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How India Is Confronting Disinformation On Social Media Ahead Of Elections


Five regions of India are holding elections this month. The party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying to win control of some of the last bastions of opposition rule. To do that, it is doubling down on social media, betting that voters these days may be influenced more by what's on their smartphones than by the reality on the ground. But social media is also where politics can sometimes cross over into disinformation. As part of our series on fighting disinformation around the world, NPR's Lauren Frayer has spent the last year looking into how Indians are confronting it.


PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Non-English language spoken).

MODI: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Non-English language spoken).

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: At an election rally last month in West Bengal, Eastern India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi bragged about the crowd he drew.


MODI: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: Arriving by helicopter, I couldn't see any free space, Modi exclaimed. Officials from the prime minister's Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, tweeted out photos of massive crowds. The problem is that the photos were from an opposing party's rally in 2019, and the real footage from Modi's event actually did show some free space and a slightly smaller crowd.

SWASTI CHATTERJEE: And all we had to do was just run a reverse-image search that traced it back.

FRAYER: Swasti Chatterjee is a fact-checker at BOOM, an Indian website that debunks fake news. Within hours, she traced the rally photos and tweeted out the correct ones. But the damage was done. News outlets as far away as France were running reports of Modi's huge crowd.

CHATTERJEE: When lies travel faster than truths, the truth comes crawling out very soon (ph). That's our problem.

FRAYER: Debunking disinformation like this can sometimes feel like a drop in the bucket - too little, too late. The fact-checkers don't have as many followers as political parties, and no politician in the world has as many followers as Modi. His party invested in the digital world two decades ago, before most Indians were ever online.

ARVIND GUPTA: The BJP has always had technology in its DNA. It was India's first party to have a website.

FRAYER: Arvind Gupta ran the BJP's online team in the lead up to Modi's first national victory in 2014. That campaign was compared to Barack Obama's for its use of big data and social media. With a team of just 25 staffers, Gupta explains how he was able to reach a wide audience.

GUPTA: We signed up half a million volunteers. We asked people, can you give us time? What they were doing mostly online was taking the party's official lines and propagating it further in their own groups.

FRAYER: Just to be clear - they're not employees.

GUPTA: Oh, no, no. These are volunteers.

FRAYER: The party's messaging structure looks like this - concentric circles. Modi and his aides are at the center. They dictate the message. One circle out from them is Gupta's social media team. They shape the message. On the outer ring are those half a million volunteers. They disseminate the message to all their friends and family, and those people share it, too. So the social media team creates a Google Doc with suggested tweets, hashtags and WhatsApp messages praising Modi's crowd size, for example. Volunteers copy and paste those messages, amplifying them by the millions.

Benjamin Strick is a digital investigator based in the U.K. who has studied this technique called copy pasta. It's a type of spam.

BENJAMIN STRICK: They can manipulate every hashtag to get it within the top 10 trending hashtags in India every single day if they wanted to just through this Google Doc campaign.

FRAYER: Twitter does have rules against artificially amplifying messages on its platform. Most of the accounts it takes down for violating that around the world are bots, automated accounts. But that's not the case here.

STRICK: This is a really difficult one because it's not a bot network. It's not a troll farm operating out of Russia with fake accounts.

FRAYER: These are real people, and the BJP knows the kind of messages that motivate them.

STRICK: The pro-BJP hashtags are very emotionally based, kind of like football. Manchester United or Liverpool - who is the better team?

FRAYER: This is what all political parties do - they rally their teams around a message. But there's some evidence of intentional disinformation here, and BJP insiders say they're better at that, too. Remember those concentric circles? Shivam Shankar Singh was in one of the middle rings. About six years ago, he worked for the BJP. His job was to research the religion and caste of undecided voters.

SHIVAM SHANKAR SINGH: Because a lot of voting in India happens across religion and caste lines, and so they started targeting specific communities.

FRAYER: India has a history of Hindu-Muslim tensions, and the BJP, which is a Hindu nationalist party, it would play off that, Shivam says. His data would be used to send messages to Hindus who live next to Muslims, for example.

SINGH: What are problems (ph) about how the Muslim population is going to overtake the Hindu population? You would get videos from, say, Syria or somewhere in the Middle East where some Muslim is beating up someone else. And it's going to be like, look at this. This is what's happening in Katwa (ph); this is what's happening in West Bengal.

FRAYER: These are parts of India rather than Syria, where the videos were actually filmed. Shivam says these messages, they never came from official BJP accounts. They came from the volunteers. BJP officials might retweet them but only after they'd gone viral. NPR asked several current BJP workers for interviews. No one was available. But last year, when I interviewed the former BJP official, Arvind Gupta, I asked him whether he ever felt responsible for any disinformation that came from his volunteers.

GUPTA: Of course not. How can anybody be responsible for a very disconnected set of people who can tweet whatever - they have their minds of their own.

FRAYER: The BJP can distance itself from its volunteers when it needs to, but it can also egg them on. Here's Ahmed Shah, the home minister and Modi's right-hand man in a recent speech in West Bengal.


AMIT SHAH: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: "Spread messages that scare people. It helps reel them in," he said, laughing. And the crowd cheered. The volume of fear and disinformation online, it often gets Swasti, the fact-checker, down.

CHATTERJEE: Of course, at times it does feel miserable.

FRAYER: But there may be another way. What sets India apart is how many people here are new to the Internet. Hundreds of millions of Indians have emerged from poverty, and now they have smartphones. Political scientist Sumitra Badrinathan studies disinformation, and she recalls interviewing a woman recently who was so dazzled by the concept of getting news on a phone that the source didn't really matter to her.

SUMITRA BADRINATHAN: And she told me that, you know, every time I get a push notification, it's like God is telling me what's happening in the capital, in New Delhi. So - and she meant it very genuinely.

FRAYER: She just wasn't familiar with news appearing on her phone. Badrinathan says, if you can help that woman understand who is sending her messages, well, then she won't be duped. And that's what Badrinathan calls pre-bunking, and then you don't need to debunk each piece of fake news.

BADRINATHAN: It's like you can only debunk one story at a time. But with pre-bunking, it's sort of - you're setting up a structure to inoculate people into the future.

FRAYER: It takes time. NGOs are holding workshops. So are Indian schools. The idea is to inoculate people against disinformation before they fall victim to it and before the next round of elections. The BJP is campaigning now in West Bengal, a state currently ruled by the opposition. In recent months, BJP accounts have tweeted doctored videos and false rumors of attacks on Hindus there. We'll see if those messages have any effect. West Bengal's election results are due out on May 2.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMIE XX'S "OBVS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.