India’s newspaper industry is the envy of the world. India is one of the few markets where major mastheads have witnessed increasing circulation and revenue growth over the past two decades. Yet, there is a sense of pessimism about the future of traditional media, with individuals and political parties increasingly turning to share information on social media platforms. The trend, which started during the 2014 elections, has picked up speed recently and the distribution of information cannot be matched by the mainstream newspapers, despite all of them running online editions.
With an increasing reliance on user-generated content on social media platforms, misinformation, ‘fake news’ and rumours have also proliferated. Even newspapers at times have fallen victim to the misinformation shared on WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter.
Recently, a Telugu language newspaper, Andhra Jyothy, published a front-page report claiming that a survey conducted by well-respected institute Lokniti-CSDS projected that the ruling Telugu Desam Party would return to power in the state of Andhra Pradesh. CSDS has issued a denial, calling it ‘fraudulent reporting’.
More blatant fake news has also been reported. A purported BBC News story was circulated on a WhatsApp group predicting that the ruling BJP will lose the general elections to the Indian National Congress-led alliance. The story attributed this prediction to the ‘American spy agency CIA’, ‘British spy agency KGB’ and ‘Israeli spy agency MOSAD’. The story is ‘fake news’ and nowhere to be found on the BBC News network.
Similarly, a WhatsApp group called ‘PM Modi 2019’ has become known for distributing misinformation and fake images about Congress leaders and the Gandhi family in particular. “The most serious allegation made is that the Gandhis are licentious Muslims masquerading as Hindus”, says a Mumbai Mirror correspondent who joined the group as a non-journalist.
Earlier in March, the Election Commission of India (ECI), an autonomous constitutional authority responsible for election administration, summoned tech giants such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, Chinese short-video platform TikTok and Indian social network ShareChat, to ensure the integrity of the electoral process during the 2019 elections. The representatives, in turn, agreed to a Voluntary Code of Ethics for the General Elections 2019’ effective from March 20 until the end of the election period.
The agreed code includes a direct line between the ECI and the social media platforms, to notify and swiftly rectify any potential violations of electoral laws. A violation of electoral law includes using images and references to the Indian armed forces in political campaigns. In fact, the ECI recently asked Facebook and Twitter to remove two posters carrying a known Indian Airforce pilot’s photographs by a political candidate.
Social media companies also undertook to monitor and label paid political messages broadcast on their platforms in accordance with ECI processes. Additionally, the firms volunteered to facilitate access to information regarding electoral matters; undertake education campaigns to build awareness of electoral laws, and endeavoured to conduct platform-specific training for nodal officers at the ECI.
Tech firms also say that they have been taking down accounts of people allegedly associated with political parties, and holding town hall meetings and media literacy workshops for journalists and students to identify and report misinformation on their platforms. Facebook said they had taken down 687 accounts linked to political parties during the first week of the election period.
Facebook and WhatsApp representatives say that they have engaged several fact-checking partners such as Boom Live, AFP India, India Today, Dainik Jagran, Face Crescendo, Factly and NewsMobile to identify false and misleading information on their platforms. But, many journalists, including The Hindu’s minority affairs reporter Syed Mohammad, believe the multinational companies’ actions are “too little too late”.
Social media’s potency in India
India has a telephone-density of nearly 90 per cent with mobile phone subscriptions crossing 1.1 billion mark. In late 2018, India had 560 million internet subscribers with users spending an on average 17 hours a week on social media. The aspiring class and first-time voters are increasingly connected to the world via their mobile phones.
This means perception matters – and social media is a conduit for creating a perception about a party or a party leader, where the spread of misinformation even if widely publicised as being false continuous to be shared on networking platforms and believed by those who wish to believe.
Although journalists interviewed for this piece agree that social media reach has expanded sufficiently to have an impact on the outcomes of the 2019 elections, they are pessimistic about the capacity of the mainstream media, the ECI, the fact checkers and the social media companies to stop the runaway train of fake news and misinformation.
In recent weeks, some of India’s biggest selling Indian newspapers have taken out full-page advertisements to underscore the need for verification and the role of journalists in providing readers with credible information during the 2019 election period. The advertisement, “Print is proof”, features a pointed editorial commentary against the sharing of ‘fake news’ and ‘misinformation’ on social media platforms during the Indian elections, which commenced on April 1 and will conclude on May 19.
With the widespread access to inexpensive data on mobile phones, many voters are not paying attention to the news printed by the mainstream papers, says Shiva Shankar, Digital Content Creation Editor of The Times Group in Bangalore. Others agree that conversations on social media platforms do not have similar “checks-and-balances” as is the case with mainstream media, making it difficult to monitor and curtail the spread of rumours and misinformation during these elections.
By Usha M. Rodrigues, PhD, is a Senior Lecturer, Deakin University, Australia and holds an Incoming Leaders Fellowship with Aii@Delhi.