India Awaits Election Results Amid Unprecedented Disinformation, Fake News

Wed Jun 05 2024
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NEW DELHI: Today, India stands on the cusp of unveiling the results of its general election, the largest democratic exercise in the history. However, this year’s election has been overshadowed by an unprecedented wave of online disinformation and fake news that has sown seeds of division within society.

The ruling Hindu extremist BJP is poised to secure a simple majority, but the electoral process has raised significant concerns about the integrity of democratic discourse in India. The six-week-long election, spanning seven stages of voting, saw a staggering influx of false social media posts and misleading instant messages, disinformation and fake news. These ranged from doctored videos and unrelated images with false captions to more sophisticated and sinister productions.

According to Raqib Hameed Naik from the US-based India Hate Lab, the scale of disinformation was “unprecedented,” with conspiracy theories being vigorously promoted to deepen communal divides and extreme polarization.

Professor Rashid, emphasizing the deliberate attempts to polarize voters along religious lines said conspiracy theories are vigorously promoted to increase the communal divide. PM Modi’s Hindu-nationalist BJP came under fire for posts stoking sectarian tensions with India’s minority Muslim community, which numbers over 200 million.

Numerous videos and incendiary campaign speeches falsely claimed that the opposition was trying to redistribute India’s wealth in favour of Muslims. These posts aimed to create fear and animosity towards Muslims, thereby polarizing the electorate.

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Analyst said the extremist ruling party’s strategy of exploiting religious sentiments for electoral gain has not only undermined the integrity of the democratic process but also sowed dangerous seeds of division and hatred in society.

The disinformation was not confined to one side. Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the opposition Congress party, was also a key target. His statements, videos, and photographs were frequently shared out of context or altered digitally.

One manipulated video analysed by Western media turned Gandhi’s real statement about the opposition alliance’s prospects into a false declaration of victory for Modi.

Another photograph falsely claimed Gandhi was waving the Chinese constitution during an election rally, which was actually the Indian constitution.  Many posts falsely linked Gandhi to India’s rivals, Pakistan and China.

A manipulated video circulated on social media falsely showed Gandhi refusing to accept a statue of a Hindu deity. Another post claimed falsely that Rahul Gandhi was paying money to young people to support him on social media, when in reality he was discussing unemployment with youth.

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These false narratives, widely shared by the extremist BJP supporters, contributed to the polarization of voters and the discrediting of the opposition.

Joyojeet Pal, an expert in the role of technology in democracy from the University of Michigan, said as Indian social media users were generally aware of the prevalence of disinformation, they often shared doctored content that aligned with their beliefs. Pal said overall trust in social media content itself is falling saying the critical issue of disinformation propagation even by informed users.

As India awaits the election results today, the Hindu extremist BJP is expected to win with a simple majority. However, the 2024 election has left an indelible mark, highlighting the urgent need to address disinformation, fake news and restore faith in the democratic process.

The widespread dissemination of false information has not only impacted electoral outcomes but also deepened societal divisions, posing a significant challenge to the nation’s democratic future and social fabric.

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