A false information ecosystem

Spandana Singh


India is the world’s largest democracy. With over 1.3 billion citizens, it is also home to the world’s second largest population (World Bank Group n.d.). Over the past few years, India has seen tremendous growth in terms of internet access and usage. Today, India is the second largest online market, ranking behind China, with over 460 million internet users (Statista Research Department 2018). However, despite the fact that the country boasts a significant share of the global internet user base, internet penetration in the country is still relatively low, at approximately 38%(Silver et al. 2019). But, access to and adoption of the internet is rapidly increasing, and the number of Indians online is expected to grow exponentially over the next few years. India is also one of the largest markets for several global technology platforms. Today, India is the largest market for Facebook, with 290 million users (Clement 2020) and the largest market for WhatsApp with 400 million users (M. Singh 2019).

This rise in access to and adoption of the internet and its various services has been sparked by an increase in smartphone adoption as well as decreasing data costs. Most Indians access the online information ecosystem using smartphones. As of December 2019, over 500 million Indians are using smartphones, a 15%increase from 2018. This means that approximately 77%of Indians rely on smartphones to access the internet (Indo-Asian News Service 2020). Additionally, the entry of telecom firm Reliance Jio into the Internet Service Provider (ISP) market disrupted the industry and sparked a significant decrease in prices, making data plans more affordable for the average Indian (Kaur et al. 2019). This has given more Indians access to the digital information environment than ever before.

Greater access to the internet has democratised information governance and flows for Indians. The advent of the internet, in particular social media and messaging platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter, has enabled the average Indian to create, share, and consume user-generated content with greater ease and affordability. Platforms such as WhatsApp, which permit the sharing of multimedia content, have also enabled users to engage in the online ecosystem despite differences in literacy levels. This is because through these platforms, users can share and engage with photo and video content, in addition to text- based content (Farooq 2018). This has also provided Indians belonging to traditionally marginalised communities with a platform for expression.

However, the rise of these internet platforms in India has also enabled actors with bad or manipulative intentions to spread harmful content at scale. It has also enabled users who lack strong digital literacy skills to spread such content. One of the biggest and most problematic examples of such content is false information. False information can come in two forms. The first is misinformation, which can be defined as “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead” (Diaz 2018). The second category of false information is disinformation, which can be understood as “information that is deliberately false or misleading” (Jack 2017). Although false information such as misinformation and disinformation has been a problem in societies across the globe for centuries, technology has facilitated its spread and exacerbated the resulting harms.

Until recently, research and policy agendas in the United States and other Western nations have been focused on the role of foreign adversaries in developing and disseminating misinformation and disinformation. In India, however, these agendas have primarily focused internally, as the majority of misinformation and disinformation is produced and shared domestically. Political parties and their supporters play an especially prominent role in spreading such disinformation (Poonam and Bansal 2019). These disinformation campaigns regularly target political opponents, religious and ethnic minorities, and dissenters. Similar to disinformation campaigns around the world, disinformation campaigns in India aim to deepen domestic divisions and stoke conflict based on prominent social issues. In India, however, the consequences of such campaigns have been far more extreme, even leading to mob violence and the deaths of dozens of citizens (ibid).

There are a number of factors which have enabled misinformation and disinformation to have a profound impact on Indian society. First, the country has seen a steady decline in trust in media institutions, which has created a fertile breeding ground for both forms of false information (Thukral 2018). As a result of this declining trust in media institutions, many citizens have turned to alternative outlets for information, such as relying on their social circles, both online and offline. Recent research has shown that media institutions themselves have also become complicit in disseminating misinformation (Thaker 2019), often due to a lack of training in content verification (Poonam and Bansal 2019).).

Second, most Indians lack basic digital hygiene and media literacy. This is especially true of new internet users who arc navigating online platforms for the first time. These individuals typically have greater difficulty discerning the difference between factual and falsified information (Doshi 2017). Being able to reliably identify fact from fiction has also become more difficult as the lines between different sources of information have been blurred. Today, across the globe, many users turn to social media platforms in addition to or instead of news outlets (Vorhaus 2020). Furthermore, as users encounter vast quantities of information every day, they are also less likely to spend time verifying content (Chakrabarti, Stengel, and Solanki 2018).

Third, major internet platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter are designed to share and amplify information rapidly and at scale. As a result, the format, nature and technological infrastructure of these platforms also enable the rapid spread of misinformation and disinformation. These platforms are widely used in India, and they have therefore played a key role in enabling the spread of misinformation and disinformation. Although many of these platforms have collaborated with the government, NGOs and newly established fact-checking organisations to combat the spread of false information, their efforts have not yet succeeded as these efforts often lack scale. These initiatives are therefore unable to keep up with the rapid increase and spread of misleading information and the growing demand for fact-checking services.

Finally, India has a long but recent history of caste and communal violence. Such social, ethnic and political tensions are still very much present in society today and can be manipulated and deepened with relative ease. The spread of misinformation and disinformation throughout the country has exacerbated these tensions and divides. This often negatively impacts communities that are already marginalised and vulnerable.

The false information ecosystem in India

According to a 2019 study by Microsoft, over 64%of Indians have engaged with false information in some manner (Patil 2019). Indians encounter such false information from a range of outlets, including social media platforms and traditional print and television news outlets (Poonam and Bansal 2019). Over the past few years, the country has seen an array of misinformation and disinformation campaigns, with impacts ranging from minimal to severe. Some of the most prominent and high-impact of these campaigns include:

  • • In November 2016, the Government of India demonetised all ?500 and ? 1,000 currency notes and replaced them with new ?500 and ?2,000 notes, in an attempt to curb corruption and the financing of terrorism and other illegal activities. Following the announcement, misinformation circulated on platforms such as WhatsApp claiming that each 52,000 note had a GPS chip embedded in it which allowed the Reserve Bank of India to track the bill in order to identify instances of black money hoarding (Saldanha 2016). Additionally, stories circulated that the ink on the ?2,000 easily bled and was seriously radioactive. Rumours also circulated that the newly issued currencies would soon be withdrawn (BBC Trending 2016).
  • • A video depicting a child being kidnapped by two helmeted men on a motorcycle went viral on WhatsApp, sparking fears that child kidnappers and traffickers were running amok in Indian cities. The video sparked mob violence that led to the deaths of at least two dozen people. The video had been edited from an anti-kidnapping public service advertisement produced in Pakistan (Bengali 2019). Between July 2017 and July 2018, 33 people were killed and at least 99 injured in 69 reported attacks on suspected child abductors, fuelled by such WhatsApp messages (Bajoria 2019). In July 2018, in response to the growing number of mob lynchings across the country, the government established a high level committee chaired by the Union Home Secretary to oversee and prevent such incidents (“Government Set Up High Level Committee” 2018).
  • • In February 2019, a suicide bombing in the Puhvama district of Kashmir killed 40 Indian paramilitary policemen. Two weeks after the attack, a Face- book user called Avi Dandiya posted a live video of a call recording allegedly between India’s Home Minister, the President of the BJP party, and an unknown woman. In the recording, the Home Minister allegedly said in Hindi, “we agree that for election, we need a war”. Within 24 hours, the factchecking service BOOM confirmed the video was fake and had been created using audio clips from previous political interviews. By the time the post was removed from Facebook, it had over 2.5 million views and 150,000 shares. Additionally, four edited copies of the video resurfaced on Facebook, with approximately 36,000 views. A copy of the video also appeared on YouTube, where it was viewed approximately 2,800 times, and on Twitter, where it was viewed 22,000 times (Phartiyal and Kalra 2019).
  • • On February 26, 2019, India carried out an air strike against the Balakot region of Pakistan. In early March, the Government of India stated that these air strikes had killed “a large number of militants”. However, the Government of Pakistan insisted that no casualties had been identified. Images circulated on social media depicting alleged dead militants and a destroyed training camp. In reality, these were old images of a 2014 suicide attack in Pakistan and of Pakistan-administered Kashmir after an earthquake. The images had been recaptioned and placed in a new, false context (Ponniah 2019). Additionally, old videos of captured pilots surfaced as well (Phartiyal and Kalra 2019).
  • • As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread across India, so has misinformation related to the virus. In April 2020, numerous members of an Islamic group known as the Tablighi Jamaat, tested positive for the novel coronavirus after attending a religious event in Delhi. As more members of the group began testing positive for COVID-19, Islamophobic-fuelled misinformation became rampant, claiming that Muslims were intentionally spreading the virus. When a fake video of a Muslim man spitting on bread went viral on WhatsApp, there were numerous calls for an economic boycott of Muslim businesses around the country. This prompted the Minorities Commission, which is tasked with safeguarding the rights of minority communities in India, to direct the police to prevent individuals from prohibiting Muslims from entering residential areas or from operating their businesses (Menon 2020).

The political sphere is a major focal point of the false information environment in India. In 2019, India held its latest general elections. Approximately 900 million people were eligible to vote in the recent elections, which began on April 11, 2019 (Phartiyal and Kalra 2019) and lasted for seven weeks (Bajoria 2019).

Of the 900 million eligible voters, approximately 500 million had access to the internet (Phartiyal and Kalra 2019). According to a recent survey, one in two respondents had received content featuring false information during the run up to the elections, primarily through Facebook and WhatsApp.

One example of a widely circulated misinformation campaign during this time was a WhatsApp message that went viral in February 2019, claiming that Indians living overseas could vote in the general elections online. The false message advised people to register on the Election Commission of India’s (ECI) website. After the message went viral, the ECI debunked the post on its Twitter account and filed a police complaint against “unknown persons” for invoking “public mischief” (ibid).

Over the last few years, social media has become recognised as a valuable campaign and engagement tool for political parties. Prior to the 2014 general elections, most Indian politicians shied away from social media. However, during the 2014 general election campaigns, political parties recognised the power of social media in garnering support and influencing opinions. Current Prime Minister Narendra Modi was especially a champion of social media. He used it to build a significant following both online and offline (Banerjee and Haque 2018). He also used it to circumvent traditional media outlets as well as opponents in his own party (Majo-Vazquez 2019). As political parties have realised the importance of social media in generating influence, they have begun segmenting and targeting voters based on characteristics such as religion, gender and age. These parties are often able to construct vast databases of users for such targeted campaigns, as India has weak data privacy laws (Banerjee and Haque 2018).

One political party that has been particularly adept at using social media to its advantage is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political party of Prime Minister Modi. Several researchers have indicated that in the lead up to the 2014 general elections, the BJP established cyber armies to help implement its social media strategy. Cyber armies, also known as cyber troops, are government or political party-affiliated individuals who are responsible for manipulating public opinion online (Bradshaw and Howard 2018). During this time, the BJP’s strategy centred around building a personality following around Modi, and also around establishing a social media war room in order to track potential voters across India’s 92,000 villages (Chadha and Guha 2016). Modi and his supporters used similar approaches in the run up to the 2019 general elections. According to experts, this adept use of technology and internet platforms helped Modi secure a second win (Bansal 2019).

The scope and scale and the BJP’s social media manipulation efforts are impressive. In early 2017, during the lead up to the state elections in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP formed 10,344 WhatsApp groups in order to coordinate efforts and circulate media among party workers (Farooq 2018) and 6,600 groups in order to spread the party’s message (Iyengar 2019). In addition, the Delhi division of the BJP reportedly established over 1,800 WhatsApp groups in the lead up to the 2019 elections. Furthermore, after the success of the 2014 elections, the BJP continued expanding its efforts to target smartphone-owning voters at the grassroots level. In order to do this, the BJP recruited over 900,000 volunteers to serve as “cell phone pramukhs”. These volunteers were responsible for creating neighbourhood-based WhatsApp groups which would be used to spread the word about the BJP’s various achievements as well as about Modi’s campaign trail (Williams and Kamra 2019).

However, the BJP’s vast social media apparatus has also been the source of misinformation and disinformation. In December 2015, for example, the Press Information Bureau tweeted a doctored image of Prime Minister Modi surveying flood-wrecked regions of Chennai, the capital city of the state of Tamil Nadu, from an airplane. The photograph initially featured the Prime Minister overlooking submerged fields and buildings through a plane window ( 2018). Hours later, the Press Information Bureau shared the same tweet with a different image. This new image depicted a clearer scene below and had been digitally transferred onto the window. The second tweet was deleted shortly after, but by then it had already caught public attention and criticism (Kaur ct al. 2018). Although this was a relatively harmless instance of false information, it demonstrates how readily false information is used as a tactic, even by government officials.

Today, almost every major political party in the country has a detailed and coordinated social media strategy implemented by a dedicated social media management team (Banerjee and Haque 2018). However, in 2014, the BJP was able to harness the power of social media, big data and analytics the best as it had a larger amount of financial and organisational resources at its disposal (Chadha and Guha 2016). In addition to spreading false information, these strategic social media entities have also been found to be the source of divisive content. According to a study conducted at Oxford University, which compiled a large data sample of content circulated before the 2019 elections for two months, one-third of BJP circulated images on WhatsApp, one-quarter of images circulated by the opposition party, the Indian National Congress (INC), and one-tenth of the images circulated by the Samajwadi and Bahujan Samaj Party (SB-BSP) were divisive and conspiratorial (Narayanan et al. 2019).

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