The Role of Fake News in Elections

The Indian Constitution under Article 19 may have provided ‘Freedom of Speech’ to all Indian citizens but this right comes with certain restrictions. Article 19 is the core of the democratic values of our country but when this freedom is misused for hate propaganda for electoral gains, it is disrespectful for the democracy and the Constitution of the country.


The existence of fake news is not something that has recently become prominent. It has existed since time immemorial. In the 20th century, during the World War-1, there were stories about the German Corpse Company, which was later found to be a part of British Propaganda. 


In recent times, this term gained popularity when US President, Donald Trump, used it during and after his election campaign to describe the negative press coverage against him. With the increasing usage of internet and social media platforms, the problem has magnified.


Social media can go completely roguish or it can be informative. At one level it is a democratic forum, it gives everybody a voice but at another level it is also an agency of distortion. In India, WhatsApp and Facebook are the most commonly used social network websites, but at the same time they are most vulnerable to fake news. This was evident when the Muzaffarnagar Riots in 2013 were fueled due to fake news videos which ignited communal tensions. In 2016, misinformation about the kidnapping of a child led to mob lynching in Jharkhand and issues regarding cow vigilance become prominent with the regular flow of photos and videos. The circulation of fake videos and photos from different war zones and portraying them as the sufferings of Kashmiris has become very common.


This is not the only problem. The real issue starts when the fake news penetrates into the electoral process, the most recent example being the 2019 elections. Manufacturing fake news was never such an organized industry as we saw in 2019 elections. Pooja Chaudhuri of the Wire reported on March 27, 2019 that the addresses disclosed by pages of ‘Nation with NaMo’ and ‘My First Vote for Modi’ as part of advertiser details, matched with the address of BJP, Delhi headquarters. According to the 2017 Freedom House’s Report titled ‘Freedom on the Net’ fake news played an essential role in the elections of at least 18 countries.


The main issue is that India has one of the worlds’ lowest data prices, which makes its usage extremely popular, even in the rural areas. The fact that about 256 people can become members of one WhatsApp group, makes it easy for the flow of fake news. This is spread either in the form of misleading headings, biased news, satires etc.


BBC Research Project of 2019 claimed that 2019 Air Strikes was a false news, but Indian authorities presented enough evidence to prove the opposite. But the fact cannot be ignored that videos of the dead bodies and crumbling buildings, spread a wave of patriotism across the country, which had a direct influence on the 2019 elections and particularly in the voting sentiments of certain sections of our society. Business Standard reported on May 19, 2019, a total of 647 cases of paid news during the recent elections. 


The false news can be spread either by political parties, fan pages or individuals with a motive of evoking fear psychosis in the voters, though no political party has ever directly associated itself with any such group. The two main political parties of India-BJP and Congress have tried to use social media websites to influence the 900 million eligible voters. Both the parties have been blamed for spreading wrong information online. As a part of the 2019 Accountability Report of Internet Freedom Foundation, BJP as a part of 2019 election campaign spent about 25 crore rupees on social media advertisements.


Using factors like caste and religion, parties have targeted messages as a weapon to spread misinformation for electoral benefits. Oxford University Research Group, 2018 concluded that India is one of the 48 countries where political parties have formally organized ‘social media manipulation campaigns. Defaming the contesting politicians, corruption and molestation allegations against them, surveys supporting one party even before the commencement of polls, associating terror attacks on security forces with a specific political party, promoting war in the name of political associations, news about leaders changing parties just before elections have been some of the most commonly circulated fake news before the elections.


A BBC Report in early 2019 suggested in its social media analysis that right-wing networks are more organized than the left in propagating nationalistic fake stories. A wave of another set of fake news had spread following this that BBC supports the left wing and is anti-right.


Fake news becomes even more influencing when it is circulated in the name of famous and reputed sources like Times, BBC, UN Agencies etc. The common public mostly lacks the ability to differentiate between fake and authentic news and with the continuous forwards via WhatsApp, it is perceived to be the correct news.


There is no specific law for media policy verification in India. Thus, it is high time that regulatory bodies like Press Council of India, News Broadcasters Association, Indian Broadcasting Association, Broadcasting Content Complaint Council etc. become vigilant and start dealing with complaints and objectionable contents with strict actions and penalties. 


It is exactly not easy to pinpoint as to who exactly is responsible. Leaders have blamed WhatsApp for creating hostility via forwarded messages. On the other hand, WhatsApp blames the parties as it claims that the company cannot encrypt the messages sent via the app.


WhatsApp and Facebook have been struggling to curb fake news and its impact especially during the election period- the major impact of fake news was actually seen in US 2016 Presidential Elections and Indian Lok Sabha Elections of 2019. An analysis by BuzzFeed found that the top 20 fake news stories about the 2016 US elections received more engagement on Facebook than the top 20 election stories from 19 major media outlets.

Facebook has removed several suspicious accounts and pages to avoid influencing the voters. Under Model Code of Conduct Violations, many violations of ‘Paid News’ and pledging allegiance to a particular political party occurred which were given notices asking for explanation in 48 hours. Around 220 tweets and 31 Sharechat posts were removed on basis of violation of ethics, junk news, spam and for spread of communal hate. WhatsApp has improved its security and privacy policies to avoid adding members randomly in groups made for electoral gains. It even restricted the forwarding of messages to only five people at a time to avoid excess forward of fake news. WhatsApp before the 2019 elections even started a service to check the authenticity of the news forwarded.


Election Commission had taken strict actions against social media websites by directing them to make their own, ‘Code of Ethics’ similar to the ‘Code of Conduct’ of Election Commission to curb the spread of fake news which would negatively influence the voters before the elections. Thus, it is necessary that people should use fact-check websites like BOOM, Factly, Alt News etc. Therefore, it becomes essential for everyone to crosscheck the facts thoroughly, consider the expert opinion, refer to the supporting documents and have a look at the date of data collection and data publication.

Thus, curbing fake news has become the need of the hour as the rampant increase in the free transfer of misinformation can actually cause a greater harm to the democracy of our country.