New Delhi, India – It was early March, 2014, and India was buzzing with activities that often precede a parliamentary election of this magnitude, in the world’s largest democracy.
Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, a whistle-blowing website, put out a statement refuting claims of an unlikely endorsement of Narendra Modi, then prime ministerial candidate and the eventual frontrunner.
The statement was issued after several infographics were shared across social media with fake quotes, attributed to Assange, praising Modi.
For the first time in the nation’s history, digital media, a force that had grown powerful over the last decade, was employed aggressively by political parties to woo the voters. After all, nearly 37 percent of urban Indian voters were connected to some form of social media, according to a survey by Google in 2013.
Fake information is building fear psychosis among people.
The internet not only helped bring in the young voters, but also sway their favourability towards the running candidates.
However, this relatively cheap and, in many ways, revolutionary platform also created a whirlpool of misinformation that continues to create unwelcome ripples across the nation.
During the elections, Modi’s campaign managers had invested themselves heavily into tapping this medium to set the narrative towards an incontrovertible win.
Debunking fake news
Visual cues, such as photos and graphics, portraying Modi as the saviour of the nation, alongside memes mocking the other parties’ candidates were shared on social media and WhatsApp messenger by a team of dedicated Modi supporters, their numbers stretching into the far hundred thousands.
In another instance, a photo meant to show a younger, humble Modi sweeping the floors went viral, and was later debunked as a doctored image of another man.
That didn’t matter, though; for a very long time during and after the elections, the photo had become a symbol of Modi’s modest roots.
It continues to be purported that their social media warfare was not only effective in communication, but also contributed to Modi’s win in the elections. However, the veracity of their claims remains questionable.
Three years on, little has changed. If anything, things have become more abysmal.
In May this year, just days before the third anniversary of inauguration of the current Indian government, a mob in the eastern state of Jharkhand went on a killing spree, triggered by a simple WhatsApp message.
Three innocent men were beaten to death by an angry mob that wrongly believed those men were human traffickers, based on a warning they received in the messages.
As dystopian as it may seem, the fake news problem in India is very real. In all, seven people lost their lives in two separate incidences in Jharkhand, in a fury that was born on social media and based on falsified information that the killers received over WhatsApp messenger.
“Fake information is building fear psychosis among people,” explains Pratik Sinha, founder of AltNews, a web platform dedicated to verifying and debunking the scourge of fake news in circulation.
AltNews operates with a small team of four people, most working part-time, focusing solely on countering false information that threatens dangerous consequences.
“It [fake news] has added to the tension within communities, and, over the years, several people have lost lives because of false information and rumours,” he adds, emphasising the need for platforms such as his that provide a mirror to the mainstream media that often contributes to the online rumours mill.
Indeed, other websites and platforms, such as SMHoaxSlayer and BoomLive, with formats similar to AltNews, have cropped up in the last year to fight the grievous rise of fake information among the Indian population, that remains gullible to it.
A couple of months after the Jharkhand incident, in July, amidst a communal flare-up in the state of West Bengal, a BJP leader, Vijeta Malik, shared a screenshot from a local feature film showing a woman being molested, and tried to pass it as an image of Muslims molesting Hindu women.
Vijeta is part of a far-right political movement that is pushing a Hindu supremacist (or Hindutva) narrative. In fact, ongoing tension itself was believed to have been a result of an image offensive to Muslims circulated through Facebook and attributed to a Hindu boy.
While websites like AltNews rake up to a million views a month, the lack of human resources to counter people like Vijeta adds another layer of challenge for Sinha and his team. They have to prioritise investigations based on the urgency afforded to the matter.
“If a politician is at the forefront of spreading fake news, we give that priority, since they have influence.” He explains their methodology, using a scientific approach and empirical evidence to counter fiction presented as facts.
However, if a video is involved, that takes precedence over all else. “Videos are a high priority, because they are always so dangerous when carrying false information,” he illustrates with the example of a series of fake videos that went viral after India lost a cricket match against Pakistan in June.
“Multiple videos were circulated on WhatsApp allegedly showing Indian Muslims celebrating the victory of Pakistan. All except one of those videos was genuine; it was from [Indian-administered] Kashmir. All the other videos, and there were multiple ones from around the country, were fake,” he recalls.
Having investigated the sources of every single video, each could have led to communal tensions and violent incidents in parts of India, Sinha said.
How is fake news circulated?
Surprisingly, fake news production and circulation seem rather meticulous and well-organised.
Websites such as Postcard News, an Indian version of Breitbart, have cropped up and made a successful business model out of distribution of false, albeit provocative, news stories with catchy clickbait headlines.
Despite their articles being frequently debunked, they continue to produce and cite false stories that suit the right-wing popular narrative. These articles, and the website, get further momentum when shared by prominent BJP leaders and right-wing influencers on social media.
Additionally, a blitzkrieg strategy is adopted on social media, wherein BJP followers post tweets and messages taken from a common template created in advance, with the idea of pushing a suitable “trend” to popularity.
One such template acquired by Al Jazeera, created on a Google document, shows the centralised nature of a social media campaign designed to push its agenda aggressively and without much regard for facts.
Pankaj Jain, founder of SMHoaxSlayer, feels the fake news machinery is not designed to serve the interests of just one political entity or ideology.
“Politics is dirty, and now everyone is employing fake news as a strategy for power play,” he said, illustrating with a story they recently debunked, involving false claims by the opposition about a railway project signed by the ruling party.
Elaborating on the role of mobile-based messenger applications, he remains cautiously fearful of the role of WhatsApp.
“While WhatsApp isn’t the only platform, in India, it does play an important role in circulation of fake news,” he explains, adding how the technology makes it easy for those circulating fake information to erase their digital crumbs.
“It allows you to forward a message and then completely delete it from your own system, thereby shedding responsibility. Also, often those messages “forwarded as received” are also easily edited to suit one’s agenda,” he adds.
Indeed, according to recent statistics, the messaging application owned by the social media giant has over 200 million active users as of February 2017, making the reach of the platform diverse and wide.
The business of fake news
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” The quote that is often, and ironically, wrongly attributed to Joseph Goebbels – the propaganda minister during Nazi Germany – perhaps best sums up what’s happening in India.
Repetitive tweets and posts on a particular topic, or hashtag, are aimed at trending the related subject to the extent that it becomes a popular, believable narrative.
More interestingly, those participating in this blitzkrieg action are not just BJP’s online foot soldiers, but also members of the parliament as well as several ministers in Modi’s cabinet.
Indian ministers have often been called out for sharing images and information on social media that is in fact untrue. For instance, Minister of State for Power, Coal, Energy and Mines, Piyush Goyal, tweeted a photo about the street-lighting programme by the government with a photo of a street in Russia.
Attempts to reach three officials and spokespersons of BJP were met with weak engagements and eventual silence.
Not only has the fake news industry aided in upholding and pushing through a certain political agenda, but it can also be highly profitable, which would explain its recent ascent after the 2014 elections.
Jain puts the responsibility of this epidemic on the consumers of the information.
“The only driving force in fake news in the existing, strongly-held bias among people,” he insists.
“They like to hear sugar-coated lies in the name of country, religion or community, while elsewhere there is someone minting money from such lies,” he says.