DisFact #24: 2019 election campaign begins

Happy Sunday, readers!

Welcome to DisFact, a weekly newsletter about Indian politics, policy and the economy. I am Samarth Bansal. If you find this newsletter useful, please forward it to a friend. If you’ve been forwarded the newsletter, here is the signup link. Here is the list of all previous issues.

The general election season is here: around 900 million Indians are eligible to vote in the seven-phase election from April 11 to May 19 to elect the next set of legislators in Lok Sabha, who will then pick India’s next Prime Minister.

The least interesting question—for me, personally —and the one that’s discussed the most: Who will win? How many seats will the BJP get?

Here is a non-original non-nuanced quick take: Polls suggest that Narendra Modi continues to be the most popular political figure in India. As things stand now, there is one dominant narrative: Mr Modi will retain Prime Ministership but the BJP won’t get an absolute majority. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) — BJP + allies — is likely to form the government.

That’s all the speculative poll prediction you will read in this newsletter. DisFact won’t look at electoral arithmetic until the results are out. It will largely focus on the broader trends and news events that deepen our understanding about Indian democratic politics.

In today’s issue:

  • What gets viral in India’s fake news ecosystem?

  • Impact of fake news on elections: how much does it matter, really?

  • Stay informed: three Indian email newsletters you should check out

  • Model Code of Conduct is in place, one thing you can do as a citizen, and why historian Ramachandra Guha is angry

What gets viral in India’s fake news ecosystem?

What we know: WhatsApp is rife with political misinformation.

What is less clear: What circulates in large volumes in the closed encrypted universe of WhatsApp? What kind of fake news is shared the most? What false narratives are political parties trying to propagate in the hundreds of thousands of WhatsApp groups they have created to disseminate information?

That’s the focus of my latest piece for the Hindustan Times, with Kiran Garimella: we collected data from over 2000 politics-focussed public WhatsApp groups in the run-up to 2018 state assembly elections to identify themes that get viral in India's “fake news” ecosystem.

We report three findings points about viral misleading content in India’s WhatsApp groups:

  • First: newspaper clippings and television news screen grabs — real or fake — were extensively shared.

  • Second: anti-Congress misleading content aims to create confusion about Rahul Gandhi’s religiosity (to show him as non-Hindu) and portray Congress as an anti-Hindu party.

  • Third: anti-BJP misinformation is targeted to show Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP as corrupt.

You can read the full story here with detailed examples.

Impact of fake news on elections

The misinformation crisis we are confronting is huge: the post-Balakot information chaos is proof. (Read Farhad Manjoo’s column in the New York Times)

Dozens of Indians were lynched last year following child kidnapping rumours circulated on WhatsApp. There is absolutely no doubt that social-media driven fake news is one of the major cybersecurity problems of the 21st century digital economy.

But that crisis doesn’t necessarily mean that the new form of misinformation can sway elections like never before, even though we know that political parties are flooding the internet with misleading propaganda. The apocalyptic predictions on how masses of misinformed voters will lead to the death of democracy is based on idealistic assumptions, especially that voters generally make informed rational choices.

What research shows: Latest research from the US shows that people’s worst fears about the impact of fake news on 2016 Presidential Election were not accurate. Drawing on evidence, Brendon Nyhan, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, wrote an excellent Medium post:

…it turns out that many of the initial conclusions that observers reached about the scope of fake news consumption, and its effects on our politics, were exaggerated or incorrect. Relatively few people consumed this form of content directly during the 2016 campaign, and even fewer did so before the 2018 election. Fake news consumption is concentrated among a narrow subset of Americans with the most conservative news diets. And, most notably, no credible evidence exists that exposure to fake news changed the outcome of the 2016 election.

Read his analysis here (“Why Fears of Fake News Are Overhyped”)

Questions we need to ask: To understand the impact of fake news on elections, we need to answer a few questions, that Nyhan listed in his February 2018 New York Times column: How many people actually saw the questionable material? Whether the people being exposed are persuadable? The proportion of news people saw that is bogus?

We don’t have any data on this in the Indian context. I don’t think the numbers would be large enough. Ongoing research projects are aiming to answer this question and we will have more clarity in the coming months.

Theoretical argument: Political scientist Rebekah Tromble made great points about this debate in a Twitter thread. Here is her argument, paraphrased for clarity:

No research suggests that there are more misinformed citizens than at any time in the past. We don’t know if misinformed citizens vote more enthusiastically — meaning they turn out to vote in higher numbers. It could well be that “those who are very politically active are more likely to encounter and believe misinformation”. And there is no data to show that fake news has converted “uninterested and disengaged citizens into extreme partisan ideologues who are, in turn, running out to vote.”

That doesn’t mean that misinformation is inconsequential—far from it. I am merely highlighting that we don’t have a good model yet to understand how grave the social-media driven fake news crisis is for electoral politics. And the limited evidence from the US doesn’t support the apocalyptic predictions. It’s hard to change people’s minds.

Television news is the problem: TV is the dominant source of news for Indians. That medium is what I think is the root of India’s political information crisis. There are many ways that political leaders deploy to hijack media conversations which possibly (no evidence) have a much larger impact on public discourse than WhatsApp forwards. (More on this when I write about media and journalism in a future DisFact issue.)


1. Book: If you are concerned about polarisation on Twitter, Arnab Goswami’s TV “debates”, clickbait online articles or just want to understand how Donald Trump made it to the White House, you need to read one book written in 1985 (yes, from the pre-social media era): Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. I read this book two years ago and it’s amazing how the book’s framework explains everything that is wrong with the modern media ecosystem.

2. YouTube show: Newslaundry’s Manisha Pande hosts a weekly show “TV Newsance” that puts together “all the insanity that passes off as news on TV channels.” Watch it here. As someone who doesn’t consume any news on TV, I find Pande’s show amusing and disturbing at the same time.

Stay informed

If you like reading DisFact, here are three other India-specific newsletters you may like:

1. The Broadsheet: Excellent writing, crisp explanations, and great curation.

Each morning (Monday to Friday) at 9:30, we send you an email with the significant news stories of the day—where we break down complex issues concisely, and tell you what you need to know, and why it matters.

Sign up here

2. Times TOP10: The Times of India — yes, that TOI — sends an amazingly informative newsletter every morning (Monday to Saturday) with top 10 stories of the day, explained in great detail and filled with nuance. I honestly did not expect such a great email product from the Times group.

Sign up here

3. Scroll’s Election Fix: This brand new email newsletter from Scroll is delivered every Sunday, Monday and Thursday and is focussed entirely on the elections.

On Mondays and Thursdays we bring you all the news, analysis and opinions that you need to pay attention to during polling season in India. But on the Sunday issues of the newsletter, we would like to take a closer look at one theme that will play a significant role in India’s Lok Sabha elections.

Sign up here

PS: I am not getting any favour to plug these links here.

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Model code of conduct in force

The model code of conduct (MCC), which been in force since last Sunday when the Election Commission of India (ECI) announced the Lok Sabha poll dates, prohibits “announcements that can be construed as inducement to voters, bars government from placing advertisements at the cost of the public exchequer and use of official visits by MPs and ministers for campaigning,” according to the Times of India

Basically, the MCC is a consensus document, meaning “political parties have themselves agreed to keep their conduct during elections in check, and to work within the Code.” (Indian Express)

First case of MCC violation: “The poll panel has asked all recognised political parties to stop making references to the armed forces in their political campaigns,” the Indian Express reported.

This week, ECI “asked Facebook to remove two political posters with Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s photograph, shared by BJP leader and Delhi MLA Om Prakash Sharma.”

Be a good citizen: download the cVIGIL mobile application

The EC is learnt to have flagged the content…based on a complaint received on its cVIGIL app. It is a new Android-based mobile application, introduced during the Karnataka Assembly election last year, on which citizens can submit proof of MCC violation to the EC.

Hoping that this actually works, I have downloaded the app, and pro-actively looking to flag any MCC violation.

Historian Ram Guha called MCC a joke because biopics of Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi are set to be released soon.

That’s it for this issue.

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