NEW DELHI: India’s six-week election was staggering in its size and logistical complexity, but also in the “unprecedented” scale of online disinformation.

The biggest democratic exercise in history brought with it a surge of false social media posts and instant messaging, ranging from doctored videos to unrelated images with false captions.

Raqib Hameed Naik, from the US-based India Hate Lab, said they had “witnessed an unprecedented scale of disinformation” in the elections.

“Conspiracy theories... were vigorously promoted to deepen the communal divide,” said Naik, whose organisation researches hate speech and disinformation.

Rahul Gandhi was a leading target of false information detected across political spectrum

With seven stages of voting stretched over six weeks, AFP factcheckers carried out 40 election-related debunks across India’s political divide.

There were fake videos of Bollywood stars endorsing the opposition, as well as those purporting to show one person casting multiple votes. Some were crude or poked fun. Others were far more sinister and sophisticated productions aimed to deliberately mislead. All were widely shared.

‘Fear and animosity’

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came under fire for posts stoking sectarian tensions with India’s minority Muslim community of more than 200 million. These included numerous videos, matching incendiary campaign speeches by Modi, falsely claiming his opponents were planning to redistribute India’s wealth in favour of Muslims.

Naik said such posts “aimed at stoking fear and animosity towards Muslims to polarise voters along religious lines”.

“The 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,” he said.

False information was detected across the political spectrum but the leader of the opposition Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, was one of the leading targets. His statements, videos and photographs were shared on social media, but often incompletely or out of context.

One digitally altered video analysed by AFP used Gandhi’s real boast that the opposition alliance would triumph, but flipped it to say Modi would win a third term when the result is declared on Tuesday.

Others purported to show Gandhi falsely appealing to people to vote for Modi. Among the more egregious examples were those falsely linking him to India’s rival neighbours, Pakistan and China.

Those included a photograph that claimed Gandhi was waving the “Chinese constitution” during an election rally. It was in fact that of India.

Other posts portrayed Gandhi, a Hindu, as being against India’s majority religion, capitalising on Modi’s efforts to cast himself as the country’s staunchest defender of the faith.

One video of a ruined Hindu temple, a real image from Pakistan, was widely shared.

Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2024

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