The role of social media in Indian elections | Eurasia Diary -

22 May, Wednesday

The role of social media in Indian elections

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In India's last election, social media was used as a tool. This time it could become a weapon.

About 900 million Indians are eligible to vote in the election, which will take place over about five weeks starting on April 11, and many more of them are online than during the last election in 2014. The scope for social media to be abused to manipulate voters has never been greater.

India is the world's biggest market for Facebook (FB) and its messaging platform WhatsApp. It's also one of Twitter's (TWTR) most important markets. The country's vote will present these companies with their sternest test yet.

"The narrative of who's up or who's down, who's smart and who's not ... that agenda gets set by social media in a way that TV was never doing before," said Ravi Agrawal, author of "India Connected" and a former CNN India bureau chief.

In the last election, social media was harnessed to get the message out. This time, the dangers are coming to the fore.

"Any information automatically generates counter-information, and any fake information generates counter-fake information," said Verniers. "In a way, you could say that Indian political parties are very good at interfering with their own election."

In 2014, India had around 250 million internet users. More than 560 million people are now online.

Facebook and Twitter have taken several steps to make sure their platforms are not abused.


WhatsApp is using artificial intelligence to detect and ban accounts that spread "problematic content," while Facebook is labeling political advertisements and partnering with Indian fact-checkers. Twitter has announced similar initiatives to crack down on "bad-faith actors," and is also working with political parties and election authorities to ensure its platform isn't compromised during the polls.

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

"The fact that all of this happening so quickly in India means that giant mistakes will be made and people will end up being misinformed in a mass way," said Agrawal.


Rishi Iyengar is the India associate editor for CNN Business in New Delhi

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