Weaponising social media in India

Philosopher Noam Chomsky once said propaganda is to democracy what violence is to a dictatorship.

Social media has made it increasingly easy for political parties to bombard their constituencies with propaganda. From Russian trolls’ interference in the 2016 US presidential elections, to current US President Donald Trump using twitter to voice criticism of his opponents and praise his supporters, it has allowed direct everyday access to voters.

Perhaps the best example of how social media can impact an election result is the world’s largest democracy – India. India has a population of more than 1.3 billion people and had roughly 900 million eligible voters in its 2019 election. According to provisional figures from the Electoral Commission of India, this year’s seven weeks of election voting had the highest voter turnout in history with 67.1 per cent of voters casting their ballot. The result was a surprise with the Bharatiya Janata Party, India’s conservative party, being re-elected.

Sanchayan Bhattacharjee is an associate research fellow at the Observer Foundation in Mumbai. He says the BJP should be praised for how they used social media throughout their election campaign.

“At the end of the day any election is based on populist agendas and how strongly you can drive your narratives.”

“In terms of driving their narrative the BJP has really done a very, very successful job in the last elections and in this one as well and they’ve used social media, mainstream media, everything for it.” The BJP’s social media strategy is so sophisticated it has dedicated IT Cells, whose sole objective is to spread the party message to supporters.

Gaurish Kalangutkar works with the BJP IT Cell in Goa, a state of India which in 2018 had a population of around 1.5 million people, according to projections from 2011 census data, almost half a million fewer people than in metropolitan Perth.

BJP Goa District Office Mapusa
Photo: Jackson Worthington.

He says the cell is essentially a social media cell whose role is to connect grassroots level workers with state and national teams. “[During the election] we had a team of around 140 party workers which were working on the BJP Goa IT platform to connect the workers with the organisation and also trying to reach out to the people with the schemes and programs of the government.”

While Kalangutkar doesn’t claim the government would have lost the election without the work of his IT Cell and others around the country, he does say political parties must make their presence felt on social media. “A lot of people use social media, I believe people are spending … a lot of time on social media rather than doing a lot of other activities. So, because of that every political party, politician has to be present on social media to connect with the people.”

WhatsApp is one of the most used social media platforms in India. It functions differently to the more popular feed-based social media sites in the west such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Users rely on groups and messages to receive information instead of receiving updates from people they follow. Kalangutkar is a member of at least 20 WhatsApp groups for his work with the IT Cell. He says during the election his IT Cell reached 1600 election booth workers with the BJP message over WhatsApp.

The agenda is dictated by the state team and changes daily.  “We are trying to project good things about what the government has done to the public and what the opposition is also doing … Based on all these things, the positive things the government is doing, the negative things which the opposition is trying to inflict on us. Taking into consideration both of these things we try to set an agenda.” Kalangutkar says the volunteers are asked to spend at least 15 to 30 minutes a day on social media promoting the BJP agenda but if they spend more that’s okay.

Faiz Ullah is an assistant professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences who says the use of social media and the internet has had a major effect on the last two general elections in India.

“It has definitely made a dent in our democracy. We don’t know how deep a dent, we don’t know where eventually we will be when the dust settles.”

He says the impact has been facilitated by access to cheap mobile phones and mobile data. “Cheap data plans and smartphones have really, really put this power in the hands of ordinary people. Given them confidence to participate in politics and they’ve taken on this opportunity very, very enthusiastically so they are very, very opinionated and very, very loud and almost always online.”

Ullah’s opinion is backed up by the results of a recent survey conducted by Point of View, a women’s rights organisation based in Mumbai. According to POV the #CyberSecsSurvey was a crowd-sourced survey with 874 responses which investigated people’s digital habits. It found that nearly 75 per cent of respondents used their phone to access the internet. It also found that nearly 65 per cent of people believed they had been trolled online.

Graphic: Jackson Worthington.

Ullah says that Indian society is following a global trend of populism and is more divided than ever although he is unsure how big a role the internet played in that trend.

“There is a silver lining also, as a society [the internet] has provided people with a voice to resist these sharp polarisations, there are saner voices also but as of now I think they are dominated by people who want to use the internet in a very cynical instrumental way. Those guys are winning.”

Ullah says right-wing groups have an affinity with technology and can use it to drum up support for ideas that don’t have natural traction with voters. “A lot of us are realising where things might have gone a bit out of control is also left and progressive forces’ scepticism of technology.”

He believes left wing groups in India have only just started waking up to the fact that technology is something that needs to be fought over and used strategically. “Right wing forces have really, really captured the internet and are very good at understanding the grammar, understanding the strategies, making use of forms that resonate with young people.”

Conversation with Samar Goyal
Graphic: Jackson Worthington.

One such group which utilise memes and comedy to spread its message is Troll Indian Politics on Facebook. The group claims no political association but also boasts about being huge supporters of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The page, run by two students Abhishek Panchal and Samar Goyal, has more than 85,000 likes on Facebook although Goyal says it had 3.3 million before Facebook deleted their account.

Goyal says the pair are not trolls and anyone who believes they are doesn’t want to see the harsh reality he believes their page exposes. He insists the page has no goal and will be shut down when the media stops using double standards and politicians stop prioritising Muslims over Hindus for votes.

However, according to data from the 2011 Indian census, Muslims make up around 14 per cent of India’s population compared to the roughly 80 per cent of Hindus so statistically it would make no sense for politicians to target Muslims for votes, contrary to Goyal’s claims.

While the internet has provided Goyal and Panchal a platform to spread their message it has also allowed for the formation of fact checking websites to combat the spread of fake news online. Pankaj Jain is the founder of, India’s largest fact checking website. He decided to start SM Hoax Slayer after becoming frustrated with family members sharing fake news in WhatsApp groups.

He says originally the fake news he was debunking were pranks but by the end of 2016 and towards 2017 the posts became much more political and religious. “Just today I came across one video, which was a celebration in 2017 where people are dancing with swords in their hands. But that is viral now claiming that these people are shouting slogans that they will kill people from other religions.”

Facebook post debunking fake news. Source: SM Hoax Slayer.

“In India people are not bothered if the news is fake or not. I have tried telling my acquaintances and all that the videos are wrong. But they say OK ignore it then, they never say I did something wrong and I should take care of it. People keep forwarding things even without checking, if it matches their agenda.”

Jain says most of the fake news he receives is from right wing sites. He agrees with Ullah’s hypothesis that cheap data has contributed to the fake news problem. He says easy access to the internet has allowed everyone, especially auto rickshaw drivers and vegetable lenders, to start using sites like WhatsApp and YouTube.

“They basically don’t know about what’s going on, but they believe messages being sent to them. Either they were biased beforehand or that makes them biased and it spreads hatred, it gets votes.”

“WhatsApp is the biggest tool in India right now for spreading fake news.”

The Observer Foundation’s Bhattacharjee believes media literacy and help from social media companies can help curb the influence the internet has on elections. He says conversations need to be had between governments at all levels and social media companies. Specifically, to see how they can help to address the accuracy of information posted online and the consequences for those found to be propagating fake news or messages along religious lines.

“It has to have a solution at a technical level. This can not just be a solution at policy level. Media literacy is not a one-point solution, it’s probably one of the ways we can do it but we need algorithms to help us out as well.”

Ullah agrees that governments should be looking at how social media companies came to be so powerful and why world leaders are meeting with and quoting their CEOs . “I don’t think the answer is going to come from social media. The answer is going to come from the basics of politics, which is the units of politics, which are people.”

Ullah wants social media companies to take a stand and decide what they will allow on their platforms. “It’s not a safe place to be and if you’re not free to speak your mind or just be who you are, democracy is a large abstract idea, but I mean it threatens your personal safety your personal wellbeing.”

Social media has made us more connected than ever. But, as Hitler once said: make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it. Social media makes it easier to tell that lie.