Election season is upon us. Not here in the United States, where we haven’t even begun winnowing the massive field of presidential contenders, but over on the other side of the world, where India just wrapped up its national elections after six weeks of voting. It takes a while when you’ve got 900 million people participating. Closer to home, European Union (E.U.) parliamentary elections run May 23-26.
Both of these elections showcase the new and prominent role social media plays in the democratic process. It’s a crucial source of political news and information for voters — and a potential vehicle for misinformation that can be used to influence their votes.
The E.U.’s elections have only just begun, but a report from online activist group Avaaz indicates that networks of fake Facebook pages and groups have been extensively spreading divisive, white-nationalist, and anti-immigrant content and have amassed three times as many followers as the pages of the main European far-right and anti-E.U. parties. Another study from the University of Oxford analyzing recent tweets and Facebook posts related to the E.U. parliamentary elections found that anti-immigration and Islamaphobic stories from “junk news” sites received more engagement than stories from professional media sources.
Some E.U. officials suspect that Russia is behind the spread of this type of content, but as Giles Portman, head of the taskforce dedicated to exposing these attempts said, “From what we’ve seen of the European election campaign so far, it looks at the moment less sensational than some of the attempts we’ve seen [in the past]. What we can see at the moment is this continuation of a message that Europe is collapsing, that the elites aren’t paying attention to ordinary people and that Europe’s values and identities are under threat.”
Messages about threatened identity were prevalent during the Indian election as well, with much of the misinformation targeting religious minorities, but the way that it spread was fundamentally different. Whatsapp reigns supreme in India, with 230 million users. The platform consists of private group chats, making it notoriously difficult to fact-check the content that’s shared on it. WhatsApp attempted to stem the tide of misinformation by capping the size of its groups, limiting how many times messages could be forwarded and making it harder to forward images, audio clips and videos.
Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, has a huge presence in India in its own right and partnered with Indian fact-checking sites to debunk fake news stories on its platform and to shut down fraudulent pages and accounts. But India presents special challenges to aspiring fact-checkers: as Bloomberg reports, social media platforms “are discovering the harsh reality that disinformation and hate speech are even more challenging in emerging markets than in places like the U.S. or Europe. A new category of users, recently digital, believe almost whatever they receive — especially if it comes from family or friends. Hundreds of millions read in languages the American tech giants haven’t even begun to monitor.” India has 23 official languages; Facebook hired contractors to verify content in 10 of them.
Pallavi Mishra has seen the scale of the challenge first-hand. The manager at Vishvas News, Facebook’s largest Indian-language fact-checking contractor, spent two weeks recently talking with internet users in small cities. She found most people are so new to social media they have no clue about bogus content. They share stories indiscriminately, with stupefying speed. “Being the ‘first’ to share things in their circles gave them a rush,” she says.
“Disinformation is spreading like wildfire in these parallel digital universes,” said Bharat Gupta, chief executive officer of Jagran New Media, which runs Vishvas News. “It’s a dark space that nobody talks about.”
Unlike in the U.S. and E.U., where much of the focus has been on misinformation being disseminated by foreign actors, the fake news surrounding Indian elections was home grown, driven by the political parties themselves. According to a report from the University of Oxford, a quarter of the content shared by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was junk news, as was one-fifth of the content shared by the main opposition party, Indian National Congress. The parties were also very effective at spreading this content, particularly the BJP, which created an app for Prime Minister Narendra Modi called NaMo, preloaded it in free Android phones and used it to promote posts from fake-news accounts users didn’t have the option of unfollowing.
All of this should drive home that there’s no single “best” way to combat misinformation, because the very nature of misinformation varies widely depending on where you are. Each country and region of the world has its own prejudices, fears and favored platforms. Like some hellish version of “It’s A Small World” during election season, we get to see them all.