India’s general elections, the world’s largest democratic exercise, will begin on April 11 and one of the biggest talking points is the impact of fake news and inflammatory propaganda on the electorate. Will it significantly influence the fundamental pact between a voter and his choice?
It is a concern with far-reaching implications. India, with its 300 million Facebook users and 200 million WhatsApp users, has experienced a severe fallout of social media penetration as episodes of violence, mob lynching and deaths, not to speak of a general erosion in the trustworthiness of political intentions, seared themselves on the public consciousness.
All of this is potentially poised for exacerbation as the election campaigning goes into a high-pitch mode even as social media giants scramble for fixes. It is anybody’s guess whether the measures by Facebook and WhatsApp that include fact-checking programs and transparency in advertisements posted for election purposes for the former, and the launch of a hotline that allows Indians to flag rumours circulating ahead of the upcoming election by the latter, will make a difference.
The flashpoints being ignited through misinformation and extremist propaganda on social media around the world have branded technology as an implement that helps latent ideologies emerge but that’s just one side of the coin. Yes, it is absolutely necessary that social media corporations work towards making their platforms resistant to such rampant misuse.
Last year, in a series of violent incidents across India, scores of people were killed due to WhatsApp messages that spread rumours and fears of child kidnappers on the loose. Consequently, WhatsApp restricted message forwarding in India to only five chats, a measure it rolled out worldwide later. However, to view solutions by social media companies alone as a panacea would be to miss the woods for the trees.
There is also an argument to be made for the responsibility of countries and political leaders in ensuring they create an atmosphere at home that is not just non-conducive to the growth of divisiveness, but also actively thwarts it. This is where the change will begin and this is what will stem the tide of intolerance that is crashing on humanity’s shores with increasing force. As India’s elected representatives head to their political destinies one more time, it is time they heed this urgency.