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FAKE PROPAGANDA KILLS

Shivam Shankar Singh’s How to Win an Indian Election takes readers into the forbidden world of election war rooms, giving a glimpse into how strategies are formulated, what works with voters on the ground and what really makes for a winning election campaign. Excerpts:

Between January 2017 and May 2018, at least thirty three people were killed across India in incidences of mob lynching spurred by rumours that child-lifters were on the prowl. On 28 June 2018, three people were killed in the state of Tripura on suspicion of being child-abductors, who were alleged to have killed one child and removed his kidneys, according to the rumours. The irony of the situation made it to national headlines because one of the men killed was a thirty-six-year-old who had been hired by the local administration to travel from village to village, making announcements to dispel the rumours of childlifting. These killings were a direct consequence of rumours spread through social media, especially WhatsApp.


With over 200 million active WhatsApp users in India, the country represents the largest market for the Facebook owned messaging platform. The application has become an indispensable part of several people's lives, and group chats on the platform have become one of the primary ways in which political parties communicate with voters. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, where messages often get drowned in the sea of information being posted on timelines, messages sent on WhatsApp have a better chance of being seen by people who are part of groups.

I knew early on that WhatsApp would be an effective political platform because it allows for targeted delivery of information to voters and is also an excellent tool to organize and mobilize party workers. What I did not fully comprehend was how different the WhatsApp experience was for an average Indian voter as compared to the urban elite. I had been added to over a hundred groups and I had stopped reading the messages on most of them because of the sheer volume. Most people, I know, who work in election consultancy dealt similarly with WhatsApp group messages, and almost all of them had turned off the auto download of multimedia content to ensure their phones did not fill up with pictures and videos. To us, being added to a group was a nuisance. Which was why I was surprised to learn that this wasn't the norm, and that people across rural and urban India loved being added to WhatsApp groups.

While travelling through villages on election work, first in Tripura and then in Madhya Pradesh, I realized that most voters believed that being added to a political WhatsApp group gave them access to some kind of insider information. Instead of being irritated by the messages, they read them with gusto, in the belief that they were receiving information from a credible source. If they received a message on the increase in the speed of rural electrification or on how the Nehru–Gandhi family had lied about their educational background or citizenship, they read them with great interest. The feeling was that they were receiving information that few others were aware of. They then repeated the same information in their everyday conversations with pride, shutting up people in political debates based on information that they had received over WhatsApp. Belonging to political WhatsApp groups was to belong to a community of likeminded people, where they could share and receive information. This made WhatsApp even more potent for political messaging.

Nazi Germany's Reich Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, has several quotable phrases on influencing public opinion. He's credited for saying, 'If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it, and you will even come to believe it yourself,' and, 'Propaganda works best when those who are being manipulated are confident they are acting on their own free will.' Many in Indian politics may not have heard these quotes or may not even know who Joseph Goebbels was, but the sentiments expressed in these words are what most successful politicians intuitively understand.

Politics at its core is the art of influencing public opinion. Governance requires a party or a leader to figure out what the best policy is and implement it successfully. That is a task that can lead to winning elections, but only when it translates into favourable public opinion. Without an appeal to emotion, development and good governance are both ineffective tools in politics. This is a sentiment that veteran politician and BJP leader Subramanian Swamy expressed in his interview to the Quint in June 2018, where he said that an 'election is never won on economic performance . . . elections are won on emotions'.

This means that winning elections requires a political party or an individual politician to exercise some control over public opinion. Such control is also required after winning an election, because reforming a system requires a favourable public opinion, which can only be garnered through constant messaging and propaganda. In recent years, social media has emerged as one of the most effective tools in shaping public discourse and influencing what people talk about. The BJP led the way in utilizing Facebook pages, Twitter handles and WhatsApp groups to push through messages that would shape public opinion on issues, and even decide what issues would be discussed in the first place. They are now investing in getting their proprietary NaMo App on as many phones as possible so that they don't have to depend on third party applications to deliver their message.

Amplifying Existing Biases

The rumour about child-abductors that led to the killing of several innocent people across India was most likely an accident. These messages could not be linked to the political benefit for any party and are unlikely to have originated from any planned operation. Yet, they elicited such strong responses from readers that people were murdered based on them. This is as clear a demonstration of the effectiveness of WhatsApp forwards as there can be. IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad wrote a letter to WhatsApp and issued several statements from June 2018 onwards, telling the company that it 'cannot evade accountability and responsibility'. WhatsApp proposed some changes to its application, like marking forwarded messages, starting an informational campaign on fake news, and restricting the number of times a message could be forwarded by one individual.

There is little doubt that the company would want to prevent fake news and rumour mongering on its platform, yet the proposed solutions seem inadequate. It's very likely that WhatsApp also understands the kind of engagement its groups have, and the kind of community they have created. Perhaps it is due to this dilemma that the company hasn't enacted swift changes to curb fake news and instead chosen to implement incremental reform.

In our experience, messages containing the language 'if true' and 'forwarded as received' do little to make the recipients question their authenticity. The educational campaign WhatsApp has started in the country is being disseminated via newspaper and radio ads, instead of through its own messaging platform on which fake news actually spreads. Neither of these is likely to reach the audience that is the most vulnerable to WhatsApp forwards. The third measure—of restricting the number of groups that a person can forward a message to—is also unlikely to be effective because most end recipients don't have too many accounts to forward the message to in the first place. They usually just forward it to their family and friends, and can easily copy–paste the content. These users aren't forwarding it out of malicious intent; they're doing it because they believe it to be true and they want the information to reach a larger audience so that people can be more informed. This level of trust on the information provided over WhatsApp has its basis in people's pre-existing biases. For instance, right-wing WhatsApp groups often consist of people who truly believe that Muslims are bad for India and that they harbour anti-national sentiments towards the country.

(Excerpted with permission from How To Win an Indian Election; written by SS Singh; published by Penguin eBury Press. The excerpt here is a part of the chapter titled 'Fake News and Propaganda'.)

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