Weaponization of social media hands BJP control of political narratives
New Delhi: The recent police complaint by Kerala MP Hibi Eden against the manipulation of the ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ pictures of Rahul Gandhi by the BJP’s “online hate factory”, has once again put the focus on the use of social media in India for peddling misinformation and hate
Over the years, social media has turned into a battleground of the dirty tricks departments of the major political parties.
As per a research paper by S Md. Al-Zaman in 2021 titled “Social Media Fake News in India” published in the Asian Journal for Public Opinion Research, fake news shared on social media has six major themes: health, religion, politics, crime, entertainment and miscellaneous; eight types of content: text, photo, audio, and video, text & photo, text & video, photo & video, and text & photo & video; and two main sources: online sources and the mainstream media.
Health-related fake news is more common only during a health crisis, whereas fake news related to religion and politics seems more prevalent, emerging from online media. Text & photo and text & video have three-fourths of the total share of fake news, and most of them are from online media: online media is the main source of fake news on social media as well. The research paper said previous literature hints that online fake news in India serves mainly two purposes — political and religious, utilized by two groups, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) digital army and digital archiving as history-making to support the Hindu-nationalist government and gau-rakshaks (“cow protectors” or “cow vigilantes”) to harass or lynch the minorities, mainly the Muslims.
Four reasons may be helpful to define India’s current fake news problem: (a) higher social media penetration, (b) a growing number of Internet-illiterate people using social media, (c) the existing law that makes tracing fake news producers difficult ( d) the rise of Hindutva (an ideology of Hindu domination) and religious nationalism, the research paper said.
Social media is widely used in India to mobilize political activists for assembly and/or demonstration, and general public and vigilante groups for religious vigilantism and/or mob lynching, the research paper said.
Religion and politics often intertwine, creating a new type of fake news: religio-political, and WhatsApp is mostly used for such fake news propagation because of its instant messaging capacity, easier usability and wide reach, it added.
For example, WhatsApp fake news triggered the Muzaffarnagar riot in Uttar Pradesh in 2017, eight months before the federal election, and had both political and religious purposes, the paper said.
Also, fake, doctored, and old videos and photos are mainly used in creating religious and political misinformation in India. For these reasons, visual content is responsible for many of India’s health, religious, and political fake news. Previous studies also stated that Indian fake news is mostly WhatsApp-based, which is conducive for visual content.
Fake news has two main sources, online media and mainstream media. Online media produces almost seven times more fake news compared to mainstream media and previous studies suggested similar results, it added.
From 2014 to 2019, the Internet users in India increased by 65%, surpassing the appeal of mainstream media. In addition, thanks to social media’s political benefits, the BJP government promotes Internet-based alternative media that helps to reduce the effects of mainstream media to some extent, the research paper said.
Social media has a wider reach — only 19% of Dalits, the most underprivileged community in India, have access to water, but 65% of them have access to the Internet. It is easy to manipulate content and mobilize people; digital archiving is used in history-making in favor of the BJP’s Hindu nationalism and other political agendas, the research paper said.
Although it has been said that social media has democratized India, it makes unregulated information production and dissemination common place.
Also, a large share of the users lack digital literacy, which makes them more susceptible to fake news, the research paper said.
As per a July article in the Lowy Institute, in May 2021, when the Information Technology Rules came into effect, Twitter again fell foul of the Modi government when the company labeled posts by politicians from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party as “manipulated media” – the same labeling it had applied to some of US President Donald Trump’s tweets while he was still in office.
“The problem in India is much bigger: hate speech is rife, bots and fake accounts linked to India’s political parties and leaders abound, and user pages and large groups brim with inflammatory material targeting Muslims and other minorities. Disinformation is an organized and carefully mined operation here. Elections and “events” like natural calamities and the coronavirus pandemic usually trigger fake news outbreaks”, the BBC reported in October 2021.
“With a surfeit of hate speech, trolling and attacks on minorities and women, Indian Twitter is a polarized and dark place. WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging service, remains the largest carrier of fake news and hoaxes in its biggest market,” BBC reported.
A publication of the Stimson Center, South Asian voices in July 2021 carried an article which said the 2014 general elections –egarded as the “First Social Media Election” in India’s political history — kicked-off a social media revolution in Indian politics.
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s success in mobilizing India’s digital generation using social media platforms has forced contending parties to revamp their social media engagement. As a result, millions of politically motivated messages now flood India’s digital space, making elections susceptible to social media manipulation, the article said.
The BJP reportedly operates around 2-3 lakh WhatsApp groups. The party has developed an effective IT wing linked to disinformation and propaganda, both of which it uses to stoke communal divisions to reap electoral benefits. The spread of disinformation, and polarizing, BJP-led social media campaigns promoting Hindutva, deepening tensions among Hindu and Muslim communities, the article said.
According to the 2017 CSDS-Lokniti survey, one-sixth of India’s WhatsApp users were part of a WhatsApp group either managed by a political party or its leader. Signifying the volume of politically motivated content, a 2019 CSDS-Lokniti and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung survey determined that one in every three Indian citizens on social media consumes political content daily or regularly, the article said.
Political content voters absorb through WhatsApp and other platforms influences political perceptions in a two-step manner. First, political accounts generate an influx of positive narratives concerning a party, drowning out criticism. For instance, widespread nationalist content from BJP-affiliated right-wing groups praised the army and the Balakot air strikes while evading content on rising unemployment and debilitating economic crises in India. Second, disinformation – spread particularly through fake social media handles – consolidates nationalist support against perceived “enemies”, the article said.
In early 2020, BJP IT wing head Amit Malviya tweeted a fake video of Anti-CAA protestors raising “Pakistan Zindabad” banners. This was intended to deepen Hindu-Muslim communal divisions and advance the BJP’s political efforts, the article said.
The BJP’s social media campaign has evolved significantly since 2014: then it largely focused on highlighting its leader, now it seeks to control the content citizens consume. The core focus of the BJP’s social media campaign in 2014, aided by professional agencies, was building the brand of then Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, promoting its development agenda and criticizing the ruling Congress government.
The BJP’s social media campaign adopted more polarizing methods in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections and the 2019 general election, it said.
The BJP’s savvy social media presence and electoral success has created incentives for other parties to expand their presence in the digital space. Faced with continuous electoral setbacks since 2014, and a tarnished image of leader Rahul Gandhi as “Pappu” (a mocking name for an immature and half-witted boy in popular media) by the BJP IT cell, the Congress’ social media spending increased tenfold in 2019 compared to 2014.
Even the Communist parties, which have a history of opposing computerisation, have begun training their cadres.
The BJP has used “anti-national” messaging to delegitimize the farmers’ protest, unmasking its weaponisation of digital platforms to thwart voices of dissent, the article said.
In November 2020, BJP IT head Amit Malaviya shared a video on Twitter countering the allegations of police brutality against protesting farmers. Later, Twitter flagged this video as “manipulated.” Then, a host of BJP leaders, including Tajinder Bagga (BJP Delhi spokesperson), Varun Gandhi (BJP MP) and Harish Khurana (Delhi BJP spokesperson), propagated disinformation and linked protesting farmers to the Khalistan movement, the article said.
A significant part of the success of the BJP’s social media strategy has been its ability to propagate messages that are more personal and thus have greater potential to influence a wide range of citizens’ political perceptions.
For instance, it employed trolls and campaign ads using memes from the Game of Thrones series. Ample financial resources to set up IT cells, recruit techies, and hire professional agencies, combined with an efficient and vast network of organizational machinery on the ground to ensure the social media campaign reaches ordinary voters, helped the BJP far surpass competing parties in the digital outreach, the article said.