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India's Elections - Big Numbers, Bigger Lies

By Janine Erasmus

The eyes of the world were recently drawn to the biggest election on the planet, when the Indian nation went to the polls over six weeks and seven phases between 19 April and 1 June 2024. More than 968-million people – around 70% of the population of 1.4-billion people – were eligible to vote. Of those, an impressive 642-million voters showed up.

In the middle of that period, South Africans also voted in that country’s seventh democratic election and one cannot help but ponder the parallels that emerged between the two elections. 

Both major governing parties – the African National Congress (ANC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) parties – were brought down to earth with a crash, after extensively boasting in the media of retaining their respective absolute parliamentary majorities. Both lost a large proportion of their parliamentary representation, with the ANC dropping from 230 of 400 National Assembly seats to 159, a loss of 71 seats, and the BJP from 303 of 543 Lok Sabha seats to 240, a loss of 63.

Both elections were marred by the spread of misinformation and disinformation – will we ever forget the deepfake of Donald Trump appearing to canvass for the uMkhonto weSizwe party – however, the scale and depth of the Indian election’s fake news was much greater.

Islamophobia and divisiveness

An extensive study by The London Story, a non-profit organisation that investigates human rights violations and hate speech, has revealed how “India’s ruling BJP and its allied organisations have persistently, in violation of Indian electoral law, used disinformation narratives to ‘otherise’ and demonise Indian Muslims”.

The Vote Jihad Report shows how social media platforms, especially Facebook, were the channels through which the disinformation was spread. 

The Jihad narrative positions the Indian Muslim community as a threat to the Hindu identity. The BJP is associated with a movement known as Sangh Parivar, whose member organisations represent the Hindu supremist ideology. It views Indian Muslims as a threat to the concept of Hindutva, which submits that only Hindus are native to India and religious minorities, particularly Muslims, are ‘outsiders’ who must convert to the Hindu way.

Furthermore, the Sangh Parivar accuses Muslims of conspiring to overtake the Hindu population through unbalanced growth, among other claims. Indeed, Modi’s campaign encompassed such inelegant, polarising rhetoric as references to Muslims as “those who have more children”, “infiltrators”, and other derogatory descriptions. 

“The pervasiveness of these narratives on social media has routinised everyday violence against Indian Muslims, at a time when their democratic participation is increasingly at risk,” notes the Jihad report. “The Vote Jihad narrative, like Love Jihad and COVID Jihad narrative, is part of the larger attempt by Hindu supremacists, including BJP and its allies, to erase the very identity of India’s Muslim population.”

Code of conduct? What code of conduct?

Shamefully, the BJP’s own official Facebook page, with 16-million followers, also circulated such content. 

The report reveals how these divisive narratives contravened India’s Model Code of Conduct, issued by the country’s Election Commission, that applies during election periods. The code of conduct states that: ‘There shall be no appeal to caste or communal feelings for securing votes,” among other very clear stipulations.

Furthermore, notes the report, “under Section 125 of the Representation of the People Act, political candidates are prohibited from promoting, or attempting to promote, on grounds of religion, race, caste, community or language, feelings of enmity or hatred, between different classes of the citizens of India”. 

The BJP was also accused of harassing and intimidating political opponents to prevent them running and of suppressing Muslim votes.

These claims were substantiated by London Story’s analysis of social media content on a sample of 812 Facebook pages and 15 Facebook groups between 1 March and 10 May 2024. The organisation found that: 

  • 21 posts in March 2024 contained hate speech, misinformation or disinformation.

  • 33 posts in April 2024 contained hate speech, misinformation or disinformation.

“Qualitative data analysis of the content disseminated on identified Facebook pages using derogatory and Islamophobic words uncovered several pages with Hindu supremacist ideologies, posting content in all formats including the usage of memes and political cartoons to demonise the minorities or opposition parties in India for their political gain.”

The election results show that many people rejected the Jihad narrative and simply did not buy into the rhetoric, notably – and surprisingly – in areas such as Uttar Pradesh which is traditionally a BJP bastion, and Varanasi, Modi’s own constituency, where his margin of victory dwindled from half a million votes to just 150 000.

And in the aftermath of the election, these utterances linked to the BJP will undoubtedly come back to haunt the party, now that it is no longer the supreme governing party and will have to contend with a more powerful, more motivated opposition than it has done in recent years.

Google behaving badly

Alarmingly, it appears that tech giant Google facilitated the spread of this disinformation, according to non-profit organisation Check My Ads, which monitors the digital ad space for human rights abuses, divisive content, and other violations. 

Contrary to the policies it purports to enforce, Google allowed the placement of Google ads on the controversial website OpIndia, writes Check My Ads investigative reporter Rachel Gilmore, thereby allowing the site owners to make money from the dubious content they post.

“Ophidia is a Hindu nationalist media site with a reputation for publishing Islamophobic content and other disinformation supporting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government … So why is [Google] monetising OpIndia?” 

Google isn’t just violating its own policies, the organisation asserts – “it’s also helping a website monetise its harmful misinformation at a perilous time for India’s democracy, and bringing brands along for the ride”.

Those very policies, Gilmore adds, prohibit the monetisation of content that “incites hatred against, promotes discrimination of, or disparages an individual or group on the basis of their race or ethnic origin, religion … or other characteristic that is associated with systemic discrimination or marginalisation”.

“In addition to routinely attacking journalists and news sites critical of the government,” says WIRED, “OpIndia spreads conspiracies and at times, outright disinformation, particularly about the country’s minority Muslim population.”

Google also forbids monetising content that “makes claims that are demonstrably false and could significantly undermine participation or trust in an electoral or democratic process.”

This has deterred neither OpIndia nor Google, it seems. Visitors to OpIndia are immediately asked, via a popup, to turn off their adblockers or to make a payment supporting the website. Once on the site, says Gilmore, it is clear that “Google takes unwitting advertisers’ money and runs their ads next to conspiracy theories. For example, an advertisement for the Palm Beach Post newspaper, owned by Cox Enterprises, was seen running next to an article about the ‘Love Jihad’ conspiracy theory”.

Furthermore, says WIRED, Google does not seem to agree that OpIndia’s content breaches its own rules.

According to Google spokesperson Michael Aciman, talking to WIRED, "All sites in our network, including Opindia, must adhere to our publisher policies, which explicitly prohibit ads from appearing alongside content promoting hate speech, violence, or demonstrably false claims that could undermine trust or participation in an election.”

Publishers are also subject to regular reviews, Aciman adds, and Google actively blocks or removes ads from any violating content.

But advertisers and ad exchanges – virtual marketplaces where buyers and sellers bid in real time for ad space – are pushing back. As far back as 2020, writes Gilmore, “Following an email from Check My Ads’ Nandini Jammi, prominent ad exchange Rubicon found OpIndia ‘violates (their) policies’ and they said they removed it from their inventory.”

Other ad exchanges such as Magnite no longer work with OpIndia, says Sarah Kay Wiley, director of policy and partnerships at Check My Ads. “If Google were to stop working with OpIndia, that would definitely have a material impact.”

But will ethics win out over profit? We will have to wait and see.

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