India’s marathon national elections began Thursday, with over 900 million citizens expected to vote over 38 days as part of the world’s largest democratic exercise — charged by massive disinformation campaigns on social media.
Voters will choose between 8,000 candidates from 2,500 parties in 29 states and seven union territories, visiting over 1 million polling stations and using almost 4 million electronic voting machines.
The vote is seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is facing a stiff challenge from the opposition Congress party led by Rahul Gandhi.
Modi is adored by large segments of the population who believe his administration is less corrupt than previous ones, and that he’s improved the economy and put India on the global stage. Others say the nationalistic rhetoric espoused by his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has alienated minorities and stoked fear.
Evidence of escalating tensions was on display Thursday as local media reported that workers from two parties had died in clashes in Andhra Pradesh, a state bordering India’s southeastern coast.
Just like the U.S. in 2016, there are major concerns about the role played by Facebook and WhatsApp in spreading misinformation before and during the election. Parties have weaponized the platforms to spread incendiary messages to supporters, heightening fears that online anger could spill over into real-world violence.
“It’s an election that lasts over a month, in a country with around half a billion internet users, and political parties which have a proven track record of clandestine online operations,” Ben Nimmo, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, told VICE News. “In terms of potential, the Indian elections are probably the ripest target for disinformation this year.”
Modi’s troll army
Modi is not a newcomer to social media.
In 2014, Modi used social media to spread his message and help him win a landslide victory, and Facebook worked closely with the leader to supercharge his online presence and make him the most-followed world leader.
In the years since, Modi and the BJP have developed their online operation into a sophisticated machine that includes a huge “troll army” of paid and voluntary supporters who help spread the party’s message on platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter, instantly reaching millions of people.
“In the last few years, he has reset the tone and normalized a kind of bigotry and is openly campaigning on sectarian and anti-Muslim grounds,” Rohit Chopra, a media studies professor at Santa Clara University, told VICE News.
With internet usage in India exploding — WhatsApp alone has 230 million users in the country — it has never been easier for Modi to shape the narrative, stoke division and spread misinformation. Other parties are following his lead, but nowhere near the scale of the BJP, and experts warn that for all the steps companies like Facebook and WhatsApp have taken, the sheer scale of these elections means those measures are having little to no impact.
If 2014 was the Facebook election in India, then 2019 is shaping up to be the WhatsApp election.
The BJP began its focus on WhatsApp in 2017 and 2018 local elections, weaponizing the platforms to foment fear and confusion among supporters, which in turn has led to real-world violence, especially in rural areas where access to other sources of information is limited.
Though many parties are leaning on WhatsApp to get their message out, the BJP has far and away the most sophisticated operation in place, allowing it to reach even the most remote voters.
Last September, the BJP laid out an ambitious election plan to have 900,000 volunteers create specific WhatsApp groups for each of the country’s polling stations, allowing the party to control the narrative at a granular level.
Often these messages push anti-Muslim sentiments that travel far and wide on WhatsApp, increasing the chance of violence.
An image of a man’s body hanged outside a temple was shared with the “Vote for Modi” group, with the caption: “One more priest has been murdered, Remember, the jihadis are not going to stop at just this.” The claims were later shown to be false.
The BJP’s WhatsApp strategy also allows the party to react instantly to breaking news to gin up nationalist fervor and angst. This strategy was on clear display after a recent airstrike in Pakistan, when WhatsApp groups were flooded with images claiming to show dead militants and hailing the success of the military action by Modi.
“There are people in rural India going around with smartphones with images of dead bodies from raids that happened in Pakistan, claiming the dead are from the airstrike.” Shivam Shankar Singh, a former BJP digital operative, told VICE News.
The images were in fact of a suicide attack in Pakistan in 2014.
Ahead of this election, WhatsApp says it put a range of measures in place to combat the spread of fake news on its platform, including banning spam accounts, tweaking privacy settings and limiting the number of people messages can be forwarded to.
After WhatsApp was blamed for a spate of mob lynchings in India last year when fake videos about child abductors were shared widely, the app introduced a feature which meant that any users could only forward a post to five people. The change was designed to slow the rapid-fire spread of fake news.
But experts say that not only have the measures failed to stem the flow of misinformation, candidates and political parties have found ways around the restrictions.
“I don't think any of the WhatsApp strategies have worked,” Singh told VICE News. “The five-forward limit has not really been a thing because there are plug-ins that allow you to send unlimited messages. Pretty much anyone can buy it.”
Singh is currently investigating how these tools circumvent WhatsApp’s restrictions but said they are being openly advertised to campaigns and candidates for a fee of up to 0.04 rupees ($0.0005) per message per member.
Screenshots of such tools shared with VICE News show some messages — mostly video and images — shared with tens of thousands of users at once.
WhatsApp did not respond to questions about these tools.
Facebook is making headway in its battle against disinformation in India, according to Katie Harbath, a former Republican operative who now heads up Facebook’s public policy for global elections.
The company has partnered with a number of fact-checking services in India — such as BoomLive — to try and stifle the spread of fake news.
The company says it’s working — but those on the front lines of India’s fake news crisis are skeptical.
“If you look at the traffic rankings, AltNews is ahead of BoomLive,” Pratik Sinha, who runs the fact-checking website AltNews.com, told VICE News. “Now if Facebook was countering misinformation as effectively as they are claiming, BoomLive's traffic should be through the roof.”
“If they are claiming that they are being effective, what is the evidence they have to produce because public evidence does not show it?” Sinha added. Facebook did not respond to a request from VICE News for data showing how it’s stopping the spread of fake news in India.
Cover: A young boy dressed as a policeman stands as Indians wait in a queue to cast their votes in village Sawaal near Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, India, Thursday, April 11, 2019. Voters in 18 Indian states and two Union Territories began casting ballots on Thursday, the first day of a seven-phase election staggered over six weeks in the country of 1.3 billion people. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)