Al Jazeera Journalism Review

India elections 2024
Voters line up outside a polling station to vote during the first phase of the general election in Kairana, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, India, April 19, 2024. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

Elections and Misinformation – India Case Study

 

This year (2024), over 2 billion voters spanning 50 nations, including significant democracies like the United States, the European Union, and India, are poised to participate in a historic wave of elections worldwide. These elections are not only crucial for people but it’s difficult as well. They need to form opinions about who to vote for by pulling themselves through a pile of misinformation and disinformation. For elections to be fair, people need to know the truth. When they have the facts, they can make up their minds about who they want to vote for.

Nowadays, a lot of people get their information from social media, especially through WhatsApp which helps political parties and politicians to easily spread lies and fool voters with fake information. This makes it hard to have fair elections because the truth gets mixed up with lies. In the 2019 Indian elections, a lot of fake information was spread, especially online which not only shaped the political opinion of the people but also resulted in physical violence. Now, the way technology has evolved, the process has changed super fast. Big companies that run social media are having a hard time stopping fake news and distasteful ads. Back in 2019, people worried about deepfake videos, but now it's even easier, better, and cheaper to create them due to new technological evolution.

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2024 Global Risk Report, India is the country where the risk of disinformation and misinformation was ranked highest. Another Survey conducted by Social and Media Matters, a digital rights organisation revealed through a study that nearly 80% of India’s first-time voters are bombarded with fake news on popular social media platforms and 65.2% of the respondents will be casting their votes for the first time.

 

 

Types of misinformation & impact on elections

AI-generated content: AI-generated content looks real, is good, and is easy to use. Political parties use it to quickly make fake content to aim at voters and change their perception as to how they vote. AI-made content creates new problems for India’s voters in 2024, just like how WhatsApp was full of wrong information before the 2019 General Elections.

A man waits for confirmation from a polling official after casting his vote at a polling station during the first phase of the general election, in Bikaner district, Rajasthan, India, April 19, 2024. REUTERS/Amit Dave
A man waits for confirmation from a polling official after casting his vote at a polling station during the first phase of the general election, in Bikaner district, Rajasthan, India, April 19, 2024. REUTERS/Amit Dave 

 

Fake News: Fake news is when people say things that aren't true and act like they are. This can be made-up stories, tricks, or things that are meant to fool others. For Example; addressing a gathering in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi accused the Congress of a plot to ‘take away assets’ of people and redistribute it among others. Now this speech created a lot of buzz among the masses and till Congress reacted to the speech, people consumed this information as a fact. Now this kind of fake news does make an impact on people’s minds and shapes their opinion as they live in rural areas, are old, and do not understand the political dynamics. Mishi Choudhary, who is a Technology Lawyer and founder of SFLC.in. explained that the problem lies in a tendency of society to believe that information is truthful just because it appears on various platforms. “This belief is a result of a legacy of trust that was once placed in traditional forms of dissemination of information. Unfortunately, this misplaced trust has created a dangerous vulnerability that political actors have exploited to sow confusion and undermine trust in the media landscape. As a result, a pervasive atmosphere of doubt and scepticism has taken root, eroding public confidence in the veracity of information disseminated through any channel.”

 

Satire/Parody/Memes: Content that is meant to be funny or make fun of things, but some people might think it's real news. Even though satire isn't meant to trick anyone, sometimes people don't get the joke or share it without understanding. On February 20, India’s chief opposition party, the Indian National Congress (INC), uploaded a video parodying Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Instagram that has amassed over 1.5 million views. Even though these are usually seen as just funny, they can also be used to share information or bring people together. That's because memes can affect things outside of the internet, too. In reality, memes can even help people talk about important topics as they target Gen Z

 

Case Studies and Prevention methods to curb mis/disinformation

For this piece, we spoke to journalists about how they cross-check information and what are their standard practices to prevent mis/disinformation. While it became clear that they use a lot of research and ground reporting, it also became clear that journalists need to be extra cautious in balancing the need to report facts while avoiding sensationalism and bias. Every decision they make on what to report and how to frame it carries significant implications. Therefore, they need a nuanced understanding of the socio-political landscape and a steadfast commitment to upholding journalistic integrity.

 

Conduct Thorough Fact-Checking of Political Rhetoric

 

Parvathi Benu works at The Hindu Businessline based out of Chennai. Parvathi is covering elections as the paper has started a dedicated page for election stories.

For Benu, navigating the realm of political campaigns in South India isn't just a challenge; it's a fascinating journey into the heart of local democracy. “As I immerse myself in these events, I've come to recognise the significant role that local politicians play in shaping public opinion — often through the dissemination of misinformation.”

In the bustling chaos of election campaigns, Benu observed a common pattern: scheduled events starting late, with opportunistic speakers filling the void with their rhetoric. These local politicians, while passionate and engaging, often possess only vague insights into national affairs, paving the way for misinformation to take root.

“In a recent encounter with a political critic of the Modi government passionately aired his grievances about pressing national issues such as electoral bonds, he veered into territory fraught with inaccuracies regarding the Ayushman Bharat scheme,” Benu explained how at that moment, she felt compelled to intervene, gently steering the conversation back to the factual ground and correcting him about the issue ensuring that truth prevailed over political rhetoric.

Benu also feels fortunate to work within a newsroom culture that places a premium on accuracy and integrity. “I am allowed to conduct thorough fact-checking before filing my reports, ensuring that the truth remains unchallengeable in the face of political discourse.”

Parvathi's explanation deeply resonated with Choudhary, the founder of SFLC.in. She highlighted how a concerning pattern has emerged over time, where political parties and their supporters, who often act as cheerleaders, become the primary purveyors of misinformation and disinformation. “These actors have a significant influence in shaping public perception, whether intentionally or unintentionally through ignorance. Their tactics include spreading falsehoods and manipulating narratives to serve their interests, with the active participation of supporters, campaign participants, candidates, and the intricate network of IT cells affiliated with various political entities.”

But in the current atmosphere of polarisation in India where journalists and media houses have slowly died, only a few independent media houses and journalists are left to hold the press high and safeguard the freedom of speech and democracy in the country. Political parties especially the ones in power use all their power and will to spread misinformation through their campaigns be it about policies, promises, or schemes.

 

Verifying Information Through Rigorous Triangulation

 

23 years old, Meer Faisal proudly identifies himself as an independent journalist driven by a relentless passion for truth and has been reporting on complex issues and dedicating his efforts to shedding light on Hindu nationalism and the pervasive violence against Muslims. With a steadfast commitment to uncovering the unvarnished reality.

Apart from debunking fake information and reporting from the ground Faisal also has to remain extra cautious before publishing anything “As a Muslim journalist, navigating the turbulent waters of media comes with its own set of challenges. The constant threat of online harassment from trolls and the looming spectre of being targeted by authorities underscore the need for unwavering caution and meticulous verification of information before publication. Aware that any oversight could be weaponized against me, I approach my work with a heightened sense of vigilance, leaving no room for error.” said Faisal who reports for different publications.

In this delicate balancing act between truth-telling and self-preservation, Faisal prioritizes professionalism and due diligence over anything else. Each piece of information undergoes rigorous triangulation, ensuring accuracy and reliability before it sees the light of day. This commitment to thoroughness not only safeguards him but also upholds the integrity of his reporting.

Faisal also sheds light on propaganda created by different political parties through WhatsApp and other channels “Unlike journalists with close ties to governmental sources, I am not swayed by the allure of WhatsApp forwards that serve as thinly veiled propaganda. Recognizing their potential to skew narratives in favour of those in power, I remain steadfast in my dedication to uncovering the unvarnished truth, free from external influence or manipulation.”

A seminal research paper published by the Center for News, Technology, and Innovation (CNTI) sheds light on the intricate dynamics surrounding legislative responses to combat misinformation and disinformation. CNTI conducted a comprehensive analysis of legislation across 31 countries. The findings, however, paint a sobering picture: while purportedly aimed at safeguarding the public discourse, such legislation often falls short in protecting journalistic freedom. Far from mitigating the risks posed by misinformation, these measures can inadvertently exacerbate them, amplifying the potential for harm.

 

A woman from the Toto tribe leaves a polling station after casting her vote during the first phase of general election, in Alipurduar district in the eastern state of West Bengal, India, April 19, 2024. REUTERS/Sahiba Chawdhary
A woman from the Toto tribe leaves a polling station after casting her vote during the first phase of general election, in Alipurduar district in the eastern state of West Bengal, India, April 19, 2024. REUTERS/Sahiba Chawdhary

 

Analysing Government Claims Through Ground Reporting

 

Among the various methods used by journalists to verify information for their stories, journalist Shreya Raman is distinguished by her unwavering dedication to accurate reporting. For Shreya, fact-checking goes beyond simply confirming details; it represents a deep sense of accountability. With a sharp attention to detail and a strong curiosity, Shreya thoroughly investigates not only the government's official statements but also the concrete actions taken.

Her recent interest is in understanding how the BJP government, which has been in power for a decade, makes numerous claims. One claim that particularly piqued her interest is the "Lakhpati Didi" scheme, touted by Prime Minister Modi in his recent Independence Day address. This scheme, highlighted as a milestone in women's empowerment, purportedly transformed one crore women into "lakhpati" individuals, as reiterated by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in the budget.

Determined to unravel its true essence, Shreya embarked on a journey to Madhya Pradesh, seeking firsthand insights into the reality behind the rhetoric. “In my quest for clarity, I discovered that the Lakhpati Didi scheme is intricately tied to the National Rural Livelihood Mission, wherein women within self-help groups are bestowed with interest-free loans to start their entrepreneurial ventures. Yet, amidst this facade of innovation, I encounter a stark disconnect between official proclamations and grassroots reality.” Shreya said, “Meeting with women who are active participants in these self-help groups, I am met with a perplexing revelation—none of them possess any substantive knowledge of the purported Lakhpati Didi scheme.”

Another way of researching and connecting dots to fact check for Shreya is to use a lot of standard practice which is to Google extensively to find any bit of information and try to place that together with interviews on the field.

“I know it’s not easy for all journalists to conduct ground reporting but until and unless you are meeting people and figuring it out it’s very difficult to tackle these kinds of claims.” Shreya highlights that her approach has been to check these claims and understand them through ground reporting “When they claim India is open-defecation-free, what do they mean? It means all the households now have toilets, but does that translate into installing usable toilets with all the necessary infrastructure, like water? Does it translate to behavioural change? What I do is I check these claims and try to debunk them.”

 

More Articles

Covering the War on Gaza: As a Journalist, Mother, and Displaced Person

What takes precedence: feeding a hungry child or providing professional coverage of a genocidal war? Journalist Marah Al Wadiya shares her story of balancing motherhood, displacement, psychological turmoil, and the relentless struggle to find safety in an unsafe region.

Marah Al Wadiya
Marah Al Wadiya Published on: 29 May, 2024
Fighting Misinformation and Disinformation to Foster Social Governance in Africa

Experts in Africa are using various digital media tools to raise awareness and combat the increasing usage of misinformation and disinformation to manipulate social governance.

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 22 May, 2024
"I Am Still Alive!": The Resilient Voices of Gaza's Journalists

The Israeli occupation has escalated from targeting journalists to intimidating and killing their families. Hisham Zaqqout, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Gaza talks about his experience covering the war and the delicate balance between family obligations and professional duty.

Hisham Zakkout Published on: 15 May, 2024
Under Fire: The Perilous Reality for Journalists in Gaza's War Zone

Journalists lack safety equipment and legal protection, highlighting the challenges faced by journalists in Gaza. While Israel denies responsibility for targeting journalists, the lack of international intervention leaves journalists in Gaza exposed to daily danger.

Linda Shalash
Linda Shalash Published on: 9 May, 2024
Amid Increasing Pressure, Journalists in India Practice More Self-Censorship

In a country where nearly 970 million people are participating in a crucial general election, the state of journalism in India is under scrutiny. Journalists face harassment, self-censorship, and attacks, especially under the current Modi-led government. Mainstream media also practices self-censorship to avoid repercussions. The future of journalism in India appears uncertain, but hope lies in the resilience of independent media outlets.

Hanan Zaffa
Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur Published on: 25 Apr, 2024
The Privilege and Burden of Conflict Reporting in Nigeria: Navigating the Emotional Toll

The internal struggle and moral dilemmas faced by a conflict reporter, as they grapple with the overwhelming nature of the tragedies they witness and the sense of helplessness in the face of such immense suffering. It ultimately underscores the vital role of conflict journalism in preserving historical memory and giving a voice to the voiceless.

Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu
Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu Published on: 17 Apr, 2024
Journalism in chains in Cameroon

Investigative journalists in Cameroon sometimes use treacherous means to navigate the numerous challenges that hamper the practice of their profession: the absence of the Freedom of Information Act, the criminalisation of press offenses, and the scare of the overly-broad anti-terrorism law.

Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua Published on: 12 Apr, 2024
The Perils of Journalism and the Rise of Citizen Media in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia's media landscape is grim, with low rankings for internet and press freedom across the region. While citizen journalism has risen to fill the gaps, journalists - both professional and citizen - face significant risks due to government crackdowns and the collusion between tech companies and authorities to enable censorship and surveillance.

AJR Contributor Published on: 6 Apr, 2024
Silenced Voices: The Battle for Free Expression Amid India’s Farmer’s Protest

The Indian government's use of legal mechanisms to suppress dissenting voices and news reports raises questions about transparency and freedom of expression. The challenges faced by independent media in India indicate a broader narrative of controlling the narrative and stifling dissenting voices.

Suvrat Arora
Suvrat Arora Published on: 17 Mar, 2024
Targeting Truth: Assault on Female Journalists in Gaza

For female journalists in Palestine, celebrating international women's rights this year must take a backseat, as they continue facing the harsh realities of conflict. March 8th will carry little celebration for them, as they grapple with the severe risks of violence, mass displacement, and the vulnerability of abandonment amidst an ongoing humanitarian crisis. Their focus remains on bearing witness to human suffering and sharing stories of resilience from the frontlines, despite the personal dangers involved in their work.

Fatima Bashir
Fatima Bashir Published on: 14 Mar, 2024
A Woman's Journey Reporting on Pakistan's Thrilling Cholistan Desert Jeep Rally

A Woman's Voice in the Desert: Navigating the Spotlight

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 8 Mar, 2024
Breaking Barriers: The Rise of Citizen Journalists in India's Fight for Media Inclusion

Grassroots journalists from marginalized communities in India, including Dalits and Muslims, are challenging mainstream media narratives and bringing attention to underreported issues through digital outlets like The Mooknayak.

Hanan Zaffa
Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur Published on: 3 Mar, 2024
Why Journalists are Speaking out Against Western Media Bias in Reporting on Israel-Palestine

Over 1500 journalists from various US news organizations have signed an open letter criticizing the Western media's coverage of Israel's actions against Palestinians. They accuse newsrooms of dehumanizing rhetoric, bias, and the use of inflammatory language that reinforces stereotypes, lack of context, misinformation, biased language, and the focus on certain perspectives while diminishing others. They call for more accurate and critical coverage, the use of well-defined terms like "apartheid" and "ethnic cleansing," and the inclusion of Palestinian voices in reporting.

Belle de Jong journalist
Belle de Jong Published on: 26 Feb, 2024
Silenced Voices and Digital Resilience: The Case of Quds Network

Unrecognized journalists in conflict zones face serious risks to their safety and lack of support. The Quds Network, a Palestinian media outlet, has been targeted and censored, but they continue to report on the ground in Gaza. Recognition and support for independent journalists are crucial.

Yousef Abu Watfe يوسف أبو وطفة
Yousef Abu Watfeh Published on: 21 Feb, 2024
Artificial Intelligence's Potentials and Challenges in the African Media Landscape

How has the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence impacted newsroom operations, job security and regulation in the African media landscape? And how are journalists in Africa adapting to these changes?

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 18 Feb, 2024
Media Blackout on Imran Khan and PTI: Analysing Pakistan's Election Press Restrictions

Implications and response to media censorship and the deliberate absence of coverage for the popular former Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), in the media during the 2024 elections in Pakistan.

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 14 Feb, 2024
Digital Battlegrounds: The New Broadcasting Bill and Independent Journalism in India

New legislation in India threatens the freedom of independent journalism. The draft Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023 grants the government extensive power to regulate and censor content, potentially suppressing news critical of government policies.

Safina
Safina Nabi Published on: 11 Feb, 2024
Pegasus Spyware: A Grave Threat to Journalists in Southeast Asia

The widespread deployment of spyware such as Pegasus in Southeast Asia, used by governments to target opposition leaders, activists, and journalists, presents significant challenges in countering digital surveillance. This is due to its clandestine operations and the political intricacies involved. The situation underscores the urgent need for international cooperation and heightened public awareness to address these human rights infringements.

AJR Contributor Published on: 5 Feb, 2024
Media Monopoly in Brazil: How Dominant Media Houses Control the Narrative and Stifle Criticism of Israel

An in-depth analysis exploring the concentration of media ownership in Brazil by large companies, and how this shapes public and political narratives, particularly by suppressing criticism of Israel.

Al Jazeera Logo
Rita Freire & Ahmad Al Zobi Published on: 1 Feb, 2024
Cameroonian Media Martyrs: The Intersection of Journalism and Activism

Experts and journalists in Cameroon disagree on the relationship between journalism and activism: some say journalism is activism; others think they are worlds apart, while another category says a “very thin” line separate both

Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua Published on: 28 Jan, 2024
Silent Suffering: The Impact of Sexual Harassment on African Newsrooms

Sexual harassment within newsrooms and the broader journalistic ecosystem is affecting the quality and integrity of journalistic work, ultimately impacting the organisation’s integrity and revenue.

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 23 Jan, 2024
Echos of Israeli Discourse in Latin American Media on Gaza

Heavily influenced by US and Israeli diplomatic efforts, Latin American media predominantly aligns with and amplifies the Israeli perspective. This divergence between political actions and media representation highlights the complex dynamics shaping Latin American coverage of the Gaza conflict.

Rita Freire Published on: 23 Nov, 2023
Why have opposition parties in India issued a boycott of 14 TV presenters?

Media workers in India argue that boycotts of individual journalists are not the answer to pro-Government reporting bias

Saurabh Sharma
Saurabh Sharma Published on: 23 Oct, 2023
The bombs raining down on Gaza from Israel are beyond scary, beyond crazy

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: As Israel bombarded Gaza for the third night, I found myself closer to a missile hit than I could have imagined

Maram
Maram Humaid Published on: 11 Oct, 2023