Fighting fake news: Inside Karnataka's virtual campaign trail

Away from dusty roadshows and fiery campaign rallies, the Karnataka elections are being fought on a new frontier this time around- on WhatsApp groups.
Fighting fake news: Inside Karnataka's virtual campaign trail
Fighting fake news: Inside Karnataka's virtual campaign trail
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An endless stream of WhatsApp messages keeps Raja's* phone buzzing throughout the day. "The number of messages has increased now that we are close to elections. It is sometimes dizzying," says the 22-year-old voter. 

Raja and countless others like him are part of WhatsApp groups created by political parties that constantly post messages, including audios and videos, highlighting the party's success and the opposition's failures. 

These messages, while appearing arbitrary, is actually a part of a massive campaign devised by the social media cells of the three major political parties contesting the Karnataka Assembly Elections - BJP, Congress and JD(S). 

The 2018 Karnataka Elections are not just being fought in roadshows and rallies, but also on WhatsApp groups as the social media cells of all three parties have set up 'cyber war rooms' and are vying for the attention of voters on the popular social media platform.

WhatsApp over Twitter, Facebook

With over 42,000 WhatsApp groups, the BJP claims to have by far the biggest network. The saffron party lay the groundwork early, setting up booth-level groups in August 2017 when over 3,500 party volunteers from all 224 constituencies in the state attended a social media conclave in Bengaluru. Attendees were trained in the nuances of Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, effectively becoming footsoldiers of the party’s social media army.

But ask Balaji Srinivas, BJP's social media cell head, and he will tell you that more than Twitter or Facebook, WhatsApp is the most effective platform to reach voters. "Twitter is useful for connecting with the media but it will not fetch us 1,000 votes. WhatsApp is the best platform to reach voters since studies show people spend more time on WhatsApp than any other platform," says Balaji. 

The ability to engage with voters directly on WhatsApp is the primary factor for the medium becoming the preferred choice of communication for the BJP. It is also a textbook strategy that the party has adopted in previous state-level elections including the Uttar Pradesh Assembly Elections in 2017. 

Similar to the BJP's network of WhatsApp groups, the Congress too has set up a network that connects to over 15 lakh voters. "We have replicated the Congress party structure at the ground level on WhatsApp. For the first time we created booth committees. We now have 5.5 lakh booth committee members and around 6 lakh Youth Congress members in Karnataka who are all on our network of WhatsApp groups. We have 1.5 lakh office bearers in the party and also launched missed call campaigns in which volunteers gave missed calls, and we added those numbers onto our WhatsApp group network", says Srivatsa YB, who took over the revamped Congress social media wing seven months ago.

In those seven months, Srivatsa and his team have meticulously built a network of WhatsApp groups across the state through which the party aims to spread the message of the work done by the Congress and the misgivings of the BJP. “The Congress focuses on a few things. Congress tries to spread messages of what the government has done, tries to tell people of the misgivings of the Modi government, the Congress reminds people of Yeddyurappa’s rule and these days we send messages related to the manifesto as well”, he adds.

JD(S) takes to social media 

Even the JD(S), which has a significantly smaller digital footprint in comparison to the Congress and BJP, has decided to rejuvenate its online presence and reach out to voters on WhatsApp. "There are around 3000 groups made by the party in Karnataka. Other than these, there maybe 1000 more unknown groups," revealed Naveen C, part of the party's IT cell. 

The IT cell curates specific farmer-oriented messages for people in different parts of the state in line with the party's pro-farmer ideology. "In rural areas, our messages are more farmer-oriented. Near Hubli we are pushing issues about the Mahadayi river. In Mandya and Mysuru we are talking about the Cauvery issue. In Bengaluru we talk about infrastructure issues," he said.  

Naveen also admitted that an 'agency' provides the party with data to help with voter outreach. "We have an agency in Pune. The agency is into campaigning and sending message notifications for example bank notifications (during withdrawals). We send the messages to them and the agencies forwards messages to the numbers," he explained. He also added that the numbers are procured by the 'middle-man' agency from telecom companies. 

'No one can control what is posted on these groups'

However, the groups created by the parties are decentralised and are mushrooming beyond their control having netted an unprecedented number of smartphone users in the state. “We have just created the groups in order to send party messages but it is the volunteers who are active and post on the groups, No one can control what is posted on these groups,” says an official working in the BJP's social media cell, who did not wish to be named.

Misinformation, fake news, and rumours are shared just as easily as messages furthering the party line. "Now, whenever there is an incident, it becomes a WhatsApp forward within hours and unlike Twitter or Facebook, there is no system in place to debunk fake stories. The groups are for agenda building," says the same official.

A photo circulated on these WhatsApp groups

Members of the BJP IT cell contend that fighting fake news is high on the team’s list of priorities. A year ago, when news organisations published a story about BJP chief ministerial candidate BS Yeddyurappa ordering food from a hotel on his visit to a Dalit household in Chitradurga, the social media cell decided to go live on their Facebook account in an attempt to dispel the story. The live video was then shared on WhatsApp. “We now have to keep an eye out for such news articles and we use the WhatsApp groups to send across the 'right' information,” says Prashant Maknur, a BJP IT cell member who travelled to all 30 districts in the state to train cadres in using WhatsApp effectively.

The BJP scores over the Congress as it not only appears to have a larger network of groups but also a far more ‘motivated cadre’ to spread messages.  “The BJP ecosystem is much deeper because they have invested in it for a longer time and their cadre is motivated to spread fake news. They are very aggressive but our cadre does not do that,” admits Srivatsa.

Evidence of that appeared earlier this week when a fake survey claiming that the BJP will win 135 seats in the Karnataka Assembly elections citing an unrelated BBC link was doing the rounds on WhatsApp groups ahead of voting on May 12. 

“Regarding the recent survey that was being forwarded with an unrelated BBC link, we instantly red flagged it, tweeted about it, sent messages on WhatsApp saying it was fake and then even the BBC issued a clarification about it,” explains Srivatsa, who also admitted that debunking fake news is an integral part of the work done by the Congress IT cell.

While fake surveys, unverified news are common on these groups, there are times when false narratives can have tangible, real-world consequences. For instance, when 19-year-old Paresh Mesta's body was found in a lake in Honnavara in Uttara Kannada on December 8, rumours which flew thick and fast on WhatsApp, contributed  to escalating tension and violence in the area.  The rumours were fuelled by a group of locals suggesting that Mesta was tortured before his death. The rumour was also endorsed by BJP MP for Udupi-Chikkamagaluru Shobha Karandlaje.  

From rumour to violence: How WhatsApp rumours fueled violence in Uttara Kannada

The talk of Mesta being tortured before his death swept the town with WhatsApp enabling residents of Honnavara to view gruesome pictures of Mesta's blackened face just hours after his body was found. "There were several rumours on WhatsApp groups made by the BJP and other Sangh Parivar groups saying that Mesta was tortured before his death, that he was burnt, that he was hit on the head and so on," said Shashidhar Hemmady, a local journalist who reported the incident from Honnavara.  

Some users, energised by the hatred and misinformation reigning at the time, decided to plot protests in Honnavara and Sirsi while incidents of arson were also reported leading to the police imposing prohibitory orders. "The rumours flying around even forced the hospital doing the post-mortem to issue a point-by-point rebuttal to each rumour," said Shashidhar. 

Forensic experts at Kasturba Hospital in Manipal issued a detailed letter in which they asserted that there was no external or internal injury, no torture and no strangulation or haemorrhage marks on the body. "However, on the same WhatsApp groups spreading the rumours, people rejected the report made by forensic experts and cast doubts about its authenticity," said Shashidhar.

Shashidhar also added that attempts to counter the narrative set on these groups failed. "There were attempts to create counter WhatsApp groups to spread the truth about the incident but they did not flourish like the BJP groups. Congress needs to mobilise young workers to aggressively counter false stories like this. There are groups made by the party but they are largely genial and share jokes on it," he adds. 

The incident in Honnavara is not the only one in which online anger triggered further violence but it stands out for the fact that an MP endorsed the rumours on Twitter. "When politicians of importance lend credence to mischief-making messages like this, then it spreads like wildfire and people tend to believe. If Shobha Karandlaje and other BJP members had not reacted, I think things would have been different," says BV Seetaram, editor of Kannada daily Karavali Ale, published in Mangaluru.

Seetaram and Karavali Ale are no stranger to extremists as the paper has repeatedly come under attack for its persistent political commentary against right-wing politics. The veteran editor revealed that the newspaper constantly receives calls about fake news spreading on WhatsApp in the three coastal districts the newspaper operates in – Dakshina Kannada, Uttara Kannada and Udupi.

But he steadfastly believes that people will soon enough tend to ignore what they read on WhatsApp and return to trusting traditional media. “You cannot rule out the damage WhatsApp can cause but also, as the days pass by, people are becoming more aware of the dangers of fake news going around on WhatsApp especially in Dakshina Kannada. Almost every other day we are getting calls saying these are the fake news floating around on WhatsApp today and it has created a lot of discussion around it. This process will certainly continue and it is inevitable that people become wary after repeated experiences of falling into a trap,” he says.

He does, however, throw in a word of caution. “It is easy to access news on WhatsApp. It takes a push of a button. Whether it is right or wrong, it is being read,” he adds. 

*Names changed on request


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