The last elections in India saw social media used as a tool. This could make it a weapon

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The Indian electorate is larger than the combined population of these four countries.

"The enormity of this is quite well established, and this is one of the reasons why we believe it is also one of our main priorities for maintaining safe and secure elections in India," Shivnath Thukral, director, told CNN Business. of Facebook's public policies in India..

"We have been working for months and applying different learning from different parts of the world to … ensure that there is no abuse on the platform," he added.

It will not be easy.

Much more Indians have Internet access than in the last 2014 elections.

The risk of violence

Indian politics is often fought along social and religious lines and recent years have seen an increase in violence against minority groups under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata party.

The concern is that social media could be used to deepen those divisions, particularly through disinformation around elections, and trigger violence.

"With the approaching of the elections, this will become more aggressive and there is always a possibility that can lead to the loss of lives or property," he said. Pratik Sinha, founder of the Indian fact-checking site Alt News. "In the midst of elections, this kind of misinformation triggers any kind of violence," he added.
WhatsApp, which has more than 200 million users in India, has already been at the center of the problem. Viral scam messages on the platform have been blamed for more than a dozen lynchings last year, with victims falsely accused of child abduction.
Gilles Verniers, a professor of political science at Ashoka Indian University, said that social media has become "a constant megaphone" for political parties to amplify their messages.

"When those tools are used as weapons, not so much for smear campaigns or political satire, but when they are used as a tool for social polarization … the damage goes beyond the framework of the elections," he added.

The megaphone is irresistible. Modi has finished 46 million followers on Twitter, more than any world leader except President Donald Trump, while the main leader of the opposition Rahul Gandhi has already accumulated a follow-up of nearly 9 million since entering the platform in 2015.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) has over 42 million followers on Twitter. The main leader of the opposition Rahul Gandhi (right) has already accumulated a follow-up of almost 9 million since entering the platform in 2015.
The social media of Indian politics entered the scene during the 2014 elections, when Modi in particular dominated the conversation. This time, his rivals seem to be catching up.
"The narrative of who is up or who is down, who is intelligent and who is not … that agenda is imposed by social media in a way that TV had never done before," he said. Ravi Agrawal, author of "India Connected" and former head of CNN India office.

In the last elections, social media was used to spread the message. This time, the dangers are coming to the fore.

"Any information automatically generates counter-information, and any false information generates counterfeit information," Verniers said. "In a sense, one could say that Indian political parties are very good at interfering with their elections."

The Thukral of Facebook downplayed the suggestions that social networks are armed.

"Obviously there is a responsibility for us to make sure that the bad actors or the abuse of the platform are not becoming the biggest game. I would say that Facebook remains a platform where good ideas, good storytelling, good ideas and ideas are shared, "he said.

A farmer takes a selfie during a rally for Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi in January.

Millions vulnerable to misinformation

The vastness of the elections in India represents a great challenge for social media companies.

In 2014, India had about 250 million Internet users. More than 560 million people are online.

An almost 2000% drop in the price of mobile data in the last two years, plus more smartphones at affordable prices, have guidancen Internet boom in India. But hundreds of millions of Indians living on the Internet for the first time are not educated, leaving them vulnerable to disinformation.

"Owning a phone and having an Internet connection has become much cheaper and pretty much anyone with a phone now has WhatsApp, so it's a much higher reach," says Pratik Sinha, founder of Alt News. "At the same time, the amount of Internet literacy in large segments of the population is not close to anyone."

Alt News, founded two years ago, is one of several fact-checking websites that have been launched since the last Indian elections in 2014, as viral scams on social media become a greater threat.

Only in the last month, the site unmasked a video from Sri Lanka that was filmed as being filmed by Indian Hindus who abused Muslim women, a video from Russia claiming to show drones that Israel had sold in India and several pieces of false news on the recent military clash between India and Pakistan.
Much of the false news that the fact inspectors like Alt News unmask are addressed to political parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party of Modi and the Congress Party, led by Gandhi.

"I think political parties are reasonably motivated and have enough money to add more work to ensure that propaganda reaches the last person," Sinha said. "I don't think anything can be done about the elections."

On 3 July 2015 Indian women use their smartphones as they travel in the carriage reserved for women on the New Delhi subway.

The repression of social media

Facebook and Twitter have took several steps to ensure that their platforms are not abused.

WhatsApp uses artificial intelligence to detect and prohibit accounts that spread "problematic content", while Facebook is labeling political announcements and collaborating with Indian facts inspectors. Twitter has announced similar initiatives to crack down on "bad faith actors", and is also working with political parties and electoral authorities to ensure that its platform is not compromised during the polls.

"We deeply respect the integrity of the electoral process and are committed to providing a service that promotes and facilitates a free and open democratic debate," he said in a statement by Colin Crowell, head of Twitter's global public policy. "2019 [election] it is a priority for the company, "he added.

Crowell recently appeared before an Indian parliamentary commission to testify about the "protection of citizens' rights" online, as did his Facebook counterpart Joel Kaplan.

Facebook declined to comment on what was discussed, while Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.

But Kaplan said in a statement after the hearing that he was grateful to the Committee on Opportunity to "show how we are preparing for the Indian elections and to help keep people safe".

Political candidates will also be asked to share details of their social media accounts with Indian electoral authorities, Sun El Arora, Commissioner for the main elections, announced on Sunday. The parties will also be required to post political announcements on social media pre-approved by the Electoral Commission and declare how much they have spent on social media advertising.

"Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube have committed themselves in writing to ensure that any political advertisements published on their platforms are certified," said Arora.

WhatsApp ambassadors perform a skit during a roadshow for the messaging service in Pune, India, in October. Cheap phones and incredible rates mean that more Indians use the app.

The WhatsApp problem

WhatsApp responded to last year's lynchings with various measures that it hopes will help during the elections – labels on messages forwarded and an awareness campaign on radio, TV and newspapers.

The messaging platform has also limited to five the number of chats to which a single message can be forwarded.

But each WhatsApp group can have up to 256 people, which means that a message can still reach 1,280 people at the touch of a button.

"The speed that disinformation once gets is out there and it's something that captures people's imagination, so it's shared like crazy," Sinha said. "And it is that speed that must be stopped, so that the least amount of people are affected".

Beyond the election

In many ways, the election will serve as a litmus test to understand how the internet of India, second only to China's size, will grow and progress in the future. The rapid boom in user numbers poses an ever greater challenge to the government and technology companies to keep them safe.

"The fact that this is happening so quickly in India means huge mistakes will be made and people will end up being massively misinformed," Agrawal said.

Sugam Pokharel of CNN contributed to this report.

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