India Tomorrow part 1 podcast transcript: Fake news and the battle for information

India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. EPA-EFE/Harish Tyagi

This is a transcript of part one of The Anthill’s podcast series, India Tomorrow. Click here to listen to the full episode.

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Amogh Sharma: In the last few days, after the Pulwama bomb attack, we have seen Kashmiri students in different parts of India who have actually been attacked for being Kashmiri. So this is really the nature of violence which fake news can engender in India.

Annabel Bligh: Amogh Sharma is a PhD researcher at the University of Oxford. We spoke to him in the wake of the recent escalation of the long simmering conflict in Kashmir. He told us how India’s fake news problem has a tendency to stoke existing tensions. Amogh says that fake images, which went viral after the Pulwama bomb attack, were just the latest example in a long line of fake news stories that have led to violence in India in recent years.

Amogh Sharma: I think the impact that fake news can have in leading to violence and any sort of misinformation speaks to a number of things that really say something about the social and political landscape of what’s happening in India. I think the fact that a single WhatsApp message can often incite people into violence, into taking someone’s life, really says something about the kind of polarisation that is hiding right beneath the surface of of Indian social life.

India Tomorrow intro music

Annabel Bligh: Hello. You’re listening to The Anthill podcast from The Conversation. This is the first episode in a new seven-part series we’re running called India Tomorrow. I’m Annabel Bligh, an editor at The Conversation. And joining me to guide us through this series is Indrajit Roy from the University of York. Indrajit, welcome.

Indrajit Roy: Hi, it’s great to be here.

Annabel Bligh: Indrajit, before we launch into our series, maybe you could tell us a bit about who you are and what you do.

Indrajit Roy: I teach at the Department of Politics at the University of York. My research focuses on the politics of development and democracy around the world. I was born and brought up in Delhi and worked several years with the development sector in different parts of India before coming to the UK to do my PhD at oxford.

Annabel Bligh: So, 900m Indians are going to the polls throughout April and May, with charismatic and somewhat controversial prime minister Narendra Modi up for reelection. Instead of focusing on the minutiae of the election itself, we’ve decided to take a wider look at the big issues facing India today, with a view to seeing where it is headed – whether that’s with Modi at the helm or not. From your perspective, Indrajit, why do you think everyone should be intrigued to find out more about what’s going on in India at the moment?

Indrajit Roy: Well, India is fascinating in and of itself. Not only is it the world’s largest democracy but also defies the conventional wisdom that development is a prerequisite for democracy. Impoverished by colonialism, Indians nevertheless introduced universal adult suffrage as far back as 1950, a full 15 years before economic superpowers such as the United States lifted literacy and tax qualifications for voting. India thus presents a very moving story of the ways in which some of the poorest people on the planet have sought to – against enormous odds – construct and sustain democracy. You know, for several decades after India’s independence from colonial rule, observers widely speculated that India would not survive, much less as a democracy. But we see that – warts and all – India not only survived but also emerged as one of the world’s most thriving democracies.

Annabel Bligh: And to what degree is this under threat today and for India going forward?

Indrajit Roy: Oh, it’s absolutely under threat. And this is why the forthcoming elections next month are so crucial. India illustrates poignantly the global challenges faced by democracy underpinned by the emergence of right-wing populism and an exclusive form of nationalism. India today faces these challenges alongside people in Brazil, Turkey, the United States, Russia, China and several European countries. Prime minister Narendra Modi joins a galaxy of strongmen politicians such as Bolsonaro, Trump, Erdogan, Putin and Xi Jinping who are accused of presiding over the roll-backing the democratic achievements of the last few decades. Of course, these gentlemen (and they are all men!) are a symptom of the problem rather than the cause. Nevertheless, how Indians navigate the political challenges before them holds key lessons for the world as it confronts the global backsliding of democracy.

Annabel Bligh: So, I have to admit I didn’t know a great deal about India before we started researching this series. But it’s been really fascinating to learn how issues like populism and nationalism are playing out there and the parallels we see in India with trends that are sweeping countries around the world. Then, of course, there’s this issue of fake news, which we’re digging into in this episode.

Indrajit Roy: That’s right. Fake news is a problem facing societies across the world, and has been a key contributor to the global backsliding of democracy. The rise of social media platforms allows people to disseminate information freely. Stories can go viral, even if they’re not true. And there have been a number of cases where they have stoked fears and fuelled violence in India. In this episode, we are going to explore how fake news and the battle for information shapes politics in India.

But first, here’s Amogh Sharma again, outlining the extent of India’s fake news problem.

Amogh Sharma: So here are some cold hard numbers: since 2012, there have been 125 incidents of mob-lynchings in India. These are just simply cow-related, bovine related mob lynchings which are taking place. There are far much more which have happened under the pretext of let’s say something called Love Jihad, or these concerns on child kidnappings which have also taken place.

Annabel Bligh: This phenomenon called Love Jihad is all to do with the controversy that surrounds relationships between Hindus and Muslims. It’s something we’re going to explore more in a future episode. But perhaps Indrajit, you could just explain the significance of cows in Indian culture to help us understand how fake news stories about cows can lead to mob lynchings.

Indrajit Roy: See, cows are considered sacred in Hinduism. While historians and social scientists debate the origins of the cow’s sacredness, the fact is that many Hindus don’t eat beef and in some Indian states cattle slaughter is illegal. But beef is eaten by others, such as Muslims and Dalits, a group of people who have historically been oppressed as “untouchables”. In recent years, there have been a rise of cow-protection squads called gau rakshaks in Hindi. Such squads have brought together hardline Hindus who see it as their duty to uphold the law and stop the transportation of cattle for slaughter and indeed even to physically ban people from eating beef.

Amogh Sharma: I think what really happens in a general scenario is that on WhatsApp or even maybe on Twitter or on general SMS, some rumour will start in some village where a community, usually Muslims or Dalits, will be accused of smuggling cattle or consuming beef. And once this information enters the public domain it gets shared and disseminated widely. And this whips up a frenzy and leads to attacks on these communities or a certain set of families who are often residing in some particular part of the city.

Annabel Bligh: So just to clarify, in the cases that this happens, Indrajit, these Muslims and Dalits, are they not necessarily breaking the law when they are attacked by cow-protection squads?

Indrajit Roy: They may or may not be. The cow protection squads take matters into their own hands and administer vigilante justice with impunity. Much of the time, they act on rumours and speculation. And such messages are often shared via WhatsApp, which has end-to-end encryption, and so it’s impossible to track.

Amogh Sharma: So simply, those which have been on cow-related incidents, there’ve been two 297 victims with approximately 46 deaths. What is quite interesting with the statistics is that of all the people who were attacked in these cases of mob lynchings, 57% of them have been Muslims and 10% of them have been Dalits. And 90% of all these cases have taken place under the BJP rule ever since they took power in 2014. And more than half of them have taken place in those states where BJP is in power. So those are the kind of numbers we’re looking at.

Indrajit Roy: Of course, here it is important to remember the deeper social roots of the violence. The rumours stoke existing fears and mutual suspicions among members of different groups. The BJP didn’t invent these antagonisms.

Gurpreet Mahajan: I think one should realise that we have had communal violence in the past, all through at the time of the partition of the country and the years after. So we’ve had many communal clashes.

Indrajit Roy: That’s Gurpreet Mahajan, a politics professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi.

Gurpreet Mahajan: So this has been an old problem. The difference now really is that you have more incidents of what will be called isolated events, random events. The worry really is that once you allow individuals to be able to be vigilantes of various kinds, you are really creating a society in which nobody’s safe.

Annabel Bligh: We’re going to hear more from Gurpreet later about the wider context of populist politics at play in India. But first, we wanted to find out where the rumours that fuel a lot of this violence come from. Amogh Sharma has spoken to a number of India’s internet trolls, including those from a prominent group known as the “Internet Hindus”, to find out what it is that they want.

Amogh Sharma: Internet Hindus are self-confessed Hindu nationalists who belligerently defend their ideology on online social media and they also attack, what we call troll, people who are seen to be critics of Hindu nationalism. Broadly speaking, they envision India as a Hindu Rashtra, that is a Hindu nation. And they believe in the ideology of Hindu nationalism as the basis of the cultural life of the nation. But, I think in terms of answering the question what they want, I think there is something far more immediate in their politics. And by that I mean that, what they’re looking for, is to, in the immediate, in the present, to capture the public sphere and for the ideology of Hindu nationalism to become the ideological commonsense of all Indians.

Indrajit Roy: The Internet Hindus are often linked to the party that’s in power, the BJP, whose leader is the current prime minister, Narendra Modi and has a Hindu nationalist platform. But, when we asked Amogh what these internet trolls want, we found it’s not quite clear cut.

Annabel Bligh: Yep, he said the majority of these supporters are not simple agents of the BJP. They have a more complex relationship with the party.

Amogh Sharma: In fact, I remember quite clearly one sentence which one of these self-confessed Internet Hindus told me. He said that: “When I’m on the internet my goal is not to make Modi or someone else as prime minister, my goal is to restore glory to the Hindu nation.” Now this sounds like a really hyperbolic sentence, but I think it really goes at the heart of what’s happening with these Internet Hindus and the role social media is playing. It is certainly true that BJP and other parties have these high tech social media cells which generate the propaganda that becomes so virulent during election season and these Internet Hindus are also helping them in the process. But I think ordinary social media users have taken on to social media to engage in a certain form of politics which political parties cannot fully control.

Annabel Bligh: Nonetheless, the BJP is widely seen as being incredibly skilled at digital campaigning and way ahead of other parties on this front.

Subir Sinha: My name is Subir Sinha and I am a senior lecturer in the Department of Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

Annabel Bligh: Subir explained how the BJP’s landslide victory in the 2014 national elections was partly down to its effective marketing strategies and dominance of social media.

Subir Sinha: So they basically got early advice about the use of social media and by sort of 2010, 2011, not only had they established a very large presence on Facebook, but also they had dedicated channels on YouTube. By the time the 2014 elections came round they also had full dominance over Twitter. And if you count the comments pages of newspapers, where people write comments anonymously under newspaper articles, they also had complete dominance over that as well. Even sort of question and answer platforms like Quora begin to see a lot more BJP-oriented content around that point in time.

Indrajit Roy: If 2014 was India’s first social media election, the 2019 elections are widely anticipated to be the “WhatsApp elections”, thanks to the messaging app’s popularity and track record of being used to influence voters and disseminate fake news.

Subir Sinha: And once again you know the BJP has to be credited for the fact that they were able to recognise the political potential of WhatsApp both in terms of creating closed discussion groups and also in terms of mobilisation of people not only for electoral purposes, but because I think one of the hallmarks of Modi’s politics is the kind of continuous mobilisation of the population.

Annabel Bligh: So in the same way that we were hearing earlier – about how fake news stories can spread like wildfire and whip up emotions – this can also be used for political purposes.

Indrajit Roy: Absolutely, you get stories spread about political leaders such as Rahul Gandhi, leader of the main opposition party, the Congress. For example, after the Kashmir attack, a story went viral of a photoshopped image of him standing next to the suicide bomber and questions over whether the Congress party was behind the attack.

Subir Sinha: But also you know comments about the fact that the Gandhi family is probably not entirely Hindu. They have Italian blood. That makes them even more alien to the people of India and so on and so forth.

Annabel Bligh: As Amogh emphasised, these kinds of stories don’t necessarily come from the BJP headquarters. The party relies on a very wide network of supporters around the country. Perhaps at the other end of the spectrum to the Internet Hindus are a new group called Academics for NaMo – which is shorthand for Narendra Modi. I spoke to Swadesh Singh from Delhi University who’s one of the group’s organisers.

Swadesh Singh: We are vouching for thought leaders, intellectuals, research scholars, academics, thinkers, columnists, panellists. These are the set of people who disseminate information, knowledge, in different forms. Whether they give lectures, they teach students, or they write columns, or they appear on TV or they participate in public debate.

Annabel Bligh: They recognise the importance of shaping public debates over how the prime minister has done over the last five years in office. And they set up recently ahead of the 2019 elections.

Swadesh Singh: It is not just a battle of votes, it is also a battle of narratives. It is also a battle of ideas, that which ideas should prevail. Which narrative is for the betterment of the country? So we think the narrative propounded by prime minister Narendra Modi, the narrative of new India, is the best narrative available today. That’s why everyone should come forward and through their words, through their action, through their dissemination of knowledge, information, they should support prime minister Narendra Modi in this general election.

Indrajit Roy: Swadesh is absolutely right. It’s a battle of narratives. And it’s not just the BJP that has online support. India’s other parties have woken up to the need to fight this war of information. And it often doesn’t make for a particularly high level of public debate. There are trolls working on behalf of the Congress, for example, engaging in a large amount of online abuse. We asked Amogh Sharma about some of their motivations.

Amogh Sharma: I think it’s about attacking people who are Internet Hindus for their politics and engaging in an endless stream of vicious abuse. So for every Internet Hindu that calls someone a “libtard” which is a portmanteau for “liberal” and, I’m sorry to use the word, “retard”, they will call someone a “sanghi”, they will call someone a “bhakt”, and a bhakt is a loyal devout follower of someone. So they’ll engage in these sort of you know word plays, these, spin new words. And that is really I think goes at the heart of the politics of presence on social media that these internet Hindus and other trolls really occupy.

Indrajit Roy: So it’s not a one-way fight and I expect we’ll see spin and fake news from all sides in India’s elections. The BJP certainly seems to be the most effective party, though, when it comes to online campaigns.

Amogh Sharma: I think one can state quite unequivocally that BJP is taking the lead in this sphere. I think the range of misinformation and fake news that all Hindu nationalist groups, including the BJP, indulge in, far outnumbers those of all other parties put together.

Annabel Bligh: Subir Sinha is keen to emphasise not just the size of the BJP’s online presence, but the emotions the party effectively taps into.

Subir Sinha: So the idea of you can’t just be nationalist you’ve got to be hyper nationalist. You can’t just be upset with Pakistan’s actions you’ve got to be enraged by Pakistan’s actions. And again we see that you know this is a fairly global phenomenon. And to that extent we have to acknowledge that you know while Modi and the BJP’s politics are hyper nationalist, it shares with the current hyper nationalist moment which is sweeping across the world.

Annabel Bligh: Another hallmark of the BJP is the popularity of the party’s leader, Narendra Modi. He has successfully cultivated an image as a strong and charismatic leader.

Indrajit Roy: Totally. Modi remains the BJP’s star campaigner and performer. He is absolutely popular among the masses and leads in most opinion polls about who should be India’s next prime minister. Modi’s humble origins as a chaiwallah – a tea-seller – has enormous appeal. His meteoric rise from small-town Gujarat to the highest office in the country resonates with lots of Indians. Here’s Subir again.

Subir Sinha: So this is a very much a Modi-oriented thing. Unlike any other political party, there is very strong identification among supporters of the BJP with Modi personally. That he is someone whose word must be taken beyond any kind of demand for evidence or proof because he is the leader who is an unparalleled great man.

Annabel Bligh: And, Subir says, this support for Modi takes on religious proportions.

Subir Sinha: I have written about this in a paper in which I have provided links to videos in which you can see that someone is in a temple and is praying to the God Shiva. And as the prayer becomes more and more frenetic, the face of Shiva gets replaced by that of Modi. But it is not just the people who think of him as God. There is a very strong element of “well-educated people” who just believe that you know nations need very strong leaders from time to time to take them on an upward trajectory. This is obviously something we’ve seen across the world in previous decades as well. And that he is the man.

Indrajit Roy: Modi even has his own app, the NaMo app, through which he broadcasts his views and stays in touch with his adoring fans.

Annabel Bligh: Yes, I asked Subir about this. He said even the way it’s branded NaMo has religious undertones.

Subir Sinha: NaMo is not just an acronym for Narendra Modi. But also Namo, in many Hindi or many Hindu religious chants, they might end with “namo nama” which means you know I bow before the God kind of thing.

Annabel Bligh: Indrajit, are you familiar with the NaMo app? Is it something you have on your phone or know people who subscribe to?

Indrajit Roy: I don’t unfortunately have the app on my phone. But I know of people who’ve subscribed to this app. And Subir is right, they aren’t the religious sorts at all, they are successful businessmen, well-trained professionals, people who you wouldn’t usually associate with religion or religious ideas. So yes, there is a wider appeal than just the religious Hindu.

Annabel Bligh: And here’s Subir to explain what it is that they’re getting through this app.

Subir Sinha: So you can basically get his statements and his speeches many of whom may or may not be shown on national television in the same degree of length or detail that you as a Modi fan might want to see them. You can also get the archive of his monologues, which are twice a month on national radio. You might be sent content to then use to disseminate across your different social media platforms that you might be using. You can also buy Modi merchandise on that. So if you wanted to get a Modi mask for your child or a Modi doll for your child or something of that sort, or a t-shirt, you could buy those things. But I think that the most important element of that is that he solicits advice for his monologues via the app.

Annabel Bligh: So this is the thing. It’s a two-way process. Through his app, Modi is able to stay in touch with his supporters and display how engaged he is with the people.

Indrajit Roy: The huge focus on Modi as a political personality and his method of interacting with people through his own social media app, is not dissimilar to how US president Donald Trump uses Twitter.

Annabel Bligh: Modi’s direct appeal to the public and ability to tap into and stir up the mood of the nation has had him branded a populist in a similar vein to not just Trump, but Brazil’s new president Bolsonaro, and president Duterte of the Philippines.

Indrajit Roy: To talk us through how Modi fits into this global trend, here’s Professor Gurpreet Mahajan.

Gurpreet Mahajan: There seem to be three kinds of conditions that invariably create conducive conditions for the emergence of such kind of politics. One of course is economic conditions that prevail. Then there is the context and anxieties generated by terrorism that affects large numbers of people, more than just the globalisation losers as it were. So you play on those anxieties to say who is the enemy within or whom should we be careful about? So you can have, you know, “us” and “them” kind of politics.

Annabel Bligh: These are areas we’re going to be exploring in future episodes.

Gurpreet Mahajan: And then you have a force and technology triggered new social media. So you can bypass the old which seems to be the voice of the past or the elite and allow yourself to really connect with people who think and who can understand and share these anxieties and appeal to them directly.

Indrajit Roy: In many ways, as we’ve heard, the BJP and Narendra Modi are winning this battle to connect with people – through appealing to their emotions and through Modi’s personal appeal to many of his followers. But it seems that the Congress party recognises this and is opting for a different approach. Here’s what Subir Sinha has found.

Subir Sinha: What is interesting is that if you speak with Congress social media people, they will tell you that they cannot and therefore will not try to replicate the BJP’s strategies on social media. In other words, yes there will be fake news from time to time, but they actually don’t own 25 or 30 fake news factories, that they say the BJP does. Secondly, they know that there is no identification with Rahul Gandhi in the same fanatical way that there is with Modi. So they are not going for a strong leader kind of a platform. So what they seem to be doing much more is to actually take it back to the policy side of populism.

Annabel Bligh: Subir says populism takes two forms: one is all about style and the other relates to substance – or policies.

Subir Sinha: Which is to make pro-poor statements. If they’ve written off loans for farmers in states that they have recently won, then to say, “hey listen, you know we make promises that we keep. Recently they have also returned land taken from tribal populations for handing over to corporations for megaprojects. So they basically want to steer away to some extent – because they can’t win by becoming another Modi – to try to think of populism in a slightly different way. By downplaying the populist style and the concept of the great leader and think much more of populism as a set of policies which provides benefits and support to those who need it.

Annabel Bligh: Subir also talked about a certain level of public wariness that has set in when it comes to fake news stories because there have been so just many of them.

Subir Sinha: I think there is also a kind of fatigue also on WhatsApp, on how much fake news the BJP has produced and also the close connections between certain television channels and those people who are so-called social media influencers. People who were once quoting those television channels on WhatsApp kind of conversations to make their point will no longer want to do so.

Annabel Bligh: When it comes to fake news, it’s certainly interesting times we live in. I think it’s the way it appeals to people’s emotions that makes it so hard to combat. And that we can be quite lazy when we see a news headline that we agree with – it’s so easy to retweet or forward it to friends on a WhatsApp group.

Indrajit Roy: It’s definitely a key issue to watch out for in the Indian elections, as with all elections these days.

Annabel Bligh: That’s it for this episode. We’ll be exploring the issue of Hindu nationalism in part two of India Tomorrow.

Shalini Sharma: Hindutva basically claimed that a Hindu is somebody whose religion was born in the territory that we now know as pre-partition India. So Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and Hindus of all different sort of sects within Hinduism, they are Hindus. People whose religion was not born in India, so Christians and Muslims do not constitute Hindus and are thus outside of Hindutva.

Annabel Bligh: That’s in part two of this series from The Anthill, India Tomorrow. Do subscribe to The Anthill so you don’t miss out. A big thanks to my co-host Indrajit Roy.

Indrajit Roy: Thanks Annabel.

Annabel Bligh: You can read more of The Conversation’s coverage of India by academics around the world on theconversation.com or follow us on social media. If you’ve got any questions relating to what we’ve been discussing in this series, please do get in touch via email on podcast@theconversation.com or on Twitter @anthillpod. We’ll put these to a panel of academics we’ve got lined up to discuss the election results at the end of May.

Annabel Bligh: A big thanks to all the academics who spoke to us for this episode and to the journalism department at City University for letting us use their studios. The Anthill is produced by Gemma Ware and me, Annabel Bligh. Sound by Alex Portfelix. And thanks to our intern Salome Pkhaladze for her editing help. Thanks for listening.

Indrajit Roy: Goodbye.

Annabel Bligh: Goodbye!


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