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An online battle for 900 million hearts and minds: India braces for elections

JAIPUR/TONK, India (Reuters) – As India votes in a general election next year, it will be the world’s largest democratic exercise, and the biggest ever test of the role of social media in the elections.

Volunteers of India’s main opposition Congress party monitor TV news channels and social media in their war room, which was set for a meeting of the state election, in Jaipur in the desert state of Rajasthan, December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Aditya Kalra

If the ruling Bharatiya Janata y (BJP) prepares for battle with the newly energized congress party-led opposition in the election that must be held by May, the role of Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp can be of crucial importance in determining who wins.

India has almost 900 million people entitled to vote, and it is estimated that half a billion have access to the Internet. The country has 300 million Facebook (FB.O) users, and 200 million on Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging service – more than any other democracy. Millions of people use Twitter (TWTR.N).

“Social media and data analysis are the main actors in the upcoming India elections. Their use would be unprecedented as both parties are now using social media,” says Usha M. Rodrigues, a communication professor at the Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, whose research has focused on social media and Indian politics.

The potential for abuse is also huge, with incendiary news and videos in is fanning violence in the vast, multi-religious and multi-ethnic nation.

Fake news and messages spread on social media have led to more than 30 deaths since last year, data portal IndiaSpend says, mostly to rumors about child-kidnapping gangs.

The political differences in the past, not less lethal.

“Social media discourse, already bitter, turn bilious,” Milan Vaishnav, a senior research fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said of the upcoming campaign for the parliamentary elections.

“It will be no holds barred on social media given that the opposition smells blood, and the ruling party, the back against the wall.”

Both main parties accuse each other of spreading false news, while denying they do it themselves.

Nevertheless, the battlelines between them are clearly drawn. The congress attacked Prime minister Narendra Modi’s economic policies and his party’s Hindu-nationalist ideology, while the BJP dismisses the Congress as incompetent liberals, the contact with the people.

This month, Congress won the elections in three important states that are the bastion of the BJP, setting the stage for a tight contest in 2019. The help of the opposition party was a renewed strategy for social media.

WAR ROOMS

In the last elections in 2014, Congress was crushed by the techno-savvy Modi and his series of social media weapons, including a flurry of Tweets from his personal account, a BJP campaign on Facebook and holographic displays of the Modes in remote villages.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi got a Twitter account in 2015. But the opposition party is catching up and on the playing field has gotten a lot bigger.

India now has 450 million smartphone users as against 155 million in the last elections in 2014, according to Counterpoint Research. That is more than the entire population of the United States, the crucible and campaigns on social media.

Reuters visited one of the nodes of the Congress is online activities in Rajasthan, one of the three states, won this month in a drab three-bedroom apartment in a poorly lit staircase in the city of Jaipur.

Within the party of workers kept news channels and social media messages on a wall of tv screens. A three-member team of audio, video and graphic designers, designed campaign material that is posted on government websites, while other volunteers used WhatsApp to send instructions to the party of the workers.

“We were children then, but we’re going to go through them now,” said Manish Sood, 45, who runs his own social media marketing and the management of the Congress volunteers at the Jaipur war room.

Still, fight Modes, online is not easy. With 43 million followers on Facebook and 45 million on Twitter worldwide, he is one of the world’s most followed politicians. The congress, Gandhi still only has 8.1 million followers on Twitter and 2.2 million on Facebook.

A request from Reuters to the BJP’s social media center in Jaipur was decreased, but a member of the party of the Rajasthan state of THE device, Mayank Jain, said it ran similar social media activities of two apartments in the city.

“The congress understands social media a bit now, but they do not have the volunteer manpower,” Jain said in an interview, showing dozens of BJP WhatsApp groups on his phone, one of which was named “BJP RAJASTHAN’S Warriors”.

THE RISE OF WHATSAPP

While Twitter and Facebook were embraced by the Indian politicians – especially in the BJP in 2014, it is WhatsApp that is now the social media tool of your choice.

In the city of Jaipur and the nearby rural town of Tonk, where traditional methods, such as public speeches and poster campaigns were used during the state poll, the Congress and the BJP party workers showed a Reuters reporter dozens of WhatsApp groups they were part of, and is used for the conduct of campaigns.

The congress said its volunteers managed 90,000 WhatsApp groups in Rajasthan, while the BJP said that the controlled 15,000 WhatsApp groups directly with the employees campaign by approximately 100,000 groups.

But WhatsApp has in the center of controversy. After the fake child kidnapping messages were spread on the platform in India, was flooded with lies and conspiracy theories ahead of the October elections in Brazil.

WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption offers the possibility for groups of hundreds of users to exchange texts, photos and video outside the competence of the government, an independent fact-checkers, or even the platform itself.

“WhatsApp is the biggest challenge for us now on the social media,” says Nitin Deep Blaggan, a senior police officer tasked with monitoring content online in Jaipur.

WhatsApp has limited the number of messages a user can forward at one time to 20, but in India, specifically the ceiling is set at five. The company blocked “hundreds of thousands” of accounts in Brazil during the election period, and the same was expected to lead India’s polls, a source aware of the company’s thinking said this month.

“We are working with political organizers to inform them that we will take action against the accounts that are sending automated spam messages,” Carl Weighed, WhatsApp’s head of communications, told Reuters in a statement. He did in the name of all the parties.

A Facebook spokeswoman said the company was “committed to maintaining election integrity,” and making efforts to weed “false news”. Twitter said that it had made efforts for the protection of the electoral process and to better detect and stop malicious activities.

During the Rajasthan election, police ran a 10-man social media monitoring unit, the tracking of tweets and Facebook posts related to the state polls. In the control room, the messages are displayed on wall-mounted screens and automatically filtered in neutral, positive or negative, to share.

The negative posts received special attention – they were manually checked, and sometimes marked senior police officers for further investigation and action.

An official look at computer screens in a police war room to monitor social media posts in Jaipur in the desert state of Rajasthan, December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Aditya Kalra

The only purpose, members of the monitoring team said, was to ensure that there is no online post spilled into violence.

One of the posts highlighted by the police when Reuters visited, was a video of a Congress leader of the rally where people seemed to shout slogans in favor of Pakistan, India’s old enemy.

Congress’ near the war room had already debunked the video that they said was doctored. Within hours, party workers posted what they said was an “original” video, which showed that no one shouted slogans in the rally.

Reporting by Aditya Kalra in Jaipur; Editing by Martin Howell and Raju Gopalakrishnan

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