Fake News: The new manifesto for electioneering: Anup Sharma

Guest Column: Sharma, Mentor, The Lentils Institute explains how parties have resorted to different ways of spreading fake news via social media ahead of the elections

e4m by Anup Sharma
Updated: May 1, 2019 9:16 AM
Anup Sharma GC

There is fake news and there is a lot of fake news in the 2019 election season, all to discredit the other party and all to appropriate the credit for one's own party. The power of media has always been there to help build perception but today (digital) media is not only acting as a media but is defining the message. Today the political messaging over the digital world has the potential to reach more than half the population directly and act as a force-multiplier in political messaging. If in 2014 India had the first ‘social media’ election, 2019 India is the first election being fought on mobile devices. No doubt the 2019 election narratives are being set on digital media.

While Divya Spandana, Congress’ social media chief, allegedly tweeting a digitally morphed image comparing PM Narendra Modi to Adolf Hitler created controversy nationally, West Bengal, sadly has been at the forefront of this Great Fake News Story as well.

The East India (Fake News) Company

With the BJP trying all the tricks up its sleeves to make some solid inroads into the newly created bastion of the fiery state leader, Mamata Banerjee, and some other players also looking for their own shares, all the sides also seem to be getting tempted to create and circulate fake news to benefit themselves and to hurt the remaining others.

The solace is a few such entities as Boom and AltNews who are trying to bust fake news, but those creating fake news seem to be too many and those trying to bust them are still a few. Here is a take by one of our young researchers from The Lentils Institute on this menace in West Bengal:

"Moments after Tollywood actress Nusrat Jahan’s candidature was announced by the Trinamool Congress on February 25, a photoshopped image of her, started doing the rounds on Bengal’s right-wing bent Facebook groups. Filled with misogyny, multiple Facebook posts used the image which had morphed Nusrat’s face on a bikini-clad woman’s body to claim how her desirability won’t sway the voters. The post was removed after BOOM, a fact-checking organisation debunked it; thereafter leading to arrests of two people responsible for sharing related posts."

However, the battle of Bengal with fake news has just begun. TMC supporter Garga Chatterjee tweeted photographs of a man dressed as Hanuman and said that he was “Jagannath Sarkar, BJP MP candidate from Ranaghat” in West Bengal. This was busted by Alt News.

According to a 2017 survey, the number of Facebook users in India stands the highest, beating the United States. And sources in Facebook suggest that among the Indian states, one of the highest users are found in Bengal, thus giving an impetus to churning out more fake content than ever before.

General Election and Fake news

As the model code of conduct is challenged at several levels by the ruling and opposition parties with innovative ways of campaigning, social media follow a different pattern. Fact checkers who are closely observing several Facebook pages that spew fake content in Bengali have a few takeaways from the trend. Ahead of the elections, parties have resorted to different ways of spreading fake news via social media.

Case in point is a propaganda video that was presumed to be produced by the ISKCON authorities to urge its followers and devotees to come out and vote for Mamata Banerjee and the TMC party, which have been instrumental in lifting a land ceiling in Mayapur, Nadia (ISKCON headquarters).

The video that was shared on multiple platforms including Facebook and Whatsapp, documents the desire of the founder of the sect, Bhakti Vinoda Thakur, to build a huge temple in Mayapur. It then goes on to thank Banerjee for initiating a process that would lift a sealing on land, thus enabling the construction of the temple and spearheading Mayapur to become a religious hub.

Hours after, the message that ISKCON was campaigning for the TMC went viral. The former issued a statement distancing itself from the video. “ISKCON has always been and will remain a politically neutral organization which does not favour any party/candidate over the other,” the statement released by Yudishtir Govinda Das, National Director of Communications, ISKCON on March 30, 2019, said. Meanwhile, several news outlets, including the Sangbad Pratidin and Bartaman fell for the video and ran a complete coverage on how the sect was batting for the ruling party of Bengal.

Apart from videos, old and unrelated images are shared on the platform with falsified claims on a daily basis. Ranging from images of a protesting woman who was molested in north India to an Indian flag burning session that happened in Pakistan – multiple fake and revived photos have been debunked by fact checkers working in Bengal.

Playing the religious card

West Bengal politics thrives on secularism. And fake news spreaders are perhaps working overtime to generate content with a religious bent. Among them, an observation by fact checkers includes how old and unrelated videos and images from Bangladesh feature in the priority list of Bengal false content generators. This is perhaps easy because of the similarity of the language and the ethnicity of the erstwhile East and West Bengal. Recently, a video of a rural Bangladeshi practice of exorcism went viral with a false claim of religious conversion in Bengal. Ditto with a video of rioting Bangladeshis which was shared by multiple users, as false claims of torture on Muslims by Hindus.

Another observable trend is that of culling out parts of speeches of TMC leaders, especially its supremo Mamata Banerjee, to portray her Muslim appeasement policy. In January this year, an old and cropped video of Banerjee, reciting the surah of Islam was viral with a claim of her bent towards the religion, thus ignoring the majority Hindus. Fact checkers found how the original video had Banerjee chanting prayers from all the major religions of Bengal.

Stars joining political parties

A new and obvious trend in the fake news ecosystem is the use of old photographs of Bollywood stars with politicians and passing them off as the former’s foray into politics. While the Hindi Facebook users have often exhibited cleverness in distinguishing between old and new images of actors, Bengali users still have to catch up. This has been concluded observing the comments and reactions on multiple Facebook posts – While a Hindi post with a similar claim has a ‘laughing emoji’ as the most clicked reaction, simultaneous Bengali posts, reflect ‘surprise’ and ‘like’ emojis.

The case in point is a morphed image of Bengali superstar Jeet, who was said to have joined BJP. Fact checkers observed that the original image was that of Bollywood actor Vicky Kaushal shaking hands with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which was photoshopped with Jeet’s face to claim his entry in the BJP.

Similarly, West Indies cricketer Chris Gayle’s photoshopped image which shows him sporting a saffron tilak, was passed off as his campaign for the BJP.

In the absence of core narratives and real issues being raised by political parties, fake news is taking precedence and until 23rd May 2019, we will wait for Real news.


(Anup Sharma is a Mentor and Senior Fellow at The Lentils Institute, a democratic sustainability think-tank and Senior Director at Public Relations Consultants Association of India (PRCAI))


Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of exchange4media.com

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