Social media in India fans fake news

Despite undertakings given by social media giants, the Election Commission does not appear to have succeeded in curbing fake news or hate speech

Representative Image (Twitter)
Representative Image (Twitter)
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Murali Krishnan

Everything about the Indian general elections is gigantic. This time, about 900 million people above the age of 18 were eligible to cast their ballots at over a million polling stations spread over seven phases. The country’s Election Commission says nearly 8000 candidates representing over a thousand political parties are contesting the 2019 elections, nearly a seven-fold increase from the first election in 1951, making it the largest election the world has seen.

Social media in India, like elsewhere in the world, are playing a major role in influencing voters.

Despite efforts by India's Election Commission to work with social media giants, urging them to tackle the spread of misinformation and evolve a code of ethics so as not to allow their platforms to be misused, fake news continues to be disseminated. Doctored videos, malicious memes, fake news and unverified adverts have made the rounds on various social media platforms.

In the run-up to the mammoth electoral exercise, candidates were required to furnish details to the Election Commission of their social media accounts at the time of filing nominations and their activities on Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and Google.

But that seems to have been an academic exercise. Given that there is virtually zero transparency when it comes to political contributions or political party expenditure, keeping a tab on social media and removing offensive material is a long shot. And given the spread and power of social media in the country, many feel it could end up being the deciding factor in some constituencies with extremely tight races and wafer-thin margins.

Under the agreement with the Election Commission, companies are bound to take down potentially offending content much faster than usual, bypassing the standard operating procedure. But the rules for removing ‘offensive content’ is vague and more importantly, there are hundreds of thousands of accounts that are not 'officially' connected with political parties, mainly operating through proxies. What’s more, by the time a post, tweet, picture or video is pulled down because of their offensive nature, the damage would have already been done.

Various reports suggest that India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its rival, the Congress (INC), have mounted spirited campaigns on WhatsApp and Facebook to rally support and spread political messages among followers. The BJP is thought to have around 200,000-300,000 WhatsApp groups, and INC has somewhere between 80,000 to 100,000 groups.

Whether it is a boon or a bane, the massive proliferation of internet connectivity in India and the exponential increase in the sale of mobile phones has only led to social media companies to home in on the boom. Projections show by 2022, there will be 829 million smartphone users in India, accounting for 60% of the population. India remains a huge market for smart phones and online commerce and messaging and the market is becoming bigger every passing month.

India is the top market for WhatsApp in terms of the number of active users. The messaging service has over 200 million monthly active users in India, and a similar number of Facebook users which is growing steadily. So, given the vast popularity of the messaging service especially in the country’s rural hinterland, it is fertile ground to fan ‘misinformation’.

A recent study by ‘Altnews’, a news fact-checking website, found the BJP officially was the maximum spender on Facebook, having spent $580,000 amounting to around 70% of the total ad revenue made public by social media company. This is the official version, not to mention the personal advertisements that continue to appear.

Just in February a survey conducted by multinational tech company said fake news continues to be a growing menace in India, which has seen the most number of fake news compared to anywhere else in the world. This just further established that real news was being buried in an avalanche of false information and hoaxes.

Over 60 per cent of Indians said they had seen fake news online against the global average of 57 per cent according to findings of a survey.

More than half of the surveyed respondents also said they had faced Internet hoaxes. While another 42 percent said they had witnessed phishing or spoofing, according to the survey.

On its part, WhatsApp announced that it was going to crackdown on political parties misusing the app, warning of a ban of its service. This comes on the back of rising concern that certain groups may attempt to send messages at scale and to spread fake news during the elections. It has restricted the number of forwards to five for each user and has tested two new features that could help stop the spread of false information.

In its attempts to reshape its public image which took a beating last year after a privacy scandal involving British data consultancy Cambridge Analytica, Facebook has assured users in India will see political advertisements with “published by” and “paid by” disclaimers and said it would partner fact checkers during the course of the election.

There are no easy solutions to combat fake news in India and it will continue to pose a problem. The challenges remain and the only way forward now is how to curb its misuse.

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