In a post-truth world, political victories are being forged on social media using rumours, half-truths and downright lies
Pratap Vikram Singh | December 24, 2016 | New Delhi
FAKE news – easy to make, easier to spread – is fast becoming the AK-47 of the cyber guerrillas of information warfare. It is one of the choicest weapons in a world being adjectivised as ‘post-truth’, which Oxford Dictionaries has chosen as its word of the year for 2016. Sustained by the power of forwards and retweets, as everywhere, it is living its own political life in India.
Even the prime minister doesn’t seem to be averse to using the example of such ‘forwards’ to connect to his audiences and push the demonetisation debate. During the BJP’s Parivartan rally in Moradabad on December 3, with his typical flourish, he told the gathering, “I don’t know how far it is true, but there is a video going viral on WhatsApp of a beggar being told by a man that though he wanted to help, he does not have change.” In the video, the beggar responds by holding out a PoS terminal: he’s gone cashless. The video was in fact an ad made two years ago by a Hyderabad-based tech firm. Smart enough to express scepticism about the veracity of the video, Modi was smarter in recognising that speaking of it might strike a chord among his listeners.
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Used in offence, such fake material can leave a target quite helpless. Some months back, there was an image of a purported clipping from The Telegraph of June 8, 1987, reporting on an IIT Kharagpur student named Arvind Kejriwal being arrested for raping a local girl. It gained such wide currency that one website even played an insidious game. The website highlighted the dubious clipping first, clarifying that it could be created using certain software and declaring righteously that such dubious stuff should not be forwarded. It ended with a warning that Kejriwal should realise the danger of the politics he is playing and not spread rumours. The piece was later removed.
Two elections, two years apart, in two of the world’s largest democracies – India and the US – brought home the grim reality of post-truth politics. Prime minister Narendra Modi’s resounding 2014 victory was won to a great extent on social media, bypassing the mainstream media, which had turned against him because of the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat during his watch as chief minister. He hasn’t been averse to using exaggeration to swing crowd sentiment either: in his Independence Day speech this year, he spoke of his government’s rural electrification drive, citing the example of a UP village. “It takes three hours to reach Nagla-Fatela. But it took 70 years for electricity to reach there.” Soon, an official tweet showed the photo of Nagla-Fatela villagers watching the speech on TV. However, a media follow-up for a ground check found that most homes in the village did not have legal electricity connection. The tweeted photo turned out to be from some other village. The centre then sought to blame it on the state.
Donald Trump’s ride to the White House, too, was accompanied by his outrageous quotes and wild allegations, retweeted by millions of his followers – and taken to be true, never mind that PolitiFact, a Pulitzer prize winning website devoted to fact-checking what American politicians say, found more than 70 percent of his statements false. In fact, Paul Horner, a skillful creator of fake news, meant as spoofs, claims that Trump is in the White House because of him – the Republican candidate’s supporters retweeted Horner’s work believing them to be true! His spoofs were defeated by how they were consumed, digested and, needless to say, retweeted ad infinitum.
It’s a scary scenario: a people so wanting to have their own viewpoint confirmed that they will not care to think or check before they elect the president of the most powerful nation. Brexit, too, was influenced greatly by the mistruths put out on social media, the bogey of the ‘Polish plumber’ and all that. The Orwellian connotations of all this gave currency to the expression post-truth – ‘post-truth world’, ‘post-truth politics’ and the like.
Cyberspace and social media are rife with shoot-and-scoot misinformation-mongering, and much of it is getting increasingly political. While it is debatable whether everyone believes what they forward, and it’s impossible to fathom the motives with which individuals pass on such material, the proliferation is as real as the next dubious ‘forward’ you receive. Purveyors of fake news evidently believe such carpet-bombing achieves some effect – whether in favour of someone they want to pump up or against someone they wish to show in bad light. There is so much effort and energy put into orchestrating the fusillades that there is reason to believe it’s not just the work of some loose cannons.
Cui bono (or, who benefits)? That classic question has always been the compass needle to culpability. Down the ages, rumour, misinformation, deception have been staples in the tradecraft manual of power, control, and manipulation of public opinion. Xenophobes of every variety have used it. In twenty-first century democracies veering towards authoritarianism, where tolerance for accommodative voices is diminishing, the needle of suspicion increasingly points to political parties. In such a scenario, the scales of freedom of expression and the right to be informed swings wildly. The questions thrown up have deep implications for the mainstream media, for those who seek to stay informed, for democracy itself.
It is 7.30 in the evening. At the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters at Hazratganj, Lucknow, Ajit Pratap Singh, in yellow kurta and white pyjamas, is preparing a group of volunteers of the party’s IT wing for the forthcoming Uttar Pradesh elections. The conference room is on the first floor of a new block housing the party’s IT, data and call centre teams. The volunteers are mostly in their twenties and thirties.
Ajit Pratap speaks of an interaction he had with some medicos a few years ago. “I asked them, ‘Do you know the name of your great grandfather?’ Only two hands rose from among the dozen persons. ‘Do you know the name of the father of your great grandfather?’ No hands. I then asked them if they knew of Chandrashekhar Azad, and everyone raised his hand. I told them that people from Azad’s village identify themselves not by taking their forefathers’ names, but by saying they are from Azad’s village.”
Ajit Pratap tells the volunteers in the hall how there was pindrop silence when he asked the medicos if they thought their great grandchildren would ever remember them. He narrates how he won over the medicos by telling them life would soon pass them by and it would be too late to do something they would be remembered by – like what Azad did.
“That is why,” he concludes, “it is important for all of us to dedicate a part of our daily life to selfless work so that we don’t have any regret later. You can just do it through dedicating one hour or a couple of hours every day to the organisation.” The audience seems convinced. Another meeting was proposed the next week.
Their work has been charted out for them. They are to reach out to voters based on professional groups, doctors, lawyers, engineers and others, collecting and sharing stories of poor governance by Uttar Pradesh’s Samajwadi Party government. Land encroachment, women’s safety issues, poor civic infrastructure – all the information, in text, photographs, videos, is to be channelled through WhatsApp. The content generated is to be worked on by the party’s social media team and broadcast to offer a “true picture” to voters.
“Suppose the CM is travelling to Unnao or another city in UP, we will ask our volunteers to go and click images of pathetic condition of roads, civic infrastructure and services there,” says Ajit Pratap. “All this will be posted on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to counter the misinformation being spread by the present government.”
The BJP, so far the party with the most following on social media, is taking such work seriously. In Uttar Pradesh, it began with party president Amit Shah and union minister Nirmala Sitharaman meeting some 4,000 IT volunteers and some 8,000 social media volunteers in September. The aim is to dominate the discourse on WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
In a three-room flat located a little away from the party headquarters sits the team handling Facebook. Entry is restricted; only senior party members, including those heading the IT wing, are allowed in. The mission: to create and bombard content related to the positive work being done by the Modi government at the centre and simultaneously show rivals, including the ruling Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, in bad light. There are former journalists, researchers, graphic artists and video editors at work here. The logic is to create content for Facebook, which would eventually get viralised on WhatsApp.
On request, a party leader authorises a visit and asks a youth, bearded, khadi clad, and wearing slippers, to accompany me to the flat. The young man has spent a few years as an Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad worker in Delhi. He leads me to a commercial-cum-residential complex with a few bank offices on the ground floor. A lift takes us to the fourth floor. The young man rings the bell to a flat and the door is opened.
The main hall resembles a newsroom: about ten men working away on computers. The team head, in his early thirties, sits in another room, working on a red Lenovo laptop. I learn that the team works all week, 9.30 am to 8.30 pm, posting at least 10-15 graphics daily. There are two meetings daily: a morning meeting to set the agenda, and one in the evening to review the work done.
“The strategy is clear. The SP has to be attacked,” says the man with the red laptop, a former social media head of a Delhi-based national daily. “The researchers have to dig the internet a little. We could easily make videos, graphics with publicly available information. The election is being fought, including on the social media, in Modi’s name and the work his government is doing.”
All this is fine, but the line between what is carried out officially by the party and what is carried out for its benefit by other groups blurs. And this is where the ‘post-factual’ enters the picture. There are many other teams at work, quite often in secret. The party can always disclaim responsibility for the work these teams do. One such team runs a Facebook page called ‘Uttar Dega Uttar Pradesh’. A BJP leader from Lucknow who does not want to be named says, “The group running the page works under the direct supervision of party president Amit Shah and party state organising secretary Sunil Bansal [a Shah loyalist].” He won’t say where the team works from or who pays them for their services, but emphasises that the team is not paid by Shah or the party.
Here’s a patently ‘post-factual’ visual, posted on December 7 on the ‘Uttar Dega Uttar Pradesh’ page. Toned brown and ochre, it shows some young men in a queue, one of them holding a yellow hard hat. The centre is swept in brushstrokes to create a white space and inside it is an image of Modi in a turban holding up his hand in a victory sign. The headline says: ‘Rozgar ki aayi bahaar, na rahega koi berozgar. Kendra sarkar ne nikali kai vibhagon mein bhartiyan. (It’s the springtime of employment, no one will remain unemployed. The centre has created recruitment opportunities in many departments.)’ But this is not true. The centre has not undertaken any major recruitment drive recently.
It is nobody’s case that it’s only supporters of the BJP who are orchestrating such campaigns. Other parties have similar teams of their own, officials and, presumably, semi- or quasi-officials too. But among the 40 crore internet users in India (half of them on social media), the party that has elbowed out maximum space so far is the BJP. Its official Facebook page has 1.02 crore likes and Modi’s Facebook page has more than 3.79 crore; on Twitter, Modi has some 2.51 crore followers. Then there are numerous fan clubs, such as ‘I Support Narendra Modi’, on Facebook (1.13 crore likes). Also, there are independent groups like Shankh Naad, which espouse strong right-wing Hindutva ideas.
In contrast, figures for the Congress and its leader Rahul Gandhi are in lakhs – behind by a factor of 100. The Congress Facebook page has 40.49 lakh likes, while the Aam Aadmi Party’s page has 29 lakh. On Twitter, the ‘Office of RG’ (Rahul Gandhi) has 12 lakh followers. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has 29 lakh followers on Twitter, while its leader Arvind Kejriwal has about 1 crore followers. The Left has an active but much smaller presence on social media, led largely by left-leaning students, student groups and academicians. Regional and smaller parties are learning to establish a presence online, and their leaders are either tweeting themselves or employing people to do so.
Explaining the dominance of Hindutva followers on these forums, a Congress leader associated with its social-media wing says, “So far, the demographics of internet users allowed this. But it is going to be difficult for the BJP to maintain this. Why do we not see much dalit or OBC activism on the net? The answer is that they are listening to a great deal, but they are not writing – not writing that much about politics, but other things.” He predicts that as the demographics of the internet begin to reflect real demographics, these voices will begin to be heard and the narrative will no longer remain saffron-hued. He speaks of how those who try to question the BJP’s viewpoint get trolled or booted.
BJP social media chief Amit Malviya, however, says, “It’s happening. But that’s a medium of expression and people are free to express themselves the way they want to.” About the numerous pro-BJP websites, Facebook pages and the like, he says, “A lot of these guys are doing good work. They are not the BJP people. But if you read their posts, they make a lot of sense.” He denies that the party pays them for such work and doesn’t think it vitiates the discourse: “It’s not a one-way street. The issue is that social media has given voice to people who otherwise didn’t have a voice. Now the voice can range from being the voice of reason to the voice of passion. What most people pick up is the voice of passion and then say, ‘Oh look, the discourse is getting vitiated!’ But that may not be true. That may be the overwhelming sentiment of the people. Why don’t you acknowledge it?”
Choosing not to comment on what is patently fake, a Congress leader speaks of the party’s initiatives on social media. “We are not running it [what’s happening on social media],” he says. “This thing is far bigger than us. From time to time, we will try to push some issues in the domain, nothing beyond. We don’t do strategy. We try to pick up a trend and amplify it.” The broad plan, he says, is to scour the thousands of posts, tweets, cartoons doing the rounds, pick out a handful that are outstanding and try to make them go viral.
The official websites and social media accounts of parties and their leaders generally stay within bounds: the official line, an occasional snub or witticism, but usually nothing outrageous. It’s quasi-party groups that hit below the belt. It’s impossible to link these groups to any party, but the targets they choose are a giveaway. Quite a few such websites, FB pages and Twitter handles have come up. WhatsApp, of course, is awash with such dubious material.
In June 2015, the New York Times Magazine ran an expose headlined ‘The Agency’, on how a shadowy enterprise in Russia employing a few thousand trolls wreaked information havoc on the US: faked videos and photos of industrial disasters, accompanied by a barrage of fake tweets, created panic in one US town; and fabricated posts and videos spawned fears of an Ebola outbreak in Atlanta, Georgia. It also pushed for Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, his policies on Ukraine and so on. Proxy sites, camouflaged addresses, fake profiles – all kinds of tricks, sophisticated or crass, were put to full use. Speaking to a woman who worked for a while at the ‘agency’, the reporter unearthed the nefarious operation, implying connections, via an oligarch’s companies, to Putin. That was cyber warfare, both within the country and internationally, unleashed in battalion strength.
Going by the proliferation of fake news online and on social media in India, there is reason to suspect that the onslaught is planned and executed by many similar ‘agencies’.
Occasionally, it has been the BJP that is at the receiving end. On November 10, two days after the prime minister’s announcement of demonetisation of '500 and '1,000 notes, an image of a girl holding a bundle of the new '2,000 notes surfaced. She was described as the daughter of UP BJP chief Keshav Prasad Maurya. The image was shared widely in Congress-leaning circles on social media. Maurya does not have a daughter; he has two sons. Quick to pounce on this, Amit Malviya says, “Congress spokesperson Sanjay Jha was among those who retweeted the image. He later deleted it.” In an Indian Express op-ed article defending demonetisation and saying that the poor were in fact adapting to a cashless economy much faster than the elite thought, BJP spokesman Anil Baluni takes up the ‘Maurya daughter’ goof-up to reproach the opposition.
There is no limit to the creativity and enthusiasm of the anonymous authors of such forwards. A viral WhatsApp message claimed that Sonia Gandhi’s name was at the top of a list of Congress leaders hoarding money in Swiss banks. The source of this information, the message said, was WikiLeaks. Later, there was a message that listed a number of Indians having Swiss bank accounts and the amounts deposited. The list was headed by ‘Ambani (56,8000 cr)’; it did not care to give the full name or whether the amount was in rupees or dollars. Also on the list were ‘Amit Shah (1,58,000 cr)’ and ‘Rajnath Singh (82,000 cr)’. No mention of the source, or how the figures were arrived at. Clearly dubious.
Demonetisation, and the debate it has set off, has proved a fecund ground for fakery. The day after Modi announced the withdrawal of '500 and '1,000 notes, there was talk about the new '2,000 notes having a microchip that would allow satellites to detect them wherever they are hoarded. It is not clear where this originated, but it did gain a lot of traction. The ruling BJP seems to have won the debate on demonetisation on the ‘forward’ front, going by the volume of dubious material – and some well-reasoned arguments too – in support of the move. In fact, even those who have had to suffer standing in long queues seem to have come around to agreeing that it’s all for a good cause and in the national interest.
PR consultant Dilip Cherian puts the phenomenon in perspective: “The post-truth management of perception on demonetisation was evident the way [that] in the first 10 days it remained shrouded in desh bhakti slogans, gradually changed to a dialogue between the hostile forces of the poor and the rich. Then it became an exchange between those who believed it was time for change and those who still believed in the old system.”
Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the left-wing All-India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA) and an active user of social media, focuses on the political and media dynamics of post-truth rather than on fake news per se. She describes the BJP’s 2014 election victory as India’s first successful post-truth campaign, in which the BJP sold Gujarat as the golden model of development, later put into question by the patidar and dalit agitations in the state. Rumours, she says, are created and spread by social media, but the creation of post-truth is by the media and politicians. “Since the PM doesn’t allow interviews, when some channel gets an opportunity, it doesn’t ask hard-hitting questions... they don’t want to be seen as anti-nationals. That is the creation of post-truth.”
Such restriction of information flow, along with the phenomenon of fake news, sometimes ends up embarrassing the very person it’s aimed at. Few Indians on social media would have missed a ‘forward’ that went viral some months back about UNESCO choosing Modi as the best prime minister. UNESCO, of course, is not in the business of judging prime ministers.
But in a post-truth world, anything will be believed by those willing to believe it. And they will be endlessly fed by those who want them to believe it. Via the next tweet or WhatsApp forward.
(The story appears in the December 16-31, 2016 issue)
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