A deluge of online hoaxes that hit Indian social media as the nation fought aerial battles with Pakistan has heightened fears over the “fake news” war looming in its national election.
Agence France-Presse has published more than 30 fact-check blogs debunking false claims made on Facebook and other social networks about the stand-off over Kashmir.
Experts said it was just the tip of the iceberg and that India would be the biggest misinformation challenge among a host of closely watched elections around the world this year.
The government is expected to soon announce dates for the six-week-long vote across the nation of 1.3 billion people.
More than 460 million people are online in India, but digital literacy is often poor, which only helps the spread of fake videos, photographs and messages that incite lynch mobs, communal violence and hardcore support for the main political parties.
“Ahead of the elections, I believe our workload is going to increase. We have seen a lot of disinformation after Kashmir and the airstrikes, and we are expecting much more,” said Pratik Sinha, head of the Indian fact-checking site Alt News.
“Disinformation in elections could be anything from fake quotes attributed to politicians ... [to] false propaganda,” he added, predicting even more anti-Pakistan rhetoric.
A Feb. 14 suicide bombing in Kashmir that left 40 Indian paramilitaries dead set off the hostilities. India blamed Pakistan and launched an airstrike, while social media misinformation tried to whip up jingoistic fervor.
Multiple viral posts wrongly labeled videos of Russian army drills as a display of Indian military might, while the footage in a “breaking” news report of Pakistani tanks moving toward the border with India was in fact two years old.
Such posts are frequently spread by nationalistic pages with names such as “I love Pakistan,” “Pak Army” and “Proud to be an Indian,” which has more than 2 million followers.
One video, of a 2014 military air show in Islamabad, was used to push separate false claims in both India and Pakistan.
Indian social media accounts and TV channels said the footage was of Indian airstrikes carried out in Pakistan, but Pakistani Facebook users and newspapers said it showed Pakistani jets chasing Indian planes out of their airspace.
Political campaigners took advantage of the showdown to “grind their own axes,” said Rajesh Upadhyay, editor-in-chief at Hindi-language news group Jagran New Media.
“Some of this content was indeed aimed at stoking extreme nationalistic sentiment, but a bigger percentage of it was politically motivated and click-bait driven,” he said.
A 2013 video of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling the wife of a man who died at one of his rallies was republished online two days after the bombing.
Its caption said he was speaking to the widow of a “martyr,” a word routinely used in India after soldiers are killed in action.
Simultaneously, another post set out to disparage Modi: It contained a photograph purportedly showing the prime minister shaking hands with the head of a Pakistan-based Islamic group listed by the UN and US as a terrorist organization.
“See for yourself who is a traitor,” that post’s caption said.
However, the photograph had been doctored, with the militant group chief’s head pasted onto the body of former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif when he met Modi in 2015.
India is fertile ground for misinformation proliferation. Cheap smartphones and data plans bring more people online, but many are first-time Internet users unskilled in discerning fact from fiction.
Indian cybersecurity consultant Rakshit Tandon said the amount of online fake news is “likely to grow” during campaigning.
International tech companies are preparing major campaigns for the polls.
YouTube on Thursday said it would start flagging dubious content in news-related videos in India, while its parent company Google is training Indian journalists in verification techniques and boosting stringency over election advertising.
WhatsApp restricted message forwarding and ran newspaper advertisements to counter fake news after a spate of mob killings sparked by a hoax spread on the messaging service.
Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, is running its biggest-ever election monitoring campaign, running advertisements and announcements to help people spot misinformation. It is also working with Indian newsrooms to make false posts less visible.
However, some experts are not convinced.
Shakuntala Banaji, associate professor in media and communications at the London School of Economics, said that these measures had not been effective.
“The elections had already spawned hundreds of thousands of fake messages, misinformation and lies stemming from government-sympathetic sources — this has only come to the attention of the international community” due to the Kashmir crisis, she said. “The limiting of WhatsApp forwards has simply been bypassed by paid and unpaid trolls and provocateurs.”
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