Fake news, hatred spread faster and further on SM

Last week, Union minister Jayant Sinha felicitated eight people who are out on bail after appealing their conviction in a case of mob lynching. Another Union minister, Giriraj Singh, visited people in Nawada Jail, Bihar, who are in custody for inciting communal riots last year. He later accused the state government of trying to “suppress Hindus”. These are just the visible elements of a much larger strategy that is unfolding in preparation for the upcoming general elections.

In the days when only on-ground campaigns were available to political parties as a medium, it took years for a party to shape public opinion. This reality has been transformed over the last few years with the advent of social media. The new medium allows parties to send messages continuously on platforms like WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook. Through this, they can transform the public discourse in a very short period. What’s incredible is that a lot of times, the people receiving these messages remain under the illusion that the messages are not from the party but from supporters and their own peers. This allows parties to push the sort of content that they would never transmit through official channels.

The arguments that people read on these platforms become a part of the arguments that they then use in face-to-face communication with their friends and colleagues. If the messaging is targeted well, then it plays on a person’s prior biases and reinforces their thinking, subtly molding it in favour of a particular party. 

The power of data analytics intensifies the impact of social media. It allows for such stratification that WhatsApp numbers can be linked to a person’s caste, religion, age group and even socioeconomic status. This gives parties the power to send a targeted message to just the voters they want, like sending a message telling low and middle-class non-Yadav OBC’s in Uttar Pradesh how the Yadavs have taken away all reservation benefits intended for the group, and that they must assert themselves by not voting for Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party.

The BJP is by far the most effective at utilising social media for its political purpose. It had an early start in the space and developed massive reach by pushing thousands of un-official Facebook pages, Twitter handles and WhatsApp groups. Other parties have only recently started catching up, and lag way behind. The BJP had about 9,000 WhatsApp groups ahead of the 2014 general elections; today, it has over 20,000 just in Karnataka. This massive reach allows it to push its messages to a lot more people than any other party can.

The other reason that the BJP is so successful in its social media strategy is that it knows what it wants to do. Most other parties push messages about rallies that their leaders attended and criticism of the opposing party, without any idea as to what they are trying to achieve with such messaging. The BJP and its supporters, on the other hand, realise that the message of development will not win them elections – it is something that should be advertised on the surface, but to win the election, the subterranean plank will have to be Hindutva. Voters must connect emotionally with the party and feel that the BJP is the only option for Hindus, all other parties are minority-appeasers. They must also feel threatened by the minority, because as social scientists have shown, a shared feeling of victimhood is a strong factor for people to unite.

Reinforcing people’s feeling that Hinduism is under threat and urging them to act forms the basis of this campaign. Videos and fake news about minorities beating up Hindus, or torturing their own wives and committing crimes, convinces people that minorities are evil.

The next step is to exacerbate the danger by claiming that the minorities’ population will overtake that of Hindus in 10-15 years. In the background, the message is pushed that Congress and all other regional parties favour minorities and not Hindus. The broken education system of India has ensured that people will not question or fact-check information that comes through, especially if it is in consonance with their biases. This strategy of priming people along religious lines is a lot more effective than asking for voters, highlighting the government’s achievements or criticising the opposition. Though all parties have engaged in sharing fake content and rumours, they have failed to have the same efficacy because their attempts have been isolated instances that lack an underlying narrative. 

The flip side of this priming is that the mob now doesn’t belong to anyone. Once the mob is convinced that the threat posed by minorities is real, it cannot be controlled by any political party. The mob turned against BJP’s own minister Sushma Swaraj because she was seen on Twitter to be going out of her way to ‘appease’ an inter-faith couple. The country has also witnessed several cases of mob lynching in the name of cow protection in the last four years; more recently, we have seen cases of lynching based on a rumour about child-lifters. Such instances make it obvious how dangerous social media can be, but they also illustrate just how powerful the medium is. Propaganda built on fake news and rumours translates into action in the real world. It is worrying for society at large, but it is positive reinforcement for political parties that have successfully harnessed social media.

The polarised nature of the debate today is not an accident. What’s much worse is that fake news spreads like wildfire. Fact-checking outlets often publish articles with the facts, but it hardly matters. Authentic news does not reach as many people as fake news does, and even fewer bother to read it. The thing that will help mitigate this danger, in the long run, is education of the masses. But what is urgently needed are technological safeguards that prevent the spread of fake news and rumours.


(Shivam Shankar Singh is a data analyst and campaign manager who worked for BJP’s campaigns in Manipur and Tripura) 

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Fake news, hatred spread faster and further on SM


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