Originally Published In: Rao, A. (July 2019). Taming the misuse of social media: Lessons from the Indian elections, ISAS Newsletter: South Asia, Vol. 27 (Jan-Jun 2019)
Much has been said and written about the pivotal role played by social media during the recently-concluded Indian general elections — as a key source of (mis)information and public opinion, agenda-setter, and as a propaganda tool. All political parties were quick to leverage social media, although the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was in a league of its own, building on its social media prowess from the 2014 elections.
Both the BJP and the main opposition Congress party are found to have shared large quantities of junk news and fake news. Such flagrant misuse of social media by political actors and their proxies is an issue that needs to be discussed and debated, and policy solutions proposed that would reduce its detrimental impact on India’s long-term security and stability.
Fact Checkers as Fake News Warriors
The alarming propagation of fake news compelled a slew of initiatives in the run-up to the elections. This included partnerships between technology companies and fact-checking and media companies to monitor and debunk online falsehoods while conducting awareness campaigns and workshops on the ground. One of these fact-checking entities is BOOM, a digital journalism initiative that Facebook partnered with to tackle fake news during the elections. Jency Jacob, the managing editor of BOOM, notes that although the volume of online information was discernibly higher, there was a continuation of trends witnessed in the 2018 state elections. These included misleading and cleverly-clipped videos, campaign videos that were edited to target certain communities, and longer textual messages on WhatsApp that contained several factual inaccuracies, making them especially difficult to counter. The role of fact-checkers during the elections received much media attention, and citizens were able to play a role by providing tips and complaints about the questionable content. Jacob acknowledges that technology companies may have less than noble intentions in debunking fake news and that fact-checkers will always be playing catch up. However, their work is crucial in fighting misinformation and pushing technology companies to be more transparent. For instance, BOOM was able to create a feedback loop with Facebook, flagging problematic pages that escaped software detection and getting the technology company to act on false or inflammatory content. Fact-checking activities have also expanded to include vernacular content, with mainstream media and independent fact-checking outfits operating in several Indian languages. This is a significant step, given that vernacular content consumers will soon outweigh English users in India. However, several languages are still unmonitored, making them perfect breeding grounds for misinformation and propaganda.
Building up Citizen Immunity
Given the limitations of the fact-checking process, fact-checkers, media, and technology companies have also focused on digital literacy efforts, such as the mammoth Google News Initiative, a pan-India training series that supported journalists covering the elections. Such critical digital literacy efforts are indispensable in the battle against fake news in India, where political stakeholders are complicit in perpetuating the problem. BOOM’s frontline involvement has enabled it to glean insights about the role of political parties and their supporters. Jacob notes that although social media was used by the Congress and its supporters to mislead and misinform voters, the BJP was ahead of the game, having learned from its past mistakes, as well as the United States elections and Cambridge Analytica scandals. Hence, while Congress was making key rookie mistakes, the BJP’s online presence was far more evolved, enabling it to distance itself from its supporters, such as popular pro-BJP websites and Facebook pages like Nation With Namo and Bharat ke Mann ki Baat. Given the involvement of political stakeholders, digital and news literacy efforts are critical mechanisms in the broader fight against fake news. This is a sentiment echoed by Latoya Ferns-Advani, who chaired the Mumbai Congress committee tasked with coordinating print and electronic media during the elections. Noting that political parties and governments have vested interests and that laws are often neither adequate nor benign, she highlights the need for civil society to take the lead in building immunity against fake news. While any legislation to control media would naturally arouse suspicions, the government can dispel such concerns through participatory and more inclusive policy-making processes. Ferns-Advani cautions that any legislation restricting online expression and behavior should be contingent on it causing harm to targeted individuals, and in keeping within the reasonable restrictions of the right to freedom of speech and expression.
The National Democratic Alliance government will soon have to initiate the process of addressing rising calls to rein in social media without compromising free speech. While it would make political sense for the BJP to continue to exploit its social media advantages, it is clear that the long-term destabilizing effects of unchecked social media would far outweigh narrow political gains. Sri Lanka is a cautionary tale of how divisiveness propagated by fake news on unbridled social media will eventually come home to roost. The larger national security implications would necessitate an enlightened approach to taming the misuse of social media, involving greater interaction between the government and other stakeholders.
Source: Institute of South Asian Studies