Platforms like WhatsApp fuel public manipulation and risk undermining democracy in India.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that Indians are worried about the spread of misinformation via mobile devices, and are uncertain if the internet and mobile devices have produced a positive impact on politics overall.

These trends do not bode well for India’s upcoming general election, which kicks off on April 11 and carries on until May 19. With around 900 million eligible voters, the contest could provide ample terrain for (dis)information wars to be waged.

Social media has quickly transformed into an essential part of election campaigning. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s victory in 2014 saw the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) cultivate an extensive social media presence and harness data analytics to build effective micro-targeted campaigns – and they are keen to build on that success.

As part of their 2019 campaign, the BJP have looked to target smartphone voters from the bottom-up: some 900,000 volunteers, “cell phone pramukhs,” are in charge of forming neighbourhood-based WhatsApp groups to peddle BJP propaganda.

The conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir – likely to be a vital issue electorally for the BJP – already proved ripe for manipulation. Post-Pulwama attacks, tensions were kindled by a relentless stream of viral content and disinformation on social media.

More troublingly, three of Facebook’s seven fact-checking partners were found to be broadcasting misinformation without any correction of misreports.

A dark underbelly

Given the high stakes, the Election Commission of India has taken notice and instructed all candidates and parties with social media guidelines to curb the spread of manipulative information. On March 20, Google, Facebook, and Twitter presented a ‘Voluntary Code of Ethics for the General Election 2019’ to the Commission.

The tech giants have committed to providing awareness programs, deploying fact checkers, taking swift action against bogus accounts, and rolling out political advertising transparency measures.

But is it too little too late?

In November of last year, the BBC published a report that investigated the challenges posed by disinformation and how ordinary citizens engage with and spread fake news. It was part of the BBC’s ‘Beyond Fake News’ project, an international anti-disinformation initiative that focused on India, Kenya, and Nigeria.

The research conducted on India, in particular, showed how a civic duty was motivating fake news to ‘nation build’. This meant that stories on India’s progress and that which fed into a discourse of Hindu revivalism were being shared on social platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook without any attempt to fact-check.

The report also pointed to an overlap between pro-Modi political messaging and disinformation, and that “right-wing networks are much more organised than on the left, pushing nationalistic fake stories further.”

 The “WhatsApp Elections”

Of all the online social platforms operating in India, WhatsApp’s dominance – and equally, its notoriety – has been widely documented.

With over 200 million users and 87,000 groups devoted to amplifying political messaging to influence voters, the popularity of WhatsApp sees it uniquely positioned to have a detrimental effect on the election process. So much so, that the impending polls have been dubbed the “WhatsApp Elections.”

The 2018 Brazilian elections and Indian state-level elections have since revealed how the Facebook-owned platform has been politicised to rapidly distribute misinformation to manipulate voters.

Earlier this year, Carl Woog, Head of Communications for WhatsApp, called out Indian political parties for continuing to exploit the encrypted messaging platform.

However, much of the coverage on disinformation has revolved around it being at the center of discussions on technology and violence, where going viral has had lethal consequences.

In 2018, a spate of murders and mob lynchings that resulted in the deaths of at least 30 people were attributed to fake news circulated through WhatsApp, to which the company responded by restricting the number of people a user could forward a message to in one go from 256 to twenty at a time. This forwarding restriction has now been adopted globally and capped at five.

What exactly is it about the nature of the platform that nurtures such alarming acts of violence?

According to the BBC research report, India’s WhatsApp landscape is one defined by homophily – the pooling together of people into tight networks of like-mindedness – rather than by the transmission speed of group messaging. It is this feature of WhatsApp that has increasingly precipitated mobilisation in the cause of violence.

There’s a specific driving force behind WhatsApp’s disquieting impact in India beyond the straightforward diffusion of fake news. The Hindu right has, so far, successfully wielded Whatsapp to galvanise a communal, sociopolitical identity. It has done this predominantly through invite-only groups that push virulent content to cultivate a robust nationalism.

Cognisant of the product’s dark underbelly in its largest market, WhatsApp just launched the ‘Share Joy, Not Rumours’ public education campaign to prevent users from misusing the platform. It has also banned 6 million accounts over the past three months for bulk or automated behaviour.

Will this be enough to quell concerns and preserve the integrity of a grueling seven-phase election process in the world’s largest democracy?

The insidious role of social media platforms in Indian politics (and political spheres globally) rely on prevailing social cleavages, which online tools like WhatsApp then amplify and exploit.

This reflects the fragmentation of traditional media ecosystems, the result of which has been the rise of 'narrowcasting' and the proliferation of content producers that disperse the concentrated spectacle of news into the diffuse platforms of social media, making users more susceptible to ideological 'echo chambers', confirmation bias and manipulation.

Ultimately, it goes to the heart of a much broader issue that democracies must tackle in a new media landscape; one that will require a deeper understanding of the budding linkages between digital politics and our fractured public domains. 

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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