India awaits election results after 'unprecedented scale of disinformation'

Political parties across the board have well-oiled digital outreach and social media teams


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Image used for illustrative purposes. Photo: File
Image used for illustrative purposes. Photo: File

Published: Mon 3 Jun 2024, 7:52 AM

India's six-week election was staggering in its size and logistical complexity, but also in the "unprecedented" scale of online disinformation.

The biggest democratic exercise in history brought with it a surge of false social media posts and instant messaging, ranging from doctored videos to unrelated images with false captions.

Raqib Hameed Naik, from the US-based India Hate Lab, said they had "witnessed an unprecedented scale of disinformation" in the elections.

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"Conspiracy theories... were vigorously promoted to deepen the communal divide," said Naik, whose organisation researches hate speech and disinformation.

There were fake videos of Bollywood stars endorsing the opposition, as well as those purporting to show one person casting multiple votes.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came under fire for posts stoking sectarian tensions with India's minority Muslim community of more than 200 million.

These included numerous videos, matching incendiary campaign speeches by Modi, falsely claiming his opponents were planning to redistribute India's wealth in favour of Muslims.

False information was detected across the political spectrum but the leader of the opposition Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, was one of the leading targets. His statements, videos and photographs were shared on social media, but often incompletely or out of context, and they were all widely shared by BJP supporters.

While political parties across the board have well-oiled digital outreach and social media teams, critics said the BJP's sophisticated online campaign was driving posts.

Opposition parties also spread disinformation targeting the BJP and glorifying Congress. Social media users also shared an old video to say that the ruling party of tampering with an electronic voting machine to rig the election in its favour.

"Overall, trust in content itself is falling," said Joyojeet Pal, an expert in the role of technology in democracy from the University of Michigan.

Pal told AFP that Indian social media users widely understood the prevalence of disinformation and doctored content during the election.

"So there is a very good chance that they do not believe the doctored content to be real," he said.


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