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Social media & prevalence of fake news in political campaigns

Time and again, we come across false stories doing rounds in social media pertaining to religion and political parties. With an increase in dependence of masses on social media, ‘fake news’ are higher in circulation than ever before about different party candidates; party policies; ruling government, and, the opposition.

According to a survey conducted in the US after Donald Trump’s win, “The most popular fake news was more widely circulated and read on social media than the genuine news items. People genuinely believed in fake news on social media & they were widely discussed. Donald Trump would not have been elected President if it were not for the influence of fake news on social media which was both widely shared and heavily tilted in favour of Donald Trump.”

Coming back to the Indian political scenario, “Fake News” have found its way in burgeoning social media mainly comprising Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Social media is well-suited for fake news dissemination as there are no entry barriers and cost of producing content for fake news is relatively small. Fake news articles originate on several types of websites and parody accounts on Facebook and Twitter fed in by different political parties.

Much of India’s false news is spread through WhatsApp. Recently, Haryana and Punjab had to curtail internet services due to fear of riots at the time of the hearing of Gurmeet Ram Rahim, One rumour on social media which caused havoc was about salt shortages which prompted a rush on salt in grocery stores.

After a recent Political rally held in Patna, titled ‘BJP Baghao, Desh Bachao’, which saw many leaders mark their presence, A top leader from Bihar posted a picture on Twitter which showed a much larger gathering than the one posted by ANI, at the same point. The media was quick to spot the difference and the Leader was pulled up for obviously photoshopping the image to look like more people attended the rally.

In another move attacking the Central Government on its demonetization move, A senior political leader from Delhi Government retweeted an image of a man in Santna, Madhya Pradesh who had allegedly hung himself in a bank because he could not withdraw money. The leader had written in Hindi, “Modi ji, look at this. Have mercy on the public of this country. What enmity do you have with the people of this country?” The picture, however, turned out be an older one taken when a man, who was being chased by the police, hung himself in a bank. Such posts by people in top political positions can have severe influence on the masses.

Spreading ‘fake news’ is a new weapon used by Political parties for their own benefit. The polarized atmosphere is largely created in India due to reckless use of fake news through shares on Facebook; retweets on Twitter and forwards on Whatsapp. The public is quick to share false information without proper sources.

The US political arena is matured as compared to India vis-e-vis social media. Softwares are being developed in the US to curtail spread of false stories. The first and foremost that is required in the Indian politics is mandatory visibility of all politicians on social media so that they can curtail negative information from spreading through relevant rebuttals. Most politicians are yet to understand the merit of social media. The best way to counter fake news on social media is social media itself.

People should develop awareness as to which websites and news outlets are known for spreading ‘fake news’ and confirm the veracity of the information before sharing it with their peers. Curtailing fake news is essential, false information spread within the masses can lead to huge swings in public opinions. It can be the difference between being the President of a country and being an also ran.

Anu Sehgal

The author is a digital consultant specialising in image management and brand promotion, and a former journalist.
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