If you lived in New Delhi and went out to vote today, you could have used Uber’s recently launched India service to get there and back for free. All you’d need to do is enter a promo code into the Uber app to get two rides worth up to Rs 1,000 ($16.60) between 7am and 7pm. You wouldn’t even need to vote. And the thing is, it actually wouldn’t make much sense to use the codes to vote—the maximum distance a voter needs to travel to get to a polling booth in Delhi is 2 km (1.25 miles), a much smaller fare. The California-based transportation network’s promotional deal may end up having the perverse effect of encouraging voters to skip voting and go see friends instead—specially since election day is a holiday in Delhi. Uber probably has good intentions, even if the execution leads to undesirable outcomes. Its Silicon Valley peers Google and Facebook are also using India’s elections as an excuse to build their brands, but their exploitation of the aura of significance that surrounds voting in the world’s largest democracy is arguably more pernicious. Those companies are using the elections to sell a beguiling myth: that the internet promotes democracy. The reality is more complicated, as the outcome of the Arab Spring has shown, and as polemical thinkers such as Evgeny Morozov have argued.
Google is perhaps the classiest of the lot. The search company released a rather lovely (if emotionally manipulative) YouTube video featuring 97-year-old Shyam Saran Negi, identified as India’s first voter. Pitched as a public service announcement—the video is called #PledgeToVote—the advertisement’s message could not be clearer: witness our awesome search prowess, reaching even into the remote mountains of Himachal Pradesh. Although Negi had popped up in Indian papers every now and then, he was hardly a household name until Google introduced him to nearly 2 million Indians.
That’s not all. Google has a special page crammed with news and resources; partnerships with several media companies to conduct online “hangouts” with politicians; and a Klout-like “Google Score” that it uses to measure politicians’ influence. “The ‘Google Score’ is intended to inform, not to endorse or oppose any candidate,” the website notes.