India: Hindu nationalist BJP leads in disinformation race
Top officials of India's ruling Hindu nationalist party bombard voters with disinformation, as key states head to the polls.
Experts say that when important states went to the polls, top executives of India's dominant Hindu nationalist party and an army of its supporters hammered voters with fake news.
The five polls held over several weeks beginning February 10 set the foundation for the next general election in 2024, with the ruling BJP retaining control of the four states it previously controlled, including Uttar Pradesh, the country's most populous state, albeit with a reduced majority.
However, fact-checking agencies such as AFP discovered that major BJP campaigners communicated incorrect material to voters and followers more than any other party.
Sambit Patra, a BJP national spokesperson, uploaded a doctored video purporting to show that the Samajwadi Party, Uttar Pradesh's primary opposition, had devised a new slogan for its voters, "Vote for the Samajwadi Party to make Uttar Pradesh a new Pakistan."
The Hindu identity and rivalry with India's Muslim neighbor, Pakistan, are at the heart of the BJP's popular appeal, and hardline Hindu monk Yogi Adityanath led the party back to victory in the state.
"There are false claims like the Samajwadi Party election promise includes renaming the holy Hindu cities," Pooja Chaudhari, editor of Indian fact-checking site Alt News, told AFP.
"It is an organized effort by the BJP to portray their rival party as pro-Muslim, pro-Pakistan, and anti-Hindu in elections."
In another example, a doctored letter on Samajwadi Party letterhead appealing to its voters to support the BJP was shared tens of thousands of times on social media.
Ali Khan, a spokesman for the Samajwadi Party, called the letter a forgery and stated that the party has filed a complaint with the state electoral commission. "The BJP is desperate," he said.
India is fertile ground for disseminating misleading information. Cheap cellphones and data plans encourage more people to use the internet, but many of them are unskilled users who have trouble differentiating fact from fiction.
WhatsApp, an instant messaging app with roughly half a billion users in the country, is the preferred tool for political parties to reach out to voters.
All major political parties utilize WhatsApp groups to disseminate their ideologies, poll pledges, and leaders' remarks, as well as to oppose their opponents. And the BJP isn't the only one that engages in deceitful deception.
A bogus opinion survey credited to a prominent Hindi television news channel projected a significant win for the party in numerous fan groups, which Samajwadi supporters disseminated.
Other groups' supporters, notably the Congress Party, which ruled India for decades, have also been caught spreading false material.
Experts claim the BJP and its adherents, on the other hand, have a much larger social media presence and produce significantly more false information than other parties.
Last week, the Maharashtra unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had mediated a truce between Russian and Ukrainian soldiers to allow stranded Indian students to flee to safety, but India's Foreign Ministry refuted the report.
"The kind of misinformation which favors BJP or which shows other political parties in poor light, that sort of misinformation dominates the discourse," Alt News co-founder Pratik Sinha said.
"Every election we just see more and more of misinformation, more and more of hate speech, more and more of polarisation of voters along various lines, especially religious lines."
According to reports, the BJP launched over 100,000 WhatsApp groups and over 100 Facebook sites for the Uttar Pradesh elections, while its supporters created even more, including the "Yogi Adityanath" group on Facebook, which has over 500,000 followers.
On the condition of anonymity, a member of one BJP WhatsApp group told AFP that some of them are used to spread disinformation about opponents, including doctored movies and manipulated images to tarnish their image.
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"Sometimes we know what we are sharing is not right but it's part of propaganda," he said.
A former member of the BJP's IT cell who worked on the campaign for the 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections said the party's objective was to "mislead".
"A lot of messages are framed in a way to portray that BJP is engaged in the development of the nation but many times the images used in those messages are false," he said.
"There have been instances where images of wide roads, flyovers from some other countries have been falsely used to showcase development by the BJP."
In February, the Facebook page "Modi Once More," which has over 450,000 followers, posted a photograph of a gas pipeline that it said was in Uttar Pradesh, but AFP revealed it was in Germany.
The BJP claims that it uses social media groups to rally its supporters.
Party spokesperson Sambit Patra did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story from AFP.
In February, Meta, the parent company of both Facebook and WhatsApp, announced that in the previous two months, WhatsApp had removed over two million accounts for breaking its bulk messaging policy.
It did not specify the political affiliations of the accounts, but Meta and Twitter both claim to collaborate with political parties across the political spectrum by hosting training seminars for elected officials and party members.
A deferential social structure, according to Joyojeet Pal, an associate professor at the University of Michigan's School of Information, was a crucial factor in the proliferation of internet falsehoods in the country.
But when people were willing to challenge misinformation, he added, "There is a conversation about it, as opposed to default acceptance".