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How Fake News And Disinformation Gamed India’s Elections

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It may not be an exaggeration to state that misinformation had been the main weapon in the electoral battleground of 2019.

Elections are considered the “Maha Parv(Great festival)” of Indian democracy. And the extent to which they represent the will of the electorate depends on whether they are free and fair in practice. The two important factors which determine the integrity of the electoral process from the perspective of the electorate are:-

  • Their access to accurate information about candidates/parties and
  • Whether the issues which are being raised while campaigning resonates with their socio-economic development and the broader national interest.

Let us try to understand how the embedded misinformation tweaks the above two factors. Elections have an element of marketing in them where all the parties try to persuade customers (voters) to buy their product (candidates) through different mechanisms. Like marketers, political parties strategize their election campaigning by asking what people need and sometimes this need is mis-prioritized or manufactured by putting emphasis on trivial issues. In today’s era of the information age, misinformation is a key element of this electoral marketing and can create lasting narratives about the candidates and the parties.

In the production, packaging, repackaging and circulation of such misinformation (often embedded with fake news and divisive propaganda), the role of social media has become very crucial. Also, it has the capacity to change the central and defining themes on which elections would be fought. For example, national security (and not the unemployment, farmers’ distress, gender-based violence etc) had become the defining issue of the recently held general elections, much to the surprise of many. India’s public discourse got drowned in this misinformation flood during the recent general elections.

However, this is not unique to India only. In US Presidential election 2016 also, there was a controversy regarding Russian involvement in disinformation and the dissemination of fake news, often promoted on social media. Also, ahead of parliamentary elections in the European Union, far-right propaganda has flooded the facebook pages.

There are many key players in social media’s role in India’s electoral process:-

  • Political parties: – They have realized the potential of social media in connecting with the masses ( especially the youth). On this platform, they connect directly with voters across the country at a reduced cost and greater reach than traditional media. This two-way communication helps them in promoting their controlled and well-articulated viewpoint without being interrupted by journalists. However, the extent of their engagement and sophistication level varies across the party lines.
  • Fan pages: – Many times, fan pages are created for political parties/leaders. Indirectly it also allows them to disseminate their propaganda without being held accountable.
  • Individual profiles:- Today, we can also see many social media profiles where users (vigilante groups, extremists/hardliners etc) regularly come Live on Facebook and spew venom against others on the basis of sex, religion, caste etc. It reinforces the existing prejudices and polarizes the voters by evoking a fear psychosis.

There were also allegations in India that political parties have collected personal data to classify voters on the basis of their location, religion, caste, age, socioeconomic status etc to add them to respective chat groups (Cambridge Analytica scandal). It makes the psychological engineering of voters much easier. Today, the mainstream political landscape is being shadowed by the fringe elements (gauged by the likes, shares and comments they get on social media) and many times, they are directly/indirectly associated with all the key players mentioned above.

The various elements of this coordinated network are intertwined and are used to misinform the public through the circulation of manipulated/doctored photos and videos. And it is being done on a daily basis. Just look at the recent examples. In one case, ISIS destroying artefacts in Iraq was being shared as the incident of breaking Vidyasagar statue in Kolkata. In another case, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was falsely quoted as confirming Pulwama attack as a well-planned conspiracy of the BJP.

While Facebook has much more visibility and surveillance into what is being shared on its platform, it becomes much more complicated with WhatsApp. Its end-to-end encryption technology is a valuable privacy tool. But, the company has very less control over what is being shared and there is no way to track down disinformation/fake news because of its encrypted nature. This has made it more vulnerable to misuse, especially in elections where it becomes a platform for spreading campaign-related misinformation.

With the surge in internet penetration in India and availability of cheap data, people are relying on these online platforms for the daily news. However, digital literacy is not rising at the same speed and people are swayed by what they see online. And they start sharing/retweeting it. But the pertinent question is why people share fake news without ascertaining its authenticity? What is the motive associated with it?

Being overwhelmed with the volume of information confronting them (which is often sensational and outrageous), the excitement of sharing proves to be irresistible. Many times they do it to verify it within their social circle. Many also take it as their social/civic/moral responsibility duty to do so, believing that it might benefit others and keep them safe.

Being coming from their friends’ list, there is an undercurrent of trust too, which increases one’s likelihood of accepting it as true. With no differing information to counter the untruths or the general agreement within isolated social groups, it becomes the accepted truth. Many times manipulated/erroneous data comes in the form of graphics, pie chart, infographics etc and people get fascinated by it and believes it as coming from sources which have done genuine research into it.

Many times, misinformation is circulated as being coming from reputed sources like UN Agencies, BBC, Time etc which increases its credibility in the eyes of social media users. Also, common people do not have the capabilities and resources to distinguish manipulated files from authentic ones, which has been doctored using techniques like artificial intelligence, deep machine learning etc.

During elections, misinformation can also be used for building a personality cult around a leader by skilfully exploiting the social media. In another way, it is also achieved through dissemination of political messages and memes that demonize and denigrate the opponent. This is achieved by targeting at specific social media groups which have been generated by deliberate data mining. For example, in the aftermath of the Balakot air strikes, there was a surge in the propagation of misinformation.

People who died in a heat wave was passed off as dead militants and also a 2017 video was used to portray IAF jets in Balakot airstrike (It was also reported by some mainstream media). And as per many surveys, this must have played an influential role in the ongoing election. However, this strategy increases the bitterness among the parties/candidates and symbolizes election as misinformation warfare, rather than the largest festival of Indian democracy.

Now, what is the role of traditional media then? Are they not supposed to act as gatekeepers to such misinformation circulation and play the role of fact checkers? Is it not their role to raise the awareness level of electorates by running the programs based on facts and dispelling the myths and misconceptions from the public discourse? They have failed.

  • One reason being, in the so-called information age, modern media is increasingly getting decentralized due to the increasing use of social media. This free media provides users with the capabilities to spread information quickly to other users without confirming its truthfulness (Remember, there is no editor in the world of social media!).
  • Another reason being, in recent times, press/media itself is directly/indirectly involved in propagating misinformation. For example, the News Broadcasting Standards Authority ordered a national news broadcaster to apologize for it’s malicious coverage. In a different case, activists wanted one channel to be sued for hate speech.

In the last few years, many journalists have started speaking like politicians and rather than fact checking or critically analyzing the speeches, they seem to be explaining or endorsing those speeches. They are even very quick in branding/categorizing activists under the fancy names as Maoists, Urban Naxals, anti-nationals etc.

Such branding does not merely tarnish the reputation of the subject of the speech, but it also has the potential to incite violence/hatred against them (a sort of media trial!).  There is a very thin line between fact-reporting and the political views of a journalist. Blurring this line will have a negative consequence as the media content are assumed to have a greater element of authenticity as compared to the personal opinions of the vested interests.

It may not be an exaggeration to state that misinformation had been the main weapon in this electoral battleground of 2019. It is a disturbing trend, especially in a country like India where electoral literacy is very low. (By electoral literacy, I mean the state of mind where the voter can make an informed decision on the basis of facts and critical analysis, rather than on the basis of false promises, misinformation and the hateful rhetoric).

Production of misinformation by a few people and its consumption by the vast majority should not become the norm. Otherwise, in the context of misinformation warfare, mob mentality can become a norm (look at the examples of mob lynching and vigilante justice in cow-related and child kidnapping cases), reshaping the world of social media into an anti-social one. It asks for bringing about behavioural changes in the public common sense. It includes mass outreach to inculcate the habit of fact-checking, reverse image checking etc before clicking the ‘share’/ ‘retweet’ button.

There is a need for sensitizing people towards media (including social media) consumption and helping them in differentiating misinformation from the truth. Everyone (Media, Fact checkers, Digital companies, Election Commission, Civil Society and Government) has to play their respective role in this regard. Building an informed and engaged citizenry who critically examines the information being circulated will have the maximum impact in fighting the menace of misinformation.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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