As around 900 million Indian voters decide who should be their next leader, an increasingly troubling question is looming over the country's general elections: How vulnerable is it to the kind of social media manipulation that has recently been seen in Europe and the United States?

Amid growing anxiety about the effect of fake news and malicious disinformation on the world's largest democracy, we asked filmmaker Mandakini Gahlot to investigate.


FILMMAKER'S VIEW

By Mandakini Gahlot 

Just as we were putting this film through post-production, a controversy broke out in India that demonstrated exactly how urgent the problem of fake news and propaganda is in the run-up to the world's largest democratic exercise.

With less than two weeks to go before the hotly contested parliamentary elections began, people from across the country started reporting that a strange channel had magically appeared on their television screens. NAMO TV, the new channel, appeared to be solely dedicated to the speeches of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, interrupted by special hour-long programming of the prime minister doing yoga.

When journalists began enquiring about this blatantly partisan channel, the country's Information and Broadcasting Ministry said it was being aired without the necessary permissions, and they had no idea who was behind it.

In fact, the prime minister himself said: "I have heard some people have started a channel, though I have not had time to see it myself."

His party distanced itself from the controversy, but the channel remained on air, even though by now there were loud voices saying that not only was this channel flouting broadcast regulations, but in fact, it was also in violation of the model code of conduct that regulates election campaigning in India.

While this may sound like a small local issue, just consider what would happen if a television dedicated to President Donald Trump began broadcasting just days before Americans were set to vote on his re-election. In my lifetime, I have only ever seen authoritarian leaders like Muammar Gaddafi or Kim Jong Un use such tricks, and in a country like India, where we have always prided ourselves on our hard-fought freedom to freely elect our government, this was unheard of.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he is presented with a garland during an election campaign rally in Himmatnagar, Gujarat, India, April 17, 2019 [Reuters/Amit Dave]

By the time the Bharatiya Janata Party's IT cell - a secretive body within the organisation solely dedicated to digital campaigning - stepped forward to admit that in fact they were running the channel, I was not at all surprised.

In recent years, the party's IT cell has acquired a reputation for using every dirty trick in the propaganda manual to influence voters. What's worse is that their success has resulted in similar cells being instituted by nearly every major national and regional party, and social media has become their main battleground.

With people deeply disillusioned by the country's mainstream media - which has become extremely polarised in the last five years - more and more Indians now get their news entirely from Facebook, Twitter and, most damagingly, from the end to end encrypted chat service WhatsApp. And what shows up on these groups is hateful rhetoric usually targeted at religious minorities or individual journalists, activists and politicians. India is facing information wars at an unprecedented scale, and unlike in the US where much of the misinformation was backed by a foreign country, here it's all manufactured domestically

Just this morning I woke up to a message on a pro-BJP WhatsApp group that named 68 journalists - among the country's most respected figures - as being on the payroll of the opposition Congress party. There was no evidence, no proof, but since the messages are being sent to people who have been primed for years to believe such propaganda, the list served its purpose of destroying the credibility of journalists who do not echo the party line.

With only the weakest of data privacy laws, India's political parties have succeeded in profiling the country's voters along caste, religion and socioeconomic status as we reveal in this film. The data sets that have emerged from such profiling have been used to add people to different Whatsapp groups where they have been bombarded with misinformation over a span of years to ensure that their perception of reality is skewed beyond repair.

While all parties are guilty of adopting these measures, I have no hesitation in saying that Prime Minister Modi's BJP is miles ahead in the game.

Just a week before the election, Huffington Post broke another crucial story that revealed that the party has been using a women's NGO, set up to help acid attack victims, as a front for their digital manipulation activities. Employees paid by the NGO were doing voter outreach and running Facebook pages that regularly carry misinformation.

With this story out, there is no longer any doubt that political parties are paying people to generate misinformation to sway voters.

A BJP supporter wears a NAMO TV channel tee shirt at a rally ahead of India's upcoming elections [Al Jazeera]

As an Indian journalist and a filmmaker, I have been fortunate enough to cover some of the most important stories of the last decade and a half, but none have been as important as this one. What's happening in India is a gradual weakening of a democratic process that was built on the backs of brave men and women who took on a mighty British empire to win us our freedom. A generation later, the country's new leaders are responsible for diluting our election process and building propaganda machinery so sophisticated that it could take us another generation to dismantle.

I would be remiss to not mention the role of global technology companies here. WhatsApp, its parent company Facebook, and Twitter have come under fire for not being able to control misinformation on their platforms.

Facebook banned hundreds of accounts linked to political parties two weeks before the elections, but thousands more are still floating around. Questions have also been raised about why it took them so long to ban these pages. Facebook has 300 million users in India, more than anywhere else in the world, and if they are to preserve their credibility here, they will have to institute more transparent and more sincere measures that will stop misinformation from spreading like wildfire.

Source: Al Jazeera