Social Media’s Contribution To Political ‘Misperceptions’: On India’s Fake News Ecosystem

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There is no escaping social media! Just like the State, social media has acquired a ubiquitous status, considering the reach of digital platforms in even the most remote corners of the planet. The last 7-8 years vouch for the fact that social media has emerged as an all-pervasive force in politics, completely transforming communication dynamics between political leaders, masses and the media. Given the unrestricted and unchecked use of Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp for election campaigns, there is a growing concern about the role these outlets have been playing in fuelling political perceptions, especially misperceptions!

In a fundamentally multi-cultural and multi-ethnic nation such as India, diversity is a fragile equation to maintain. When so many different castes, creeds, religions, languages, and cultures co-exist, chances of a minor misconception or misinformation snowballing into defining moments of terror and hatred become very high, particularly if this misinformation is allowed to spread like wildfire through social media. For instance, in Northeast India, irresponsible social media behavior has, time and again, contributed to incidents of lynching and mob violence in this already volatile region. There what might just be seemingly irksome could blow up into a volatile magnitude owing to social media’s inability to bring check-posts like authentication and source verification.

Streaming graphic acts of violence live on social media and distorting facts with the intent to drive communal tension or to bolster a popular narrative, which could be prejudiced are enough to unleash a domino effect of violence and endless debates. Simple incidents of violence are given communal/casteist angles on social media to incite hatred between communities – spreading malice, anger, and violence- ultimately serving somebody’s purpose!

We are aware of sensitive situations when the government ordered the suspension of internet services for 48 or 72 hours specifically in a region to deter ‘anti-social’ elements from stoking communal riots any further. This blatantly establishes the vulnerability of social media and perceptions formulated by it! Political parties understand this psyche very well- in fact, they manipulate it, helping paid trolls become the norm on social media especially during election campaigns, when emotions run high and chances of fuelling misinformation are at its peak. We were privy to a vicious spread of falsehoods pertaining to candidates and critical campaign issues in the recently concluded General Elections. Each time the miscreants fell short of real issues, they chose to concoct make-believe ones aimed at tarnishing the image of a candidate or for floating a deviant line of thought about a party. Social media platforms with their ready to consume temperament provide opportunities galore to spin tales of deceit, showing the hazardous aspect of technology and human nature.

NEW DELHI, INDIA – JUNE 22: Members of All India Students Association (AISA) hold placards as they protest against the mob lynchings in the country, at Parliament street, on June 22, 2018 in New Delhi, India. Hailed from Hapurs Madhapur village, Qasim was lynched by a mob suspecting him of cow smuggler in Bajhera Khurd village in the Pilakhua town on Monday while his co-villager 65-year-old Mohammad Samiuddin sustained serious injuries in the assault. According to the victim family and villagers, the two were attacked over cattle theft rumors. However, the police said the assault preceded an altercation over a road accident. (Photo by Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Repeated consumption of the same message creates bias and leads to pushing belief, however false an idea. If you watched the proceedings of the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections, you’d precisely understand what I mean!
Given the highly ‘social’ nature of these networks, the electorate is least likely to verify a news/claim/fact when they hear it from multiple sources, which they deem to be credible. What’s worse is that people are not even responsive to prudent efforts in the direction of correcting falsehoods. Their belief swings more towards the statements of people they interact with regularly than towards verified information from strangers, even when the facts are 100% accurate, which is deeply problematic.

Citizens shape the social and political environment through their engagement and participation in the electoral process, and the very foundation of democracy stands jeopardised when information devoid of accuracy gets circulated, creating misperceptions which question the very essence of social networking and communication. Voters become easy bait when make-believe claims about candidates and issues are promoted under the sham of evidence.
Spreading falsified information distorts the critical decision-making process and calls for responsible use of social media for political discourses in a nation that also happens to be the world’s largest democracy with billions of voters, who hold the fate of the country in their hands.

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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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