India has entered a busy election season with polls in four state assembly and one union territory in West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Assam and Puducherry between March and April 2021. Of these, West Bengal will go to polls first and is expected to be the most contentious state election. It is among the handful of states where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the current ruling party at the centre, is not in power. Stakes are high both for the BJP and the current Trinamool Congress (TMC) government in West Bengal that is fighting to retain its ten year turf.
As the fight for West Bengal intensifies, culture, language, literary figures, government schemes, communal tensions have become cards in the game, especially in the virtual battle. Cyber cells of political parties have been running social media campaigns to connect with their support base and further their reach. Slogans, cartoons, graffiti, rhymes, and parody are all part of the campaign.
We also see a spurt in misleading narratives, polarising rhetorics, photoshopped images, parody social media accounts and fake quotes. On its own, a claim may seem innocuous and have minimal impact on voters’ minds and choices. However, the tipping point is when the floodgates open for a flurry of such messages and when social media and WhatsApp become the vectors of misinformation. What is at stake is not just the outcome of an election, but the integrity of elections and democratic systems.
In this blogpost, we take a look at the emerging trends and tactics of misinformation uncovered by fact-checking groups in India.
Fact-checkers have observed trending and manufactured hashtags shared along with similar tweets by thousands of users. The Quint’s investigation pointed to daily toolkits released by party cyber cells with hashtags and tweets with often misleading information. These are tweeted out by thousands of users to make certain claims and narratives viral.
Read the Quint’s story.
This may not be a new trick for bad actors, but pictures of large gatherings in support of certain leaders or parties is of great significance during the time of a pandemic. When parties are trying to connect to voters virtually, the optics of large gatherings and grand rallies is to claim huge support.
A photo of popular cricketer Sourav Ganguly featured in fake posters of political parties. Another poster with the images of prominent industrialist Ratan Tata and the BJP’s Bengal chief Dilip Ghosh claimed that the former will invest Rs 60 billion (827 million USD) in West Bengal if the BJP comes into power.
A photoshopped image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi taking part in a bicycle rally with an accused individual in a drug case went viral. Another morphed image was shared widely with the claim that West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was faking an injury as an election gimmick. Morphed and recycled images point to clear attempts towards character assassination and spreading disinformation.
Claims have been made of parties paying citizens for buying votes and attending political rallies. Rarely have we come across evidence for these. However, there is no dearth of false videos and images that claim so. Here is one fact-check report from the Quint which debunks the claim of BJP having distributed money for galvanising crowds in a political rally in West Bengal.
Read the Quint’s story.
This content was produced by Ekta, a consortium of Indian fact-checking groups supported by Meedan.
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