Fraud Alert: True Lies on Social Media During Elections
The year 2024 is a very special one. As many as 76 out of 196 countries are going to hold elections this year, in which nearly 4bn (billion) or 400 crore voters will participate. What will make these elections different is the manner in which politicians will reach out to voters. The increased use and diversity of online communication tools and the extensive use of new-age technology throw up newer tools and challenges. Consider this: the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s information technology (IT) cell reportedly manages over 50 lakh WhatsApp groups to disseminate poll-related information. "They can transmit any information anywhere across the country in 12 minutes," says a report published by  Deccan Herald.   
General elections in India are already a unique and massive enterprise. According to data from the Election Commission of India (ECI), almost 970mn (million) or 97 crore registered voters are eligible to vote nationwide in the 2024 elections for 543 electoral constituencies. The Lok Sabha elections 2024 will be held at 1.05mn (10.5 lakh) polling stations in seven phases from 19th April to 1st June, and counting of votes will be held on 4 June 2024.
Considering that there are only a limited number of days to reach out to voters, almost every party and candidate wants to maximise its reach using every possible medium, including social media platforms and artificial intelligence (AI) for creating catchy campaign material.    
A few more numbers will help us understand the 'massive' nature of Indian elections and the voter outreach that is required. India has an estimated 760mn 'active' internet users who access the internet more than once a month. Almost 400mn of these are active on WhatsApp. Several million others use alternative platforms like Facebook Messenger, Instagram, Telegram and Signal.
According to a study by the Reuters Institute, for Indians, WhatsApp is the second largest, and Telegram is the fifth largest online platform to access news. What end users are receiving most of the time on these platforms is mostly (mis)information or views in the garb of news. 
As we have witnessed over the years and during several elections, social media platforms now play an outsized or active role in amplifying motivated content, often with devastating consequences. Further, AI-generated deepfakes appear to be swaying political ideologies and luring voters while eroding trust in the voting process and other institutions and agencies.
Mozilla Foundation's study on 'Party Politics and WhatsApp Pramukhs' for India, authored by Divij Joshi shows that closed platform ecosystems like WhatsApp and Telegram have led to new patterns of media consumption and sharing. 
"The available evidence from India, as well as Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, as well as among diaspora communities, clearly indicates that WhatsApp and other messaging services, particularly Telegram, are increasingly providing the infrastructure for electoral propaganda and politically-motivated hate speech to circulate. Even though it may not be possible to clearly ascribe specific developments in electoral politics to the rise of platform-mediated communications, it is clear these platforms are increasingly becoming prominent features of contemporary political and electoral media landscapes," the report says.
What is worrying is that these social media platforms, often flying under the radar of election authorities, media regulators and policymakers, have now become a core feature of electoral communications and media in the country.
For example, just as when the ECI was about to announce the schedule for the Lok Sabha elections, many users of WhatsApp received messages containing a letter from prime minister (PM) Narendra Modi in the name of 'Viksit Bharat'. ECI announced the elections on 16th March, and only after a hue and cry, on 21 March 2024, it directed the Union ministry of electronics and information technology (MeitY) to 2. ECI also gave a clean chit to Viksit Bharat, saying that the WhatsApp messages were initiated before the announcement; thus, there was no violation of the model code of conduct. 
However, the basic question nobody wants to answer is how and from where this 'Viksit Bharat' obtained so many mobile numbers of WhatsApp users. How did Viksit Bharat obtain the letter in the name of the PM, and how was it allowed to breach the privacy of lakhs of users? Has anyone, including Meta, the owner of WhatsApp, taken any action against this bulk messaging? 
In the case of WhatsApp, Mr Joshi says, the decision-making rests with Meta, a corporate entity which can unilaterally make changes to policy, extend new technological features on the app and determine the extent and means of usage of the app. "Even as it facilitates interactions between its various users (who are often also differentiated by WhatsApp as business users and 'regular' users), it places itself as the intermediary between these interactions, primarily, as a for-profit firm, to extract rent from these activities. These 'rents' have taken different forms – including monetising commercial use of the platform through its application programming interface (APIs), but also through the control and monetising of user data."
Mozilla Foundation's "Global Elections Casebook," featuring case studies on elections, also found that the initiatives to curb misinformation in multiple countries appear to be formulaic and stuck in an ineffective rinse-and-repeat loop. The study examines over 200 interventions by Meta, Google, and others deployed across seven years and 27 countries.
What is more shocking for common users of these social media platforms and voters is, according to the study, most platforms are likely to take action in global majority countries if those elections happen to align with the US which paves the way for vulnerable windows to be exploited. 
"It is a glaring travesty that platforms blatantly favour the US and Europe with excessive policy coddling and protections while systematically neglecting the electoral integrity of global majority nations. This skewed allocation of resources is not accidental but a brazen display of self-serving tactics, highlighting a reprehensible indifference to global democratic stability in favour of regions where their bottom line might be threatened by a regulatory backlash," says Odanga Madung, who wrote a report on 'Platforms, Promises and Politics: A Reality Check on the Pledges Platforms Make before Elections' for Mozilla Foundation.  
Whether social media chats or platforms are a good thing or bad will be judged with the passage of time. Do remember, however, that there is no replacement for a real cuppa and chat with friends or family at your favourite (offline) spot. So cherish these small things. 
As far as elections are concerned, let that be as they are: once in a five-year blitzkrieg of democracy. Let the social media platforms spread whatever the sender wants. Let us refrain from becoming zombies and instead use our own brains, hearts and minds during the voting.  
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