This Is Why the Indian Elections Should Concern Us All

Those of us in the UK still reeling from the implications of the success of the Leave campaign will be acutely familiar with the dangers of populist rhetoric driving public opinion.
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses an election campaign rally in Junagadh, Gujarat, India
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses an election campaign rally in Junagadh, Gujarat, India
Amit Dave / Reuters

Nearly 900 million Indian citizens began to cast their vote on Thursday in what happens to be the world’s largest democratic exercise. The Indian population will, over the next five weeks, determine which political party it considers most worthy of providing political, ideological, social and strategic leadership to a heaving population of over 1.3 billion Indians.

Those of us in the UK still reeling from the implications of the success of the Leave campaign during Brexit will, by now, be acutely familiar with the dangers of populist rhetoric, supported ostensibly by disinformation, driving public opinion.

If the social media onslaught preceding the Indian national elections is anything to go by, information wars between rival political parties carry socio-political implications of unprecedented scale and scope, particularly in terms of how these platforms are weaponised.

The real impact and moral dilemmas faced by platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp by unrestrained misuse during this election campaign are truly staggering.

Even though an estimated 57 percent of Indians aged 15-34 watch TV news and 25 percent read newspapers several times a week, social media increasingly seems to be taking centre-stage in the battle over public opinion.

Particularly in India, Facebook has over 340 million, WhatsApp over 240 million users, and even smaller platforms such as ShareChat and Helo have approximately 40 million and 25 million active monthly users respectively. The recent military escalation between India and Pakistan already epitomised the disingenuous potential of leveraging social media to generate and disseminate disinformation.

For instance, a clip circulated widely on Facebook and other media platforms misleadingly presented an aerial assault taken from a video game as the actual Indian attack on a training camp inside Pakistan. Similarly, extensively shared images of victims from a 2015 heatwave in Pakistan were presented as bodies of militants allegedly killed by the Indian attack.

At the same time rival parties have used the crisis to stoke political tensions domestically ahead of the polls. A recording shared by a Facebook user presented Amit Shah, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader allegedly admitting that ‘for election, we need a war’. The post, seen by 2.5 million viewers and shared repeatedly before being taken down, had used spliced audio from older interviews and was presented out of context.

Similarly, a WhatsApp message gone viral, and later flagged as false, presented India’s Congress Party as complicit on Pakistan-sponsored militancy and alleged that a Congress party leader promised money to free ‘terrorists’ and ‘stone pelters’ from prison if they won the general elections. Whilst leading political parties use similar tactics to target their rivals on social media, BJP has arguably developed a system with the largest reach and impact.

Amit Malviya, head of BJP’s IT cell, admits to having cultivated roughly 1.2 million social media volunteers to help run the party’s campaigns online. In addition to developing a sophisticated multi-tiered social media network that spans the party’s extensive reach from metropolitan cities to the remotest of villages, BJP also promotes the use of NaMo, Prime Minister Modi’s very own smartphone app.

Preloaded in free Android phones and distributed in BJP-dominated provinces, as well as low cost phones sold by local operator Reliance Jio, the app has been installed by more than 10 million people.

Designed explicitly to promote the Prime Minister, it has a built-in social network and is susceptible to much the same dangers of information manipulation and qualitative maleficence as more mainstream apps such as Twitter – with none of the associated counter-measures.

The dangers inherent in such an unfettered deployment of electronic media have been highlighted by recent reports looking at how a sense of civic duty leverages disinformation to build upon hyper-nationalist, often far right Hindu revivalist, narratives in India. A recent ‘Beyond Fake News’ report disturbingly presents India’s WhatsApp landscape as characterised by homophily i.e. the pooling together of people into tight networks of likeminded individuals. Also referred to as ‘echo chambers’ and ‘filter bubbles’ in the social media lexicon, such electronic congregations have manifested in online incitement to hate leading to offline incidents of actual violence (including murders and mob lynchings) against minority communities.

For social media behemoths such as Facebook, India may prove to be the most significant litmus test for how it plans to navigate the deluge of disinformation, misinformation and fake news, as well as foreign interference in globally significant electoral contests.

The sheer scale of this election – with approximately 500 of the 2,354 officially registered political parties contesting 543 seats in the Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) elections – attests to the difficulty of this task.

Granted the Indian case is marginally different in that most preelection online propaganda is internally sourced rather than externally orchestrated, learnings from this election would nonetheless be transferable.

As Graham Brookie, Director of the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council, a think tank working with Facebook to study disinformation campaigns, observes: ‘Indian elections in 2019 are an important test case for how they get [US Presidential Elections in] 2020 right, and how they get elections right everywhere going forward’.

With several key elections taking place this year across Asia, Europe, Middle East, and North and South Africa, and disinformation still widely expected, it appears the lessons learnt from Indian elections may need to be deployed even sooner.

Dr Sarah Ashraf is Policy and Research Manager at the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, London


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