With India readying for elections and parties trying all means to reach out to voters, a poll campaign consultant says if the core problem of fake news is not addressed, it might eventually turn into a virtual arms race.
Shivam Shankar Singh, who headed data analytics and campaigns for the BJP for the Manipur and Tripura Legislative Assembly elections before resigning from the party, claims every party will work to create fake news on WhatsApp groups, Facebook pages and as many media to reach a voter as possible.
“Party workers would use these media to spread misleading and false content that supports the narrative they are trying to frame, maybe even without realising that the content is false, just because of the amount of engagement that such content ends up getting on social media,” he argues.
Singh has come out with a book “How to Win an Indian Election: What Political Parties Don't Want You to Know” which provides an insight into the inner workings of politics, political parties and what really makes for a winning election campaign.
It also talks about what role political consultants play in election campaigns and how political parties are using technological tools such as data analytics, surveys and alternative media to construct effective, micro-targeted campaigns.
The author says that the BJP was first party to realise the importance and impact that technology would have on elections and developed an extensive social media presence before the 2014 elections, with Narendra Modi taking personal interest in how the platforms were used. “An aura of negativity was created against the Congress with an effective combination of on-ground and online campaigns.
To an outside observer, only the consequences were visible. The Congress was cornered in the 2G, Coalgate and Commonwealth Games (CWG) scams, and allegations of corruption made against Robert Vadra, Sonia Gandhi and P Chidambaram, which translated into hatred for the Congress party and the Gandhi family.
"The result of branding Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as a weak leader who didn't speak up for the interests of India was also evident and phrases like ‘policy paralysis' became part of people's everyday conversations,” the book, published by Penguin Random House, says.
According to Singh, the problem with sharing fake news online is that intent is impossible to prove, and therefore legal penalties seldom enter the picture. “… Fake news is such an effective tool for moulding voters' opinion that if one side is using it, it becomes incredibly difficult for the other side to think about winning elections without doing the same thing.
This means that barring major technological changes, fake news is only going to become more prevalent,” he writes.
He says that while travelling through villages on election work, he realised that most voters believed that being added to a political WhatsApp group gave them access to some kind of insider information.
“Instead of being irritated by the messages, they read them with gusto, in the belief that they were receiving information from a credible source.”