Online Misinformation: India’s Other Garbage Problem

A review of India Misinformed: The True Story, by Pratik Sinha, Sumaiya Shaikh and Arjun Sidharth

With India Misinformed, Pratik Sinha, Sumaiya Shaikh and Arjun Sidharth hope to sound the alarm on online misinformation in India. The book is not a social science book of the type typically reviewed in this space. It is first and foremost, as noted in Ravish Kumar’s laudatory preface, a “document”. Anyone equipped with a smartphone in South Asia has been added -- by a relative, a neighbor, a former schoolmate or a party worker -- to a WhatsApp thread whose content they do not control, and often, do not wish to receive. Others will have encountered worrying propaganda or deliberately misleading claims on Twitter or Facebook. It should thus come as a surprise to exactly *no one* reading this review that online misinformation is common in the region, just as it is everywhere else in the world. Countless news stories have over the past few years documented the potentially evil consequences of this phenomenon in South Asia, often tying misinformation to horrific offline acts of collective violence. [1]

The authors of India Misinformed eloquently put the data in front of us. To do so, they pursue the mission they have thanklessly devoted themselves to for a number of years on altnews. That is, they select salient forward on social media; detect potentially disinformed, misinformed, groundless or ambiguous claims among them; source them as best as possible; and most importantly, fact-check them and produce an evidence-based correction report. [2] The book is a collection of such claim-specific fact-checking reports, roughly organized around a series of themes. 

Many of these themes will not surprise social media users who are on the receiving end of this misinformation on a daily basis. The abundance of content mocking Rahul Gandhi or inflating Narendra Modi’s stature that is reviewed in the book will surely remind many readers of their own social media experience (and well, of the Congress leader’s gigantic image problem). The sheer volume of misinformation that touches, directly or indirectly, on questions of identity and “Indian-ness” will sound equally familiar. Rumors included in the volume may not be entirely representative of the rumors that most frequently circulate online in India. But if we assume that they even vaguely are (and based on the data I have myself collected, I believe them to be), it quickly appears that the fear of intrusion by non-Hindus or non-Indians (an often blurred distinction) is the common thread that unifies a vast portion of these claims. Political leaders - the Gandhis, again - are frequently portrayed as having non-Hindu (Catholic, Muslim, English, Italian, among others) allegiances, leading them to engage in various betrayals; Outsiders with unclear religious or caste pedigrees are said to kidnap children, leading to the aforementioned acts of punitive collective violence; Pakistani agents are suspected of inflitrating opposition political parties, bollywood and the news media; at the heart of this vast conspiracy to subvert the nature of India are of course India’s muslims, likely the most frequent target of misinformation. As evidenced by the book’s section on communal rumors, Muslim individuals are variously rumored of having seduced, raped, stolen, assaulted, desecrated and murdered. As observed here, these communal rumors are nothing new. They are themselves enabled by several persistent meta-rumors about Muslims’ allegiance to the country and so-called “intentions”, about practices mistakenly rumored to be common (polygamy, triple talaq, etc.) in the community and most of all, about erroneous beliefs about communal demography. [3] In that sense, it seems that a new technology (social media) has merely turbo-charged the rumors once described by Paul Brass in Theft of an Idol (1997), rather than generating a different type of obsessions. 

Other aspects of the book may be more surprising to readers. Political scientists are understandably interested in political misinformation, and in the effect of such messages on electoral integrity. There is much in the book on claims circulated by party agents, especially the BJP and its vast social media “army”, in a effort to boost the reputation of their candidate or ruin that of the opposition. Yet it remains that much misinformation may not be explicitly partisan or electoral in nature. While it emphasizes the central role of majoritarianism and exclusionary rhetoric in misinformation, the book actually shows that a diversity of online rumours and hoaxes currently circulate on social media in India. In keeping with what’s been documented about other regions of the world (and primarily so, the US), countless bizarre historical claims also circulate on Indian social media, many of which only have vague partisan undertones. More importantly maybe, health and science is frequently the target of online mis- or disinformation. New “cures” are announced; existing cures (vaccines) are rumored to do more harm than good; and statements by scientists are treated with all-around suspicion. Political or partisan rumors are themselves more diverse than is frequently assumed. Sinha et al go to great lengths to illustrate the fact that rumors originate from all sides and target all leaders. 

Whether or not its findings are surprising to readers is however somewhat besides the point. More than anything else, the objective of Sinha et al’s edifying enumeration is to generate a public discussion, and to grow the ranks of those committed to fighting misinformation. In that sense, the book is already a success. By forcing us to consider such a dense sample of online misinformation, by highlighting the mechanisms through which it is produced, and by systematically providing corrective reports, the book raises many questions. Over the past year or two, an increasing number of researchers have started working on misinformation in India. In an effort to further build up this research agenda, I will try, in the rest of this review, to list some important questions raised by the book that new data will hopefully allow us to address in the near future. 

The first one is descriptive. As aware as we now are of the nefarious consequences of online misinformation, we still do not quite know who really receives, reads, believes, talks about and forwards it (note the long causal chain). A vast majority of Indians living in rural areas do not after all have access to - let alone own - a device connected to social media. Randomly sampled surveys ran in rural districts of Northern India estimate that fewer than 15% of respondents are regular social media users. The online surveys targeting frequent social media users I have myself run yields an extremely unrepresentative sample - disproportionately male, educated, upper-caste, rich, and mostly very young. This does not imply that online misinformation should be dismissed as a second-order problem. But it should, at the very least, complicate our models. If most citizens are not direct recipients of online misinformation, how do these messages - if they do at all - provide some candidates with the mahaul widely assumed to be necessary to electoral success? How do rumours presumably received by a handful of individuals in turn lead to horrific lynchings? Social media platforms allow for the development of different kinds of networks. These online networks are themselves likely connected to offline discussion networks based on social media users’ pre-existing ties. While researchers focusing on the US have started measuring how online information reaches voters, we so far know practically nothing about the Indian case. We so far do not understand who online claims end up reaching, either through online or offline ties. 

Second, we actually know very little about the relative weight that online misinformation (and for that matter, information) might have, or the role it might play, in the formation of Indian voters’ preferences. Books on Indian politics recently reviewed in this space (Bussell’s Clients and Constituents, Chhibber and Verma’s Ideology and Identity, to cite just a few), and more generally speaking the literature on electoral politics in the country, have so far not assigned a clear role to the type of information peddled online by party actors. Is it meant to reinforce pre-existing ideologies or ethnic identities? If most online rumors are about national rather than local politicians, what does this imply for our theory of candidate-voters linkages? If it is meant to boost a form of personalistic politics -- Modi any? --, have we sufficiently included the role of online propaganda in our models? These are big questions raised by the kind of data presented in the book, and that social scientists have so far to reckon with. 

Third, and relatedly, Sinha et al’s enumeration should lead us to better characterize the informational environment in which Indian voters currently evolve. Some Indian voters receive online misinformation. Some are likely influenced by it, in a way that remains to be determined. But what information are voters in general -- beyond online information and misinformation -- exposed to? How large are media - and especially TV - effects, in comparison? More detailed and systematic research on these questions strikes me as crucial to better understand and situate the potentially negative impact of online misinformation. It would also allow us to ascertain whether the current informational environment is one in which one party dominates the debates, or whether it is a polarized environment constituted of several echo chambers, each peddling their own misinformation. The book tends to point at misinformation (rather than the BJP’s self-reported media machine) as the problem and justifiably assigns blame widely. But readers will be tempted to question whether this caution is really justified. As noted here, not all parties may be equal when it comes to their ability to disinform or misinform. We so far lack detailed, systematic evidence suggesting that the ruling party is as dominant online as it claims to be. But there is little doubt that its online operation is far superior to that of its competitors. 

Fourth and finally, the authors’ compulsive instinct to correct misinformation, while immensely laudable, raises a number of questions. Do corrections work? Do people receive them and read them? If so, how should these corrections look? Who should be the source of these corrections? Is it better to train people to detect misinformation (as many “digital literacy” trainings across India now do) or to provide them with corrections? While the jury is still out in the case of India (several experiments tackling each of these questions were run during the recent elections), no clear consensus has emerged on any of these questions in comparative research. Correcting beliefs is unlikely to worsen the situation, but the effect of broad-scale corrections may also disappoint. 

It will take time until we are properly able to answer these questions -- and hence tackle the problem efficiently. In the meantime, we should be thankful to Sinha et al for sounding the alarm on this question and for relentlessly documenting it.

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[1] Some examples:

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-44856910

https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/pranavdixit/whatsapp-destroyed-village-lynchings-rainpada-india

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/07/18/technology/whatsapp-india-killings.html

[2] A more exhaustive methodological notice is available here: https://www.altnews.in/methodology-for-fact-checking/

[3] In a recent survey of Indian social media users, D.J.Flynn and I found that a majority of our respondents believed or somewhat believed statements such as “In the coming decades, the Muslim population of India will become larger than the Hindu population of India” and “Polygamy is extremely common in the Muslim community”, both of which can easily be debunked using data from the Census of India.

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Simon Chauchard is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Politics at Leiden University. He can be reached at @SimonChauchard on Twitter and on email at s.p.a.chauchard@fsw.leidenuniv.nl

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