincing synthetic content that will blur the line between real and AI. “Our goal is to use AI to take facts and truth to people with all honesty in the age of misinformation and fake news,” said CPI(M) leader Samik Lahiri.

“BJP is trying to use AI to propagate fake news. With no law to regulate AI and with the might of its IT-Cell, the BJP is employing AI to even discredit fact-checks by Alt News and other organisations that regularly expose the party’s fake news campaign,” Lahiri said.

The Left leader added that through AI avatar Samata, the party plans to counter the current fear about the misuse of AI in Indian politics. “With our AI project we plan to tell only truth and facts. We don’t want to run any sinister campaign nor do we want to humiliate our opponents by making any false claims about them.”

The anonymous social media team member said due to the party’s pledge of using AI and internet ethically, they don’t manage a bot army or try to manipulate the social media algorithm.

“Our public outreach campaigns on social media are completely organic. We don’t have bots and thousands of fake accounts to share our content. Our party workers voluntarily do that to reach our voters. On rare occasions, we pay social media platforms to promote some content like anyone would do,” he said.

He said unlike BJP and other Indian political parties that are taking the help of third-party agencies to design and generate most of their synthetic content, the CPI(M)’s AI avatar in West Bengal was the result of voluntary efforts by young party workers. “The engineers who created Samata and others who are part of this project are doing the work free of cost. We did not pay any person or agency from outside.”

Lack of resources

Despite the party’s seemingly right intentions, a strong and active base of volunteers on social media and the recent hype of its AI avatar, CPI(M) in West Bengal is nowhere close to matching the BJP and the TMC.

In his 2022 paper- Political campaigning in West Bengal: violence, professionalism, and communalisation, anthropologist Suman Nath showed how the BJP leveraged big data analytics in its 2019 general election campaign in West Bengal. They launched 50,000 WhatsApp groups and a team of 10,000 ensured the party’s official Facebook page - ‘BJP4Bengal’­- reached over 20 million people. The same-named Twitter account touched four million users, with two more million via ShareChat.

After seeing BJP’s meteoric rise in the state in 2019, TMC played the catch-up game and hired political consulting agency I-PAC for its social media campaigning, and managed to restrict the saffron party successfully in the 2021 Assembly polls.

“CPI(M) is nowhere in this race mainly because it cannot afford to be,” said Nath who teaches at Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam Government College in Kolkata. He challenged the notion that CPI(M) had a strong presence on social media, saying, “It’s true the party has a wide network of active volunteers and also intelligent and creative content creators. But you cannot run a sustained campaign and set a narrative on social media with that.”

“A sustained social media campaign like the BJP does every day requires paid workers who consistently post and share contents that promote the party’s messages and idea. CPI(M)'s organic social media efforts occasionally go viral, like the 2021 parody song, red volunteers’ works during the pandemic, or the recent AI avatar. However, these are fleeting hypes. No one remembers the song or red volunteers anymore.”

He continued, “Even now the focus is on Samata, not her message. To ensure people remember Samata, CPI(M) needs to take her messages to people on a regular basis and the penetration needs to be done on WhatsApp. It needs to be done not by locally known party workers but by apolitical people. But, CPI(M) lacks financial resources to build such a network on the chatting platform.”

Nath suggested that trying to compete with BJP or TMC on social media with these isolated hypes would be futile for the red party. Instead, he believed it would be good for the party to build a strong network of proxy social media users who are apolitical but will circulate its ideas.

“A BJP worker’s Ram Temple message is political and people may not fall for it, but from an uncle, it’s religious. Without naming the BJP, the uncle influences voting decisions in favour of the party. CPI(M) needs to emulate this, winning over non-political individuals from diverse fields, as they once did with people from art and culture, theatre, film and entertainment and science,” the anthropologist added.

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