Indian parties take political battles to social media with few holds barred
Misinformation and rumour abound despite the efforts of tech companies
Towards the middle of March, when campaigns for India’s general election were beginning to heat up, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was accused of corruption.
Using the Hindi word for security guard, Mr Gandhi said that the "chowkidar" was a thief, meaning that Mr Modi was not the clean politician he claimed to be.
Spinning the accusation on its head, Mr Modi urged his supporters to proclaim themselves chowkidars, too, and began a hashtag that trended on Twitter. The prime minister also appended the job title to his name on Twitter, and thousands of supporters followed suit.
It was the sort of social media victory that Indian voters have come to expect of the Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which leveraged Facebook to its advantage during its successful 2014 election campaign. They have expanded to Twitter and WhatsApp since then – the latter, in particular, proving enormously useful to disseminate what many see as propaganda and rumour.
“The BJP had the advantage as the first mover in 2014 in terms of building up its social media and digital cells,” said Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “Today, other parties are playing catch up, but no other single party has the personnel or resources to match what the BJP can do online.”
But the party’s use of social media has begun to frighten observers. In a country where roughly 627 million people are online, and 230 million use WhatsApp, fake news has the potential to swing elections, inspire violence, and polarise the electorate.
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Amit Malviya, the head of the BJP’s information technology cell, told the Indian Express last week that the party has roughly 1.2 million social media volunteers. He did not spell out what the duties of these volunteers were, but other reports have indicated that there are content farms manufacturing rumours that are designed to polarise.
In an investigation last week, HuffPost India revealed the existence of one such outfit, controlled by Mr Modi’s lieutenant, Amit Shah. Called Association of Billion Minds, it has more than 160 full-time employees and runs out of 12 offices across the country.
“The more outrageous a post the better,” one employee told HuffPost, admitting that truth held no importance. “This is why they spread poison on Facebook.”
A combination of BJP volunteers and supporters also descend upon critics of the party on social media. Rana Ayyub, a Muslim journalist, wrote a book three years ago, arguing that the state government connived with Hindu mobs attacking Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, when Mr Modi was that state’s chief minister. At least a 1,000 people died in those communal riots.
Ms Ayyub constantly receives death threats and other promises of violence on Twitter. Cyber-bullies created pornography featuring her head on other women’s bodies. “The trolls posted my phone number, the address of my house online,” Ms Ayyub told Reporters Without Borders in an interview last April. “If this is the depth of their hatred, what will stop them from coming into my house as a mob and kill me?”
India’s laws about online privacy and harassment are weak and weakly enforced. “Online users who indulge in abuse and trolling feel empowered when they realise there could no punishment to what they publish online, and even feel rewarded for their rudeness and fake news peddling,” said Sahana Udupa, a scholar of digital politics at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich.
“What is more alarming is the recruitment of large data analytics companies for political campaigning, which in the cases of the US, UK and many other democracies has caused havoc, as we know."
Social media platforms have had to react to these dangers. Facebook has partnered with local fact-checking agencies such as Boom, which routinely flags misinformation circulated through its pages.
Last year, after WhatsApp rumours led to a series of mob lynchings, the company limited users’ ability to forward messages to no more than five people. WhatsApp officials said they were “horrified by these terrible acts of violence”.
But in sufficient numbers, social media workers can still form many groups to disseminate fake news tailored to particular constituencies or districts. Last year, during state assembly elections, fake images purporting to be television news screengrabs claimed that Mr Gandhi admitted to being Muslim, and that he wished to hand the disputed region of Kashmir over to Pakistan.
The volume of anti-Congress messages was far higher than those targeting the BJP, although some of the latter did exist. One, for instance, carried a false announcement about the discovery of a Swiss bank account in Mr Modi’s name.
An analysis by the Hindustan Times newspaper examined more than 800 WhatsApp groups – 693 of them pro-BJP – and found “evidence of centralisation… Around 400 groups in our database were created by just 10 phone numbers.”
Fake news has been prevalent in this election as well. One example showed a photo of dead bodies, purportedly of militants killed by an Indian air strike in Pakistan in February. Intended to show Mr Modi as being strong against cross-border terrorism, the photo was, in reality, of bodies from the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan.
The impact of this blizzard of fake news and social media strategies upon democracy is worrisome, Mr Vaishnav said.
“The dangers are clear: that Indians are so inundated with fake news and misinformation that they are unable to discern what is real and what is fake or manufactured,” he said.
Updated: April 11, 2019 01:40 PM