The WhatsApp election: The fake news challenge to democracy

India’s general election is an important phase in the battle against fake news. But is it too late to avert further social media-fuelled violence in the volatile campaign atmosphere?

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In the last two years, rumours running wild on social media in India have led to the killing of 31 people, and attacks on many more. And new research on the power of social media in the country confirms that Indian nationalism is a driving force behind the spread of fake news. With a highly contested five-week-long general election now under way in the world’s biggest democracy, new technology and fraught politics could yet combine to produce yet more deadly violence. As a result, tech firms and traditional media outlets have begun taking steps to, at least, try to counter the rapid circulation of misinformation through channels such as WhatsApp. How the main players in India handle the issue over the next month could contain valuable lessons not just for the future of Indian politics, but politics in Europe and elsewhere too.

Social media already made its impact on Indian politics once before this decade, at the last general election, in 2014, when Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) became the first major political players in the country to really understand the power of social media and blend it with an equally powerful ground campaign. This time around, the political scene is highly polarised, and the result itself will be Indians’ verdict on five years of nationalist rule. And, despite a campaign focus on good governance – a deliberate choice by Modi to try and take some of the fractiousness out of the campaign – election-watchers note that “Hindu-Muslim polarisation is also central to the BJP’s election strategy.”

The signs are indeed that social media has already become a vehicle for disseminating hate speech and violence: a former BJP operative has said that some WhatsApp groups have been created by the party along caste or religion lines and that it uses these to reinforce pre-existing bias against a community, inciting hatred.

In recent years, social media rumours in India have led to nearly 300 mob lynchings, attacks, and targeted killings. “The rumours stoke existing fears and mutual suspicions among members of different groups”, notes Indrajit Roy of the University of York, and emanate from pre-existing roots of social violence. Social media’s Indian rise slots neatly, if unfortunately, into the definition of information manipulation as “the intentional and massive dissemination of false or biased news for hostile political purposes” as identified by a recent report released by the French government.

So this vote is set to be a “WhatsApp election” like no other. WhatsApp itself counts 230 million Indian users, and a report by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies indicates that one-sixth of the app’s Indian users are members of one of the groups started by political parties. As in the rest of the world, these extremely active groups are capped at 256 members. In reaction to some of the violence unleashed through rumours, WhatsApp further decided to limit the number of chats that could be forwarded from 256 users to only five, thus limiting the flow of (mis)information on the social network. It introduced this in India six months before it did so elsewhere.

Facebook and Twitter have also vowed to counter fake news in India and take down information that has been debunked thanks to the efforts of journalists, experts, and fact-checking websites such as Boom. But replicating this effort with WhatsApp is impossible because of privacy and encryption of the posts – a fact its creators are intent on keeping as such.

The BJP has created WhatsApp groups along caste or religion lines

The issue is such a growing concern that the Washington Post, in an attempt to counter the dissemination of fake news, launched a WhatsApp channel this month wherein New Delhi-based Post journalists share regular updates on the election. Subscribers can also engage directly with the two journalists. This is a replication of an exercise that that newspaper conducted for the German election in 2017 and later on the future of the European Union. WhatsApp itself has taken on the challenge as it now offers its users in India a new tip line where they can send in any information or documentation they want fact-checked. A response will be provided to the users on the nature of the information sent by a ‘verification centre’.

With four weeks still to go in the vote, it is still unclear whether WhatsApp will have a damaging effect on the election results. The recent conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir will also play a big role – and has been another viral topic and object of misinformation, also stoking fears and playing on a strong nationalist identity.

It is at least a positive sign that civil society is taking on the disinformation challenge here. However, political leaders and their parties must also share the burden by not themselves deliberately sharing misleading content, and calling out their proxies and outriders when they do. In India’s case, the GAFA – Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon – have come under pressure from the government following accusations that they have enabled instances of violence. The big four have not too unwillingly taken on a stakeholder role – probably because of the head-spinning market India represents.

European democracies too are grappling with the issues that misinformation powered by social media; and clear actions to blunt the effect of turbocharged lies have remained somewhat lacking up till now. Europe should try and use the Indian paradigm to persuade the GAFAs to show themselves to be responsible.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Paris
Senior Policy Fellow

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