As the world’s largest democracy heads to the ballot box this week, political observers are worried that propaganda and “fake news” pose a threat to the country’s parliamentary elections. Earlier this year, following the Kashmir car bombing targeted at Indian soldiers, a message spread like wildfire across WhatsApp groups in India. The message alleged that the Indian National Congress (INC), the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) main opposition, promised to give the attacker’s family money and free other “terrorists” in order to gain votes in the Muslim-dominated region of Kashmir.
And this is only one instance of disinformation during the election campaign. As social media becomes more and more widespread in India, the Indian democracy is increasingly vulnerable to false information. India currently has 270 million Facebook users, a number that has more than doubled since the 2014 election. This means that up to 36% of its voting age population is on one single social media platform. Local social media networks, such as ShareChat and Helo, have also been gaining users rapidly. However, all platforms are rife with fake information and political propaganda.
What’s more alarming is that political parties, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP, are be behind most of these disinformation campaigns. Clearly, the claim that the INC collided with terrorists was aimed to discredit Modi’s strongest challenger, Rahul Gandhi, leader of the INC. In fact, the BJP has developed formidable digital teams to spread pro-BJP propaganda, such as the WhatsApp troll group BJP Cyber Army 400+. The BJP is also promoting the Narendra Modi (NaMo) app, which is preinstalled in free smartphones handed out by the government and low-cost Reliance Jio phones. A particularly notorious false claim originating from NaMo is that “[o]f the total 40,000 rape cases in India in the last ten years, 39,000 had a Muslim rapist.”
Perhaps it is not surprising that Modi’s disinformation campaign targets his opposition and the country’s Muslim minority—such behavior is characteristic of populist leaders. As political scientist Jan-Werner Mueller explains in his book What is Populism?, populists claim that only they represent “the true people.” In doing so, they tend to demonize minorities as “national threats” and dismiss their opponents as “unpatriotic.” Probably because Modi failed to deliver most of his 2014 campaign promises—his Make in India program largely ineffective and his 2016 demonetization wiping out 1.5m jobs and more than 1% of India’s GDP—he and his party are switching their focus from economic reform to identity politics. But as the country becomes increasingly polarized, those who support Modi’s populist anti-Muslim rhetoric are willing to tolerate his campaign’s occasional disinformation.
Many populist leaders have gained election and reelection by manipulating the press and spreading party propaganda. In Russia, for example, Vladimir Putin has developed a sophisticated system of media control, mixing fact and fiction and tuning in to public taste. Such measures have helped Putin maintain his power and popularity despite the country’s sluggish economy and rampant corruption. Research on the 2016 U.S. election also shows that anti-Hilary Clinton and pro-Trump “fake news” probably had an impact on the outcome of the election. Admittedly, Modi remains the dominant candidate in the 2019 Indian election, but the main question is whether his populist rhetoric and disinformation tactics will distort the election results in his party’s favor.
Nevertheless, the mere fact that Modi is willing to employ these tactics is a warning sign of democratic backsliding. Scholar Nancy Bermeo classifies democratic backsliding into six categories, pointing out that while the more dramatic and blatant forms of backsliding are on decline, the more subtle and gradual forms persist. In other words, anti-democratic leaders are giving up military coups and voting frauds but turning to aggrandizement and election manipulating to increase their power. The BJP’s disinformation campaign is a clear example of strategic election manipulation.
So can anything be done to protect Indian democracy from social media disinformation? Many point to fact-checking as a potential remedy. After the March Pulwama attack, the Indian Central Reserve Police Force noticed social media users not to circulate fake pictures of dead Hindu martyrs. Former BBC reporter Trushar Barot commented on twitter that, “I’ve never seen anything like this before—the scale of fake content circulating on one story.” With the help of advanced photoshop technology, fake information can be highly persuasive, and fact-correction simply has a limited impact on large-scale disinformation.
Moreover, research shows that fact-checking might even backfire, as it increases the salience of the issue. Though fact-checking works well to communicate the truth, it hardly changes voting behavior. In other words, BJP voters might acknowledge that news of Muslim rapists and photos of Hindu martyrs are fake, but they will likely remain supportive of Modi nevertheless. Repeating such rumors might in fact reinforce their prejudice against the Muslim minority.
Fake information is everywhere on the Indian social media and seems to be a major threat to Indian democracy. However, a deeper structural problem is the animosity between the country’s Hindu and Muslim populations. If the country’s religious tensions cannot be contained, politicians will continue to exploit ethno-nationalism and few measures will be effective in countering anti-Muslim disinformation. We can only hope that the Muslim-Hindu divide does not tear Indian democracy apart.
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