Prime Minister Narendra Modi picks up a child, who leans towards two microphones in front of her and appears to utter a derogatory phrase often used by the BJP to mock Congress president Rahul Gandhi. That’s all there is in the 23-second video clip. But wait. There is another clip. The same clip, in fact. Only this time the child ridicules Modi himself, as she repeats what appears to be a Twitter campaign launched by the Congress. It later emerges that the original clip, dating back to 2016, was of a differently-abled child, Gauri Shardul, reciting a shloka from the Ramayana during one of Modi’s visits to his home state, Gujarat.
The two versions of the video clip, both doctored and widely circulated through social media and WhatsApp in India, is a classic case study of “fake news”, that new global menace described by Collins dictionary last year as a “very real word”. Over the past few years, fake news has moved beyond its conventional description of “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting”. It’s now mostly a political tool, used to nail rival parties with doctored audios and videos and morphed photographs.
And with general elections in India scheduled for early next year, there are growing indications that fake news will play a big role over the next few months as parties of all hues twist facts and figures to try and influence the voters. And India is one of 48 countries where political parties have “formally organised social media manipulation campaigns”, an Oxford study said in July. Many experts believe the BJP harnessed the power of WhatsApp and social media in the run-up to the 2014 general elections that catapulted it to power with an overwhelming majority. Other parties, including the Congress, got into the high-stakes game very late; now all parties have separate social media groups but the BJP’s team, known as the ‘IT Cell’, is said to be far more organised and with greater reach than all others. It also allegedly dishes out more fake news than the others.
“The right is more systematic and they have a better protocol in place,” says Sagar Kaul, founding CEO of MetaFact, an AI-based fact-checker. “For example, if there is a post which has popped up for a right-wing influencer, chances of that being picked up is much higher,” he adds, explaining that their distribution networks are much stronger. A highly-controversial recent survey by the BBC, titled ‘Beyond fake news’, also says that “right-wing networks are much more organised than on the left, pushing nationalistic fake stories further. There was also an overlap of fake news sources on Twitter and support networks of Prime Minister Narendra Modi”. Angry right-wing groups trashed the survey’s findings, especially on its sample size.
Shreya Rajagopalan, a researcher who worked for a fortnight in poll-bound Madhya Pradesh, agrees that the “BJP has a stronger team, a larger support system, more spread out strategy, more FB pages and more followers”. Rajagopalan, who researched fake news and the actors and audience involved, says that parties are pushing memes and videos and microtargeting voters who are part-disillusioned and part-distanced from mainstream media due to the ease of swiping through apps on smartphones. “They (BJP) started much earlier and had more research to do this. I wouldn’t say the Congress is not doing it though.”
Some of the numbers are staggering. BJP insiders say the party has close to 15,000 WhatsApp groups in Uttar Pradesh, the most politically-important state for any party hoping to grab power at the Centre. During the assembly polls in Karnataka earlier this year, the party had created 20,000 such groups. India’s population and the number of social media users turn these platforms into happy hunting grounds for political parties. WhatsApp has over 200 million users in India and counting. The country is also home to over 30 million Twitter accounts and close to 294 million on Facebook.
This is precisely the reason the Congress is re-inventing itself on social media with Rahul Gandhi scaling up his visibility on Twitter and Facebook as he leads the party’s campaign against Modi. The Congress’ social media team, led by former MP Divya Spandana, regularly posts memes and spoofs mocking the Modi government and its policies. And the cell is also accused of its bit of mischief, by tinkering with photos and videos. “If you notice our stories, you’ll see there is now more misinformation from the non right-wing side as well, especially pages and accounts that seem to support the Congress,” says Pratik Sinha, co-founder of Alt News, an online platform which debunks fake news. He says the change in patterns has become more evident in the past six months. Sinha cites a recent example when photograph of a Sardar Patel statue erected in 2008 went viral with Congress supporters circulating it as that of the world’s tallest statue unveiled in Gujarat recently. It was after Rahul Gandhi said Modi’s pet project was ‘Made in China’. “It is very political in nature. The same thing emanates from the right-wing as well, but the right-wing has this additional misinformation component, which is very significant, of a constant attack on minorities and the demonisation of the minority community using misinformation,” Sinha, 36, adds.
The supply chain
But how does the well-oiled ecosystem work? It is a concoction of fake news, social media and data, says Shivam Shankar Singh, a political consultant formerly associated with election strategist Prashant Kishor’s IPAC and the BJP until June this year. “What I handled was data analytics. The spread of fake news and (the work of) Whatsapp groups were based on the work that we did,” he says, adding that “misinformation” was fired with the ammunition of data. Singh says he quit the scene as he did not want to be a part of an upcoming campaign which will be “divisive” and that every party is out to “push a narrative” which thrives on confirmation bias and cherry-picking data to suit their agenda.
He cites an example of the right-wing assertion that the “growing Muslim population” is leading to increase in crimes. Singh says there would be stories in mainstream social media backing the argument. “So they pick up these news stories and mix it up with fake news. News does not intend to incite, the language is not hysterical, so they’ll pick up a video from Syria and put it in the copy,” he says.
Shivam says those who forward or share these messages do not realise, in most cases, that they are fake. “(But) those who make them, those who design the graphics know that they are fake. These messages are then sent to 500 WhatsApp groups, the people in those groups think these are real…and they spread them as they want to spread the message, not because they want to spread fake news,” he adds. Jency Jacob, managing editor of fake news-buster BOOMLive, says the misinformation campaign is not confined to the right-wing. “Parties on both sides of the divide are putting out images and videos with the wrong context and wrong narrative. A lot of these then starts circulating on WhatsApp groups,” adds Jacob. BOOMLive was the first in India to work with Facebook to counter misinformation prior to elections.
There is big money involved too. Shivam Shankar Singh recounts his days on the rolls of a right-wing think-tank close to the BJP. He says that if the BJP had to pay someone Rs 20,000-30,000 for social media work it was an informal arrangement. “But if someone has to get a monthly salary of Rs 1.5-2 lakh, there’s no other way for the party but to do it formally”, which is done by recruiting the person into any of the alaied think-tanks.
Pratik Sinha cites the example of “about five-six FB pages” which purportedly backs the BJP. These pages, he says, regularly posts “graphics which seem to be professionally done, all of which are sponsored posts which means somebody is pouring in the money”. The page ‘Nation with Namo’, for example, with nearly 8.70 lakh followers put out a post on November 1 looking to hire “content writers, graphic designers, and video editors”. “You’ll see the graphics are similar, this is not the work of an amateur,” Sinha adds.
Currently, there are even Facebook pages up for sale. Some of these were formed by former BJP supporters who are charging anything between Rs 3 to Rs 5 lakh for a page, depending on the number of ‘likes’ it had garnered. As these pages already have millions of followers, the new owner can simply start pushing any content. Shivam says these pages thrive because people rarely ‘unfollow’ pages once they ‘like’ them on Facebook. “The thing is it’s not a bad business model to create FB pages supporting the BJP. You create a website behind it and you keep posting links. So you make a decent amount of money just from advertisers’ revenue,” he adds. To generate a decent number of likes, posts are often paid for in the initial days for greater visibility. He says that the promotion money is sometimes raised from supporters. In others, the party or administrators make the payment.
The latest country to have battled and, some believe, lost the battle with fake news is Brazil. Results on October 28 declared that the land of samba and soccer voted for PSL’s right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro, a day when WhatsApp banned more than 1,00,000 accounts. The Brazilian president is infamous for the cringe-worthy comment, “I’m not going to rape you, because you’re very ugly”, to Maria do Rosario, the former minister for human rights. Expectedly, the nature of the rhetoric during the campaign wasn’t exactly civil. “We got a lot of dirty stuff and people believed the dirtiest things in the world,” says Rio de Janeiro-based Cristina Tardáguila, director of Agencia Lupa, one of the largest fact-checkers in the country. “Since it was dirty it spread very fast and it’s amazing that people decided to believe the dirtiest things just to sustain their position.”
Barely six months later, an estimated 850 million people in India—about six times the size of Brazil’s electorate—will vote across 29 states in the biggest democratic exercise in the world. How messy it will be with an avalanche of fake news is anybody’s guess. Former chief election commissioner S.Y. Quraishi says fake news spread through WhatsApp groups, with so many members, is “1000 thousand times more dangerous than rumours going out word-of-mouth”. He feels that social media platforms need to take measures and EC should sit with them and monitor certain content during election time. “The law and order implications are great,” he adds.
Several right-wing websites, including IndusScrolls and Postcard News, said that an activist was planning to carry sanitary napkins inside Sabarimala.
Jency Jacob of BOOMLive says there is “much more action” now in Facebook. “And coming closer to the elections, we will see more and more people (profiles) come in and share stuff which will go viral overnight,” Jacob adds. One of the biggest challenges for fact-checkers are content in regional languages. Last month, Union minister Smriti Irani waded into the raging debate over the entry of women into Sabarimala temple in Kerala. “Would you take sanitary napkins seeped in menstrual blood and walk into a friend’s home? You would not. Would you think it is respectful to do the same thing and walk into house of God?” Her comment was apparently in response to news reports about activists’ plans on carrying sanitary napkins inside the temple. BoomLive traced the rumour back to right-wing news websites such as Postcard news and IndusScrolls. Jacob and Pratik Sinha agree that a lot of people will be required regionally to do these fact checks in the future. Hindustan Times recently carried a report which showed that regional social media ShareChat’s story attributing a false quote to preacher Zakir Naik was their most read.
Social media platforms say they are aware of the rot. WhatsApp, for example, has limited the number of users a message can be forwarded in India to five. But for Twitter it is a much more challenging job. “It is not possible for us to distinguish whether every single tweet from every single person is truthful or not. We also believe that taking down content simply because it is incorrect would ultimately undermine the open democratic debate that our platform is intended to facilitate,” a spokesperson of the microblogging platform says.
A recent case underlines the fault lines and fallibility of social media. Ankit Lal, the head of Aam Aadmi Party’s social media team, posted an image from a bridge in Rotterdam, tagging it as the recently-constructed Signature Bridge in Delhi, and was called out on Twitter. “That was a mistake on my part, it’s human. I picked it up from a journalist and later I saw the journalist had himself deleted it,” Lal tells Outlook.
While social media can be as ugly as it gets, WhatsApp forwards can be lethal. Last year, several people were lynched in separate incidents in India by mobs incited by messages about child-lifters on the prowl. It takes just one word taken out of context, one morphed photograph to light the fire. And there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people working behind the scenes to create chaos and confusion for someone else to reap the benefits.
The Numbers Game: Too Many To Ignore
- The BJP has over 15,000 WhatsApp groups in UP
- There were close to 20,000 in Karnataka during the assembly elections.
- The Congress and JD-S had 30,000 WhatsApp groups
- WhatsApp has over 200 million users in India and counting
- India has over 30 million Twitter accounts and close to 294 million people on Facebook
- There are growing indications that fake news will play a big role in the run up to the 2019 general elections.
- Ex-CEC S.Y. Quraishi says fake news spread through WhatsApp is “1000 thousand times more dangerous”.