India election body struggles with scale of fake information

Photo: AP

When India’s Election Commission announced last month that its code of conduct would have to be followed by social media companies as well as political parties, some analysts scoffed, saying it lacked the capacity and speed required to check the spread of fake news ahead of a multi-phase general election that begins April 11.

Just weeks later, the commission is indeed struggling to cope with the fake news swirling on Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Twitter and other platforms, and even for its staff to spot it before it has spread across India, observers said Tuesday.

Given the findings that Russia used Facebook to influence the U.S. election in 2016, India’s Election Commission should have been better prepared, Gupta said.

Alarmed at the surge in misinformation, Facebook said Monday that it was removing hundreds of pages and accounts because “we don’t want our services to be used to manipulate people.”

WhatsApp on Tuesday unveiled a helpline called Checkpoint Tipline on which people can check the authenticity of information they receive.

Examples of fake political news in India on social media abound.

An India page on Facebook claimed that Sonia Gandhi, the ex-president of the Congress Party and mother of Rahul Gandhi, the party leader, is the country’s fourth-richest woman.

Another fabricated image showed the Pakistani flag being waved at Rahul Gandhi’s election rallies.

Yet another purported to show a photograph of Rahul Gandhi’s sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra wearing a cross around her neck, intended to malign her as a non-Hindu.

Other social media messages and images depicted Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a poor light or as a sinister force.

Facebook said it had removed 687 pages or accounts that “engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior” linked to the Congress Party.

The scale of the propaganda, false information, manipulated photos and fake videos may have something to do with the scope of India’s general election.

The outcome of 879 million Indians voting over five weeks starting next week is being seen by some as a watershed moment that could fundamentally alter the ethos of Indian society.

In India, rumors present a real threat.

In 2018, more than 30 people were lynched by mobs acting on rumors spread on WhatsApp.

In response, the messaging platform limited the number of people that messages could be forwarded to in India to five from the earlier 20.

But experts say that all this has meant is that the number of small groups has proliferated.

Last month, Facebook, Google, Twitter, WhatsApp and ShareChat agreed to adhere to a voluntary code of ethics in collaboration with the Election Commission to curb the menace of fake news, promising to take down any deliberately misleading information within three hours.

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