India is waiting for election results while dealing with lots of false information

India’s six-week-long election was not only remarkable in its size and logistical complexity but also in the “unprecedented” scale of online disinformation.

The largest democratic exercise in history brought forth a deluge of false social media posts and instant messages, ranging from manipulated videos to unrelated images with false captions.

According to Raqib Hameed Naik, of the US-based India Hate Lab, they witnessed an “unprecedented scale of disinformation” during the elections. Naik’s organization specializes in researching hate speech and disinformation.

“Conspiracy theories… were vigorously promoted to deepen the communal divide,” said Naik.

With voting spread across seven stages over six weeks, AFP fact-checkers debunked 40 election-related claims across India’s political spectrum.

There were fake videos of Bollywood celebrities endorsing the opposition, alongside videos purporting to show one person casting multiple votes. Some were crude or humorous, while others were more sinister and sophisticated, designed to deliberately mislead. All were widely shared.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) faced criticism for posts inciting sectarian tensions with India’s minority Muslim community, numbering over 200 million. These included numerous videos, echoing inflammatory campaign speeches by Modi, falsely alleging that his opponents planned to favor Muslims in redistributing India’s wealth.

Naik noted that such posts aimed “to stoke fear and animosity towards Muslims to polarize voters along religious lines.”

He added, “The ruling party’s strategy of exploiting religious sentiments for electoral gain has not only undermined the integrity of the democratic process but also sowed dangerous seeds of division and hatred in society.”

False information was detected across the political spectrum, but the leader of the opposition Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, was one of the primary targets. His statements, videos, and photographs were shared on social media, often out of context.

One digitally altered video used Gandhi’s real assertion that the opposition alliance would triumph but misrepresented it to claim Modi would win a third term. Other posts falsely depicted Gandhi as appealing to people to vote for Modi or linked him to India’s rival neighbors, Pakistan and China.

For instance, a photograph claimed Gandhi was waving the “Chinese constitution” during an election rally when it was, in fact, that of India. Additionally, posts portrayed Gandhi, a Hindu, as being against India’s majority religion, capitalizing on Modi’s portrayal of himself as the country’s staunchest defender of the faith. One widely shared video depicted a ruined Hindu temple, sourced from Pakistan, further fueling misinformation.

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