Narrating the impact of fake news and propaganda disseminated through WhatsApp, election consultant Shivam Shankar Singh in his new book, says the solutions proposed by the platform to prevent rumour mongering seem inadequate.
In “How To Win An Indian Election”, Singh who managed BJP’s assembly poll campaigns in Manipur and Tripura says messages containing the words “if true” and “forwarded as received” do little to make the recipients question their authenticity.
“WhatsApp is running an educational campaign against fake news on newspaper and radio, and not on its own messaging platform through which lies actually spread,” he says.
“Such campaigns are unlikely to reach the audience that is the most vulnerable to WhatsApp forwards,” says Singh who entered the field of political consultancy with Prashant Kishor’s team at the Indian Political Action Committee.
He also says restricting the number of groups that a person can forward a message to is also unlikely to be effective because most end recipients don’t have too many accounts to forward the messages to.
“They usually just forward it to their family and friends, and can easily copy-paste the content. These users aren’t forwarding it out of malicious intent; they’re doing it because they believe it to be true and they want the information to reach a larger audience so that people can be informed,” he says.
To establish his point, the author shares the example of right-wing WhatsApp groups that consist of people who truly believe that Muslims are bad for India and that they harbour anti-national sentiments.
“I’ve interacted with several such BJP supporters over the years. Ask them if they hate Muslims and many of them would candidly say ‘yes’, and ask them if they think Muslims aren’t as loyal to the country as Hindus, almost all would say ‘yes’,” he notes in the book published by Penguin Random House India.
Singh contends that such prejudices mean when people who already mistrust Muslims receive WhatsApp forwards about Muslims shouting pro-Pakistan slogans, murdering people, smuggling cattle, raping women and committing crime, they will probably believe them without any kind of verification.
“Fake news is usually intermixed with real news and sent to people over months to influence their opinion,” says Singh maintaining “politics at its core is the art of influencing public opinion”.
According to Singh’s assertions in the book, winning elections in India requires a political party or a politician to exercise some control over public opinion.
He says such control is also required after winning an election, because “reforming a system requires a favourable public opinion, which can only be garnered through constant messaging and propaganda”.
He says social media, in the recent years, has emerged as one of the most effective tools in shaping public discourse and influencing what people talk about.