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:-
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:-
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.
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.