With the 2019 General Elections just around the corner, political parties are gearing up for the final showdown. All the major candidates are looking at ways to reach out to the voters and social media has been on the top of their priority list.
One of the biggest takeaways from the 2014 election has been the crucial role of social media sites like Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter in amassing a large fan following for leaders. In other words, it has played a vital role in shaping the nature of the election. Having realised the potential of the tool, political parties are pumping crores of rupees to construct a favourable image and to reach out to more voters directly.
However, over the years, parties tend to have developed a love-hate relationship with social media, with its members inviting the wrath of commoners and opponents with their numerous tongue in cheek moments.
How Authentic Are ‘Forwards’ And ‘Shares’: The Pulwama Story
In the backdrop of the recent Pulwama terror attack in Kashmir and the subsequent unfolding of events, WhatsApp and Facebook groups have been flooded with forwarded messages and videos. A number of old and foreign videos have been doctored and forwarded as clips from the recent Indo-Pak air strikes.
The unfortunate capturing of IAF Wing Commander, Abhinandan Varthaman and the initial footage of the blood-smeared pilot being dragged by the Pakistani army was first circulated in social media much before the Indian media picked it up.
With tensions escalating on both sides, there needs to be a proactive measure from the citizens’ end to cross-check and verify content being shared over social media platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook. As the Lok Sabha election looms closer, we look at some of these features and initiatives that these platforms have undertaken, that is likely to have a larger impact on the 2019 elections and how the platform is stopping misinformation.
How true are they?
Another key challenge that WhatsApp and Facebook face is the fake news conundrum. With a lack of strict social media policy to regulate and monitor party members’ online activities, most political outfits have resorted to spreading fake news through social media and have been at the receiving end of it as well.
With the country witnessing escalating violence and deaths resulting out of unchecked false news, the government and law enforcement agencies have laid strict rules for these social media platforms to straighten its features around content dissemination and propagation.
In 2018, the proposed changes introduced to IT Act, also witnessed WhatsApp locking horns with the government as it would give the latter the power to intercept, monitor, or decrypt WhatsApp’s encrypted messages in order to trace the origin of the message. Speaking about the development to a leading daily, Carl Woog, WhatsApp’s Head of Communications, said, “The proposed changes are overbroad and are not consistent with the strong privacy protections available to people everywhere.”
India is the largest market for WhatsApp with an estimated 200 million users and it has ruled out exiting India market post the proposed amendments to the IT Act. However, it is closely worked with Indian political outfits to discourage using the social media platform as a broadcasting tool. It has also introduced many features to the app to restrict content sharing as the polls are just a few months away.
Restricted content forward: In India, the number of deaths due to mob-lynching has increased over that last few years. Seen as an orchestrated crime, often platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook have been used by political groups to target minorities in the country. Facing flak from the government, WhatsApp in July 2018 introduced limits to message forwarding and these carry a ‘forward’ label. This was one of the initial steps taken by the company to stop fake news propagation.
Dismiss as Admin: Rolled out in April 2018 for its Android and iOS users, this feature will enable a group admin to demote another admin to the position of a participant. While earlier this was possible only by removing the member from the group and then adding him back again as a participant. By doing so, the demoted member will have lesser authority in the chat thread in terms of adding new members and removing a person.
Campaigns; With its Share joy, not rumours campaign WhatsApp aims to stop spreading of misinformation in its platform. Launched in December 2018, the 60 second TV ad campaign aims to create awareness the dangers of spreading rumours. Prior to this, it had also launched two radio campaigns across various Indian states, requesting people to authenticate the message that they receive before spreading the news.
Controlling spam: According to the company, political parties in India has been using automated tools to spread fake news over WhatsApp. In order to curb such activity, the platform is developing a tool that can spot spam message and notify its users. According to a report by WABetaInfo, WhatsApp will identify messages which have been forwarded more than 25 times and alert the users when they receive such message.
Facebook’s global Efforts to Protect Elections in 2019
Facebook has received flacks in India and globally for its usage of individual data. Highlighting the measures that it will take to ensure fair election process, Facebook in January announced that it is expanding its effort to protect elections in 2019.
“Our tactics include blocking and removing fake accounts; finding and removing bad actors; limiting the spread of false news and misinformation; and bringing unprecedented transparency to political advertising,” it said is a blog spot. Further, it said that more than 30,000 people working on safety and security across the company.
In Asia particularly, its focus is to stop hate speech and voter suppression by leveraging their technological capabilities , “These teams will add a layer of defense against fake news, hate speech and voter suppression, and will work cross-functionally with our threat intelligence, data science, engineering, research, community operations, legal and other teams”, it added.
In India, the company has tightened the noose around political ad placing. According to Facebook, now it is mandatory for the political parties to disclose their identity and location before placing an advertisement.
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Akshaya Asokan works as a Technology Journalist at Analytics India Magazine. She has previously worked with IDG Media and The New Indian Express. When not writing, she can be seen either reading or staring at a flower.