The Media Today

Results expected in India’s ‘WhatsApp election’

May 22, 2019

India’s mammoth national elections are nearly over. Over the past six weeks, hundreds of millions of people have participated in rounds of voting, the last of which was on Sunday. Exit polls show the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party with a surprisingly clear lead, meaning Narendra Modi, a divisive Hindu nationalist, is expected to stay on as prime minister. Definitive results are scheduled to follow tomorrow.

Myriad issues have been at stake in these elections—among the most prominent are the state of the economy, geopolitical tensions, and rising sectarianism. Media and tech watchers—as well as many Western news outlets—however, have focused on a different, worrying trend: the rampant proliferation of disinformation and hate speech online. Traditional media, still dominant in the country, bears its share of responsibility, but the problem has been badly exacerbated by Facebook and WhatsApp, which Facebook owns: according to The Atlantic, the services have more than 500 million users between them in India; the country is WhatsApp’s biggest market. Facebook has had a hard time policing those services everywhere; in India, the difficulty is multiplied by a preponderance of languages and aggressive campaigns led by political parties and their supporters. Twitter, YouTube, and Wikipedia have also acted as vectors of junk information.

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Last year, WhatsApp came under intense pressure after conspiracy theories spread on the platform were linked to a series of lynchings across India. Earlier this year, rising tensions between India and neighboring Pakistan provoked a cross-platform information war, including in the news media; images purporting to show Indian airstrikes on alleged terrorist targets in Pakistan were found to be old, doctored, or, in at least one case, lifted from a video game.

Ahead of the elections, however, viral misinformation and propaganda appears to have reached a new order of magnitude. The Computational Propaganda Project at the University of Oxford found that between mid-February and the eve of the first round of voting, in mid-April, “the proportion of polarizing political news and information in circulation over social media in India [was] worse than all of the other country case studies we have analyzed, except the US presidential election in 2016.” Again, mainstream political actors have been key drivers of this trend: the researchers found that more than a quarter of content shared by Modi’s BJP was junk, as was one-fifth of information shared by the opposition Indian National Congress. The BJP has run a particularly sophisticated social-sharing campaign: one party official expected the signal to be boosted by over 1 million volunteers nationwide. NaMo—Modi’s own app, which came preinstalled on phones distributed in some states—has also shared false information.

The platforms have attempted to respond to the deluge. Facebook—which already partners with fact-checking sites in India—took down hundreds of pages and accounts it accused of pushing “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” including some linked to political parties. WhatsApp, for its part, says it bans 400,000 accounts in India each month; the company also spent $10 million on a public education campaign about the dangers of misinformation, according to the Financial Times. (The paper called this year’s vote India’s “WhatsApp election,” a phrase first applied to Brazil, last year.) Following last year’s violence, WhatsApp capped the size of groups and limited its forwarding function. In preparation for the elections, it added a “tip line” allowing users to report, and verify, potential junk news.

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These efforts, unsurprisingly, have not held back the tide. Earlier this month, Pratik Sinha, cofounder of Alt News, an independent fact-checking site, told Quartz that fake news circulation has actually spiked during the election; Sinha estimates an increase of about 40 percent. Worldwide, companies like Facebook do not do nearly enough to combat the mass weaponization of lies and hate within their products. Such misuse, however, is legitimately hard to stop, even in the best of circumstances. A six-week election in a bitterly divided country of more than 1 billion people is not the best of circumstances.

Below, more on India’s elections and disinformation:

  • The broader context: Earlier this month, Aatish Taseer looked at Modi, India’s “divider in chief” for a Time cover story. (US readers may have missed it as Elizabeth Warren was on the cover instead.) Yesterday, meanwhile, Jeffrey Gettleman, South Asia bureau chief for The New York Times, discussed the present state of play on The Daily.
  • No let-up: After the final round of voting closed on Sunday, videos circulated on social media showing some electronic voting machines being moved, prompting fears of election fraud, the AP’s Ashok Sharma reports. India’s Election Commission strongly rejected the claims, stating that the videos showed unused machines being taken for storage.
  • An unsolved assassination: According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, reporters debunking false information during the election have themselves been subjected to abuse and hoaxes on social media. More broadly, India has a poor press-freedom climate: it ranked 140th out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index. In 2018, at least six journalists were killed in connection with their work. For CJR, Aliya Iftikhar took a deep look at one of them: Shujaat Bukhari, a prominent Kashmiri journalist whose assassination remains unsolved.
  • Another social-media blackout: Indonesia, another huge democracy, has just had a mammoth election period, too. Yesterday, after incumbent President Joko Widodo was announced as the winner, there was unrest in the streets of Jakarta, with six people killed. Today, Indonesia’s government announced that it would partially block social media, ostensibly to curb the spread of “fake news.”


Some news from CJR: Last month, CJR and The Nation announced a new project, working with partners including The Guardian, to improve media coverage of climate change. This morning, we published more details of what the project will entail, outlining how journalists, scientists, advocates, public officials, and private citizens can get involved. You can find out more here.


Other notable stories:

  • A scoop for The Washington Post: last night, Jeff Stein and Josh Dawsey reported on an internal IRS memo ruling that tax returns must be handed to Congress on request unless the president invokes executive privilege. The memo contradicts Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s recent assertion, to the House Ways and Means Committee, that it couldn’t see Trump’s tax returns because its request served no “legitimate legislative purpose.” (Executive privilege was not invoked.) Yesterday, I tracked the White House’s multifront war on transparency for CJR.
  • According to the Times, Trump is set to appoint Ken Cuccinelli, the former attorney general of Virginia, to a role overseeing immigration policy. (The Times had reported that Kris Kobach, who previously led Trump’s bogus “voter fraud” commission, was interested but had demanded 24-7 access to a government jet amid other extravagant perks; Politico said yesterday that his demands were “clearly leaked to damage Kobach’s chances.”) According to The Hollywood Reporter’s Jeremy Barr, CNN has dropped Cuccinelli as an on-air contributor. Cuccinelli would not be Trump’s first hire from the CNN commentariat: Matt Whitaker, briefly the attorney general, and Stephen Moore, briefly nominated to the Federal Reserve, were both on the network’s roster.
  • Trump’s reelection campaign has spent roughly $5 million on Facebook advertising so far this year—far more than any of his Democratic presidential rivals, the Times’s Thomas Kaplan and Sarah Almukhtar report. Earlier this year, Trump’s spending surpassed that of all of the Democratic candidates combined, though that figure eventually overtook Trump’s haul. Joe Biden, in particular, may be catching up: “Since entering the race late last month, [Biden] has pumped more than $1 million into Facebook ads, outspending Trump’s campaign for three of the past four weeks.”
  • Politico’s Michael Calderone checked in with editors and reporters from NBC, CNN, the AP, the Times, the Post, and The Wall Street Journal to find out how they’re spreading their resources across the sprawling Democratic primary field. “Most newsrooms can’t afford—or don’t want—to assign a reporter to every candidate,” Calderone writes. “That’s prompting some creativity in how to cover the 2020 race.”
  • Last week, a court ruled that the University of Kentucky failed to comply with the state’s public records laws when it refused to hand information about a professor being investigated for sexual assault to its student newspaper. In recent years, Rich Shumate reports for CJR, both UK and Western Kentucky University have sued student journalists, using “a unique feature of Kentucky law,” to block Title IX document requests.
  • Yesterday, Bill Scott, San Francisco’s police chief, defended his force’s recent raid of Bryan Carmody, a freelance journalist and stringer: Carmody, Scott said, is suspected of conspiring with an employee to steal a police report. According to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Evan Sernoffsky, however, Scott alleged only that Carmody “participated in receiving and distributing a leaked government report—an action that is common in the media and protected by the First Amendment.” Also yesterday, a judge did not rule on motions to quash and unseal the search warrants police used against Carmody.
  • NBC News’s Brandy Zadrozny reports on private Facebook groups where parents discuss trying to “cure” children with autism, including by using a compound that amounts to industrial bleach. “Proponents of chlorine dioxide profit off these parents’ fears and hopes by selling books about the supposed ‘cure,’ marketing the chemicals and posting how-to videos,” Zadrozny writes. “For every book removed from Amazon or private group shuttered on Facebook, others spring up.”
  • For CJR, Martin Goillandeau and Makana Eyre look at the media context behind the publication, last week, of a secret video appearing to show Austria’s far-right deputy leader conspiring with a purported Russian oligarch to alter the country’s media landscape. The video collapsed the government. “The revelations have come to light during a surge of press-freedom threats” in Austria, Goillandeau and Eyre write. Austria’s public broadcaster is at particular risk.
  • And a new front in the war on the press in the Philippines: a pro-government media campaign is accusing independent news outlets—including Maria Ressa’s Rappler—of being paid by the CIA. CPJ’s Shawn W. Crispin has more.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.