As two of the largest democracies in the world gear up for elections in April and May 2019, it is worth paying close attention to the potential impact of fake news. Fake news is a spectrum of phenomena comprising of falsehoods and even true information disseminated deliberately as well as unintentionally to confuse. Misinformation and more recently, rampant deployment of disinformation campaigns through technological platforms have become a concern in recent elections.
The Brazilian elections in October 2018 provided a blueprint on how private chat app WhatsApp can be used to create a vortex of disinformation to sway votes. Recent state-level elections in India have also proven such a strategy successful.
Indonesia: Hoaxes, Social Media, and Electoral Politics
With 130 million active users, social media is becoming an important aspect of Indonesian politics and by extension, fake news.
In the final weeks before the presidential and legislative elections on April 17, the spread of fake news has spiked. According to data from the Indonesian Anti-Slander Society (MAFINDO), fake news (popularly termed “hoaxes”) have increased by 61 percent between December last year and January 2019. Most of the hoaxes are found on social networking platform Facebook. The Indonesian Ministry for Communication and Information Technology reported more than 700 election-related hoaxes in March 2019.
With particular reference to disinformation (information that is false and the person disseminating it is aware that it is false), Facebook also announced that they had removed accounts related to the Saracen Group, an online syndicate, an indication that such activities had been present. The group was accused of creating fake news on behalf of clients, some of whom were linked to the December 2, 2016 demonstrations against then-Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok). A website that tried to cast Prabowo’s running mate, Sandiaga Uno’s personal life in a negative light was also discovered in September 2018. Twitter bots had been instrumental in publicizing the website.
The exploitation of technological platforms for political gains is therefore a growing concern leading up to the elections. In several previous elections, hoaxes had manipulated identity politics in an attempt to sway votes. During election campaigning periods in 2012 and 2014, for instance, current President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s Javanese Muslim identity had been questioned, with hoaxes casting him and members of his family as Chinese and Christians, labels that carry connotations of ethnic and religious minority statuses in Indonesia. The 2017 gubernatorial elections in Jakarta, which saw the defeat of incumbent Ahok, a Chinese Christian, had been preceded by a hoax campaign, which manipulated religion for political gains.
While the impact of hoaxes on electoral behavior is not always straightforward, the question of how distorted information is cognitively processed should be pondered. In the 2019 elections, some Indonesian survey companies have argued that hoaxes may reduce the electability of targeted candidates. Hoaxes could also erode Indonesian society’s interest in the candidates and electoral process. For instance, it has been suggested that the rampant spread of hoaxes could increase voting abstinence in the current elections. The misuse of hoaxes for political advantage thus remains a possibility in the upcoming elections.
India: WhatsApp, Disinformation, and Political Violence
In India as well, the use of technological platforms for political mobilization remains a key concern ahead of the national elections in April and May.
The popularity of WhatsApp in India, with more than 200 million users, is pivotal to this strategy. The incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), helmed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has pioneered and near perfected the art of disinformation campaigns through WhatsApp. Armed with an army of nearly a million ‘WhatsApp volunteers,” the ruling party has drawn up plans to establish at least three WhatsApp groups in every one of India’s 927,533 polling booths. This would give the party a theoretical reach of 700 million Indians. To compete, the Congress party, led by Rahul Gandhi, has launched its “Digital Sathi” app and built its own network of volunteers and WhatsApp groups.
The fact that the 2019 elections have been dubbed India’s first “WhatsApp Elections” means that several ramifications could come about as a result.
First, while disinformation campaigns are not new to Indian elections, a seismic shift in the Indian polity that must be understood. During the last elections in 2014, only 21 percent of Indians owned a smartphone. Ahead of the polls in 2019, that number is estimated to have nearly doubled. The leap in access to technology, however, has not been matched by digital literacy, with many Indians dependent only on social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp for news and information.
WhatsApp groups with a bombardment of daily propaganda, shared in part by known people, can easily create a stranglehold over information, forging disinformation cocoons ripe for political mobilization.
Second, there is also a real fear over the potential for large-scale violence. WhatsApp has been effectively used by Hindu nationalist vigilantes to justify and coordinate attacks in the name of “cow-protection,” with Muslims and Dalits often on the receiving end of violence. In election season, the disinformation has focused on accusing opposition parties of facilitating the decline of the Hindu majority and the rise of Islam and Muslims in India. This includes propaganda on the role of the Congress party in preventing the building of the Ram temple in Ayodhya and claims of a surging Muslim population facilitated by the abduction and seduction of Hindu women (Love Jihad). After the recent Pulwama attack on Indian troops in Jammu-Kashmir by the Pakistan-based Islamist militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed, WhatsApp groups and other social media platforms were rife with disinformation linking Rahul Gandhi and his family to the attack.
It is not a stretch to imagine coordinated attempts via WhatsApp to whip up a frenzy and violence for political mobilization purposes ahead of the elections.
Fake News and Elections: Going Forward
Through the case-studies of India and Indonesia, it is clear that technology and distorted information deployed during emotive times makes for a potentially combustible combination that may otherwise not be activated. It is thus more pressing than ever to better understand how disinformation campaigns and misinformation play out on social media, particularly during elections.
Jennifer Yang Hui and Pravin Prakash are both Associate Research Fellows at the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU).