Facebook announced on 1 April that it had closed 549 accounts and 138 pages associated with India’s main opposition party, the Indian National Congress (Congress), due to what it described as ‘co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour’. The US social media giant’s clampdown also targeted ‘some accounts’ on Facebook’s WhatsApp encrypted messaging service that were endorsed by the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
WhatsApp – which has 200 million users in India – said it had launched a service to verify reports sent in by users and to study the scale of misinformation on the platform. Some content was also removed by US social networking microblogging platform Twitter. Objectionable material has been removed from platforms following direction from the Election Commission of India (ECI).
The ECI’s efforts are aimed at curbing misinformation campaigns that could undermine and discredit the 17th Lok Sabha general election, which takes place in seven phases between 11 April and 19 May. There had already been instances of ‘fake news’ with influential election propaganda posted on these social media platforms this year.
- A three-minute video circulating on WhatsApp shows a school bus with electronic voting machines inside, in Bina Bazar, Madhya Pradesh state. Surrounding the bus are opposition activists shouting ‘murder of democracy’ in Hindi, implying that Modi and the BJP are colluding with the ECI to rig the election. This video was later proven to be false. The actual video was shot two days after the conclusion of the November 2018 state elections in Madhya Pradesh, where Congress trounced the BJP. The ECI confirmed that the voting machines were spare ones, and not used in those polls.
- Days after the 14 February terrorist attack in Pulwama district, Jammu and Kashmir state, a message circulated on numerous WhatsApp groups, claiming Congress would provide a large sum of money to the family of the Islamist militant behind the attack that killed 40 Indian paramilitary personnel. The message also warned that Congress would free terrorists from prison if elected. The message was later proven false.
There is no doubt that India faced an unprecedented onslaught of misinformation ahead of the general election, and more worrying is that the vast majority of it is produced domestically. Social media and other online networks provide convenient platforms to spread political propaganda with greater speed, better geographical penetration, stronger influential potential and increased possibilities for harm. Political parties and special interest groups use WhatsApp, Twitter, ShareChat, Helo, NaMo and Facebook for legitimate election messaging without any malicious intent; however, the ECI’s efforts illustrate its concerns over misinformation campaigns.
Traditional news organisations and media outlets continually broadcast partisan election messaging, but social media has amplified these efforts through a myriad of unaccountable entities. Altered newspaper clippings and television news screengrabs have inundated social media platforms, with the intention of influencing the sentiment and opinions of the electorate, but these can be inciteful and hyper-inflammatory.
In its worst manifestation, fake news can lead to violence, significant personal and reputational harm. In 2018, there were separate incidents involving mob violence incited by fake news that led to fatalities in Maharashtra state. In two incidents, six men were killed after accusations about child abductions circulated on WhatsApp.
In light of these ongoing security concerns, foreign companies with a presence in India are advised to monitor developments, educate staff on the proper usage of social media platforms and conduct awareness training aimed at inoculating staff against the effects of misinformation campaigns. Companies should monitor the election media landscape for any intelligence that could prove damaging to their reputation, operations and personnel.