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Impact of Fake News on Politics

Impact of Fake News on Politics

By Sanchit Khandelwal

Gone are the days when one could just simply rely on the internet to know what's happening around the world and shape his/her views about the developments happening accordingly. But with the advent of yellow journalism, i.e. fake news in the last few years has become a cause of grave concern, as things are no longer as they seem with a naked eye. Fake news is not something new that has popped up for the first time but has been there since the advent of journalism itself, but what contained it back then was the lack of technology, to which we are now accustomed to in every possible sphere of life. Our history is flooded with instances of truth being compromised in the wake of material benefits, political gain, socio-economic gains, etc. Fake news is published usually with the intent to mislead in order to damage an agency, entity, or person and/or gain financially or politically, often using sensationalist, dishonest or outright fabricated headlines to increase readership. The gravity of the issue can be understood from the very fact that the word “fake news” sprung up as the word of the year in 2017[1]. No doubt counterfeit news is not new to India but it picked up acknowledgement just a couple years back. Fake news supplemented by the advancement in technology ended up being an expansive umbrella with several implications and ideas connected to it in India in view of unexpected scattering of deception. In 2018, the Press Council of India (PCI) understood the need of the hour and published a definition of fake news in the context of the nation's well-being. Justice Chandramauli Kumar Prasad, PCI Chairman quoted “Fake news means news, story, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partially false” [2]. The article ventures into the domain of how this social evil of fake news can affect the politics of a country and how it further affects the elections, as India is gearing up for the 2019 general election.

To understand the depth of the impact of fake news on politics we have several real-life incidents of election process getting affected by the menace of fake news, to name a few, 2016 US elections, 2018 Brazilian election, Brexit voting, 2019 Nigerian elections, 2018-19 state-level elections in India, etc. The first major incident of “fake news” affecting the outcome of the election in a democracy first came to limelight when it was claimed that the 2016 US election was barred by the Russian interference. It was alleged that the Russians were actively involved in spreading pro-trump posts over the internet, especially on Twitter and Facebook, most of which were on the face untrue and there were other posts whose facts were twisted or fabricated to disseminate deceptive content to garner support towards a particular political ideology, mainly pro-Trump. Even an iota of doubt of election being getting affected become worrisome when the election outcome is quite close as it happened in 2016 US election and Brexit voting, even a slight shift in votes due to dissemination of fake news can result in the failure of the whole electoral process and in larger context the spirit of the notion of democracy. Both Congress and FBI are investigating regarding Russian and its state agency, KGB's involvement in the social media chaos during the election. The latest report by attorney general Muller said there is no direct evidence of collusion between Trump and Russia but it also says that the role of counterfeit news cannot be ruled out as Russia is still a threat to American democracy. The report also mentioned that there is evidence that there were efforts from Russia and few other countries to hamper the 2018 midterm elections[3]. An analysis by Buzzfeed found that the top 20 fake news stories about the 2016 U.S. Presidential election received more engagement on Facebook than the top 20 election stories for 19 major media outlets[4]. This analysis by Buzzfeed supplements the findings of various studies that the rate at which fake, twisted or distorted stories reach to the reader is far more than the rate of the fact-checked ones. Those who say that the fake news need not necessarily affect the politics of a country must research about what happened during the 2018 election in Brazil, the President of the Supreme Electoral Court declared any inference with the electoral process could lead to the election's annulment. To tackle the crisis aptly the entity and political party's representative signed a collaboration agreement pledging that they would not spread false content themselves[5], as it has been seen time and again that fake news is backed, fuelled and funded by the political parties only.

Let's see how Indian politics has been affected by this socio-political evil, i.e. counterfeit news. Being accustomed to Indian politics and how it plays out during elections, dissemination of fabricated stories has been on a rise since the 2014 Lok-Sabha election. 2014 election was in many ways first of its kind as it marked the active entry of social media into the domain of Indian politics. WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter were the quintessential part of every political party's election campaign, especially financially sound Bhartiya Janata Party. Now, what has supplemented this digitalisation of Indian Politics is the advent of Jio 4G, after which there has been a huge rise in the reach of these social media platforms, which can be witnessed from the increased rate in their subscriber or user base. Out of all these social media platforms WhatsApp holds special significance in the Indian context as its user base has surpassed 200 million, largest for any democracy[6]. Also, we need to keep ourselves aware of the fact that this is Indian society we are talking about, where the general public especially rural society does not possess much or rather required knowledge about how the digital world plays, especially when it is politics we are talking about. Also, most of these increased users are first-time internet users, who might believe whatever is presented to them to be true or need not think that the stories presented to them can be fabricated. You wouldn't find any state election or even regional election after 2014 that was not deterred by social media platforms being used as carriers of fake news. Hindu right wing has been far more successful at mobilising a common socio-political identity through WhatsApp. Political parties funded cells are churning out fake news trying to damage the image of opposition leaders and they have been pretty successful in doing so. In particular, invitation-only groups have spread virulent and vitriolic messages that have played a role in cultivating a strong nationalistic identity. With the 2019 general election approaching, BJP has once geared up to use WhatsApp to its fortune. BJP is targeting smart-phone owning voters at the grassroots level. More than 9,00,000 "cell-phone pramukhs" are creating neighbour-based WhatsApp groups. On the other hand, Congress is also ready with its in-house application, for the dissemination of information among the party workers[7].

Now since it is known to us that in the present scenario, stories are created with truth and facts being compromised, twisted and fabricated for one's convenience and circumventing the goal but what we don't know for sure is that do fake news really affect the people's mind and in-turn change their political preferences? To clear that doubt we need to find out two things first: how many people have been exposed to fake news and how many of the exposed people really change their opinions/views in reaction to it? Mark Zuckerberg, CEO, Facebook revealed that 126 million Americans were exposed to politically-oriented fake news via Facebook which were backed by Russians[8]. Now it is where the statistics get interesting, not everyone who was presented with counterfeit stories read them, or consciously perceived them, or was affected by them. However, even if only a fraction of those who were presented the stories saw them and if some of them were influenced by politically fabricated news, then it could have changed the political inclination of enough people to affect the election as the election outcomes were so close in some of the swing states and who knows the colour of the political flag of the U.S. could have been blue instead of red. All this being hypothetical but has real potential. Also, what we do need to keep in mind is, was the audience to the fake stories targeted? These tactics can increase the faction of people getting affected by the fake stories, like for example rural Indian population is more likely to be convinced or duped by the fake news as compared to the urban population.

With general election of the largest democracy scheduled in the coming month and to measure the impact of fabricated news stories on them we can't just go with studies related to 2016 U.S. election and other western countries because ground realities here, in India, are different in every possible sense as the cultural, ethical, linguistic and religious diversity like India is nowhere to be found. All these factors accompanied with a rural population, whose literacy rate is not that prodigious and is mostly first-time internet-user, accompanied with above-mentioned diversity factors makes the Indian rural population highly vulnerable to getting duped by the fake news. As we all know that Indian society is divided on the lines of religion, ethnicity and beliefs which makes it pretty meek for the beneficiary groups to incite hatred and aggression among various sections of the society which in turn can result in polarisation of the society during elections, like what happened in State election of UP, where society was polarised on the lines of religion and caste due to circulation of fake and fabricated news stories during the election. It has been observed that the motive behind dissemination of fake news is not always changing political choice or inclination but also can be causing unnecessary obstruction in the electoral process like for example causing tension on the ground level which can lead to lower voter turnout, like what happened in Valley's (Kashmir) by-election, where the lowest ever turn-out was recorded, a sheer shameful incident for the world's largest democracy. This is not the only example in recent times where the spread of counterfeit news stories resulted into the mockery of India's democracy like Asansol violence during local elections and mob-lynching incidents in Alwar lead to polarisation and division of the society. Also, our society is marred by the presence of extremist groups like RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal, etc., backed by political parties who in order to purport their ideology use the means of fake news to incite anger and aggression within the society. According to media reports, WhatsApp in India has over 87,000 groups dedicated to political messaging to influence voters[9]. From fake statistics related to various government policies to news promoting regional news, government scams, historical myths, propaganda to patriotism and Hindu nationalism, these groups have it all during the election season.

Another angle to this menace of fake news is an economic one. Various studies have shown that fabricated stories get much more mentions and shares because of them being headlined and thumbnailed in an inviting way and also, they appeal to people because of the content being provocative and never seen before. There are several cells, fuelled and funded by various political parties, constantly working towards spreading counterfeit news and earning revenue through them. The potential economic aspect of anything related to fake news can be ascertained from the very fact that now every mainstream television channel has a show dedicated to ratification or fact check of twisted news stories being disseminated through social media platforms. So, one can say that in present times there are three types of news being presented to us, one is the genuine news which is fact-checked, then there is fake news and to keep check on the second one, we now have third one, the fact-check news.

Since it is crystal clear that fake news does have an impact upon the minds of people, though the extent may vary when the targeted audience is Indian society. The potential of such counterfeit dissemination is real and at the same time quite high. Such pressing times calls for strict actions and measures on the part of Government of India, Internet Mobile Association of India, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and various other concerned authorities to tackle the situation dynamically and effectively without compromising with the rights of the individual, which was lacking in the bills presented in Brazilian Parliament[10]. Social media platforms in sync with Internet Mobile Association of India have rolled out a ‘Voluntary Code of Ethics' dedicated to the upcoming election. To tackle this chaos WhatsApp made some changes in its application design and brought some updates to minimise the spread of fake news. It encouraged users to pause before forwarding messages and limited the numbers of people you can send a message at once and the number of times you can forward it. WhatsApp acknowledged that people benefitting from counterfeit news stories use it as a tool to amplify certain tendencies that already exist in Indian Society. WhatsApp blamed political parties, who are running these cells to spread misinformation for political gain and causing violence which in turn leads to polarisation of the society using their application. WhatsApp leading the way launched a public education campaign – "spread joy, not rumours", aimed at educating people how to use the messaging application judiciously and not to share everything they receive without fact-checking it, otherwise, it can lead to serious societal consequences[11]. WhatsApp recently launched the second phase of its public education programme, aimed at instructing people on the inbuilt controls that the application provides so as to put a halt to spreading of misleading information. Twitter also claimed to have banned more than 6 million apparently automated and potential harmful accounts in the past 3 months[12] in its attempt to defy the evil motives behind counterfeit news dissemination. Mark Zuckerberg still recovering from the embarrassment which he and his organisation had to face due data leak controversy, promised that the Facebook will make sure that upcoming 2019 Indian election would not get affected due to fake news stories circulated through it, hence ensuring the citizens of India about Facebook's commitment to guard election from any evil motivated influence through it.

All these measures would prove futile if we as a society don’t take any concrete steps to confront this epidemic of fake news as it is us who are exposed to fake new stories and whose minds these stories try to influence in favour of their political ideology. Need of the hour is for us to show some maturity and don’t believe and get convinced by everything that is presented to us but adopt a cautious approach and convince our family and friends to do the same as dissemination of fake news depends on friends posting, sharing, retweeting and otherwise passing it on the other friends and followers. Research has also shown that people care less about the validity of the message’s source and content, more about the sender and its potential to entertain or reinforce a sense of identity. Only joint effort of social media platforms, concerned authorities and the targeted audience can result into this age of digitalisation being a boon instead of bane, as it might prove if we continue to allow people with evil motives to weaken our societal structure, degrade political atmosphere and compromise with the true spirit of democracy.  

Fake news definitely does have an impact on politics and elections, which may vary depending upon the country in context and the targeted audience. Various studies and ground level reports have shown that these stories change people’s political perception which can affect the electoral outcome and it would be quite bigotous and narrow-mindedness of us to outrightly deny the potential that fabricated news stories carry. Also, it is common people we are talking about and we can’t expect everyone to be that prudent and rational to remain completely unaffected by fake news presented to them. Therefore, I find no reason at all for us to deny the impact that dissemination of fake news can have on elections.


[1] Amila Banerjee and Mehrasun Neesa Haque, Is Fake News Real in India?, 8 Journal of Content, Community & Communication 46, 46  (2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Robert Mueller’s Report on Trump-Russia Probe Delivered to Attorney General Barr, The Wall Street Journal, available at https://www.wsj.com/articles/house-committee-told-to-expect-word-that-mueller-report-has-been-delivered-to-attorney-general-barr-11553288563, last seen on 28/03/2019.

[4] The Danger of Fake News to Our Election, CITS, available at http://www.cits.ucsb.edu/fake-news/danger-election, last seen on 28/03/2019.

[5] Veridiana Alimonti, Fake News and Elections in Brazil: Several Initiatives, No Easy Answer, available at https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2018/09/fake-news-and-elections-brazil-several-initiatives-no-easy-answer, last seen on 28/03/2019.

[6] Philippa Williams & Lipika Kamra, Technology could torpedo India’s first WhatsApp election, https://qz.com/india/1563318/indias-2019-election-is-threatened-by-fake-news-on-whatsapp/, last seen on 28/03/2019.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Supra 4.

[9] Supra 6.

[10] Supra 5.

[11] Supra 6.

[12] Supra 6.

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