With the Lok Sabha elections coming up, it is critically important that Indians have access to credible and trustworthy information before they vote. The problem is that many do not feel they do. In a brand new survey of English-language Internet users in India conducted by the University of Oxford, we have found that a majority of the respondents are concerned with whether the news they come across online is real or fake.
Who can blame them? After the Pulwama attack, social media and messaging apps were flooded with false and misleading content as people tried to make sense of the horrible violence. As Trushar Barot, a former BBC journalist who leads Facebook’s integrity initiatives in India, tweeted, “I’ve never seen anything like this before — the scale of fake content circulating on one story.”
Some of this was ordinary people sharing misinformation in good faith, but much of it was not. As the Central Reserve Police Force noted a few days after losing 40 men in the attack, “It has been noticed that on social media some miscreants are trying to circulate fake pictures of body parts of our Martyrs to invoke hatred while we stand united. Please DO NOT circulate/share/like such photographs or posts.” Even as some news media made the occasional misstep and amplified some of this disinformation, other journalists and fact-checkers were working overtime to identify and debunk some of the worst examples shared online, including fake or manipulated material trying to link Congress president Rahul Gandhi and Congress general secretary in-charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, to the attack.
The heart of the problem
Social media and messaging apps are thus at the heart of the disinformation problems that India faces. Of our survey respondents, 52% say they get news via Facebook, and the same percentage say they get news via WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook. With an estimated quarter billion Indians having come online since the last general election, companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter have become central parts of the Indian media environment, including the disinformation problems that it faces.
But disinformation is not only a problem of social media and digital platforms. In our survey, strikingly, those who use Facebook and/or WhatsApp for news do not report higher levels of concern over whether the news they come across is real or fake than those who do not rely on them. It seems people are as concerned about information from news media as they are about information from social media. More detailed questions in our survey reveal a far more complex set of wider problems. At the heart of disinformation problems are stories that are completely made up for political or commercial reasons, to try to discredit rivals or make money from clickbait. Of our respondents, 51% say they are concerned about this problem. But strikingly, a similar number say they are concerned about what they consider to be poor journalism (stories that respondents consider marred by factual mistakes, inaccuracies, etc.). And 50% say they are concerned by hyperpartisan political content, where facts are spun or twisted to push a particular agenda, whether from politicians, pundits or publishers.
So, when many Indians in the run-up to the elections say they are concerned about what is real and what is fake on the Internet, this is clearly in part about social media and digital platforms. But unfortunately, it is also about some news media and some politicians who people see as part of the disinformation problems that India faces. It is only a few years ago that the Press Council of India said that “the phenomenon of ‘paid news’ has acquired serious dimensions”, “goes beyond the corruption of individual journalists and media companies and has become pervasive, structured and highly organised.” The Press Council concluded: “It is undermining democracy in India.” Cobrapost’s sting operation last summer, which exposed large media houses willing to peddle propaganda as news, demonstrates that some of these problems persist.
Low trust in institutions
Beyond the rise of digital media, the backdrop of disinformation problems in India is thus low trust in established institutions. Though there are some admirable exceptions, established institutions often seem to fail the people who rely on them. Other studies have found low trust in politicians and political parties. Our own survey shows that just 36% of respondents feel they can trust most news most of the time, statistically indistinguishable from the 34% who say they trust news found via social media.
Addressing the issues
What can be done do address these issues? It is clear that platform companies have much to do to improve their content moderation and contain disinformation. Facebook has announced that it currently has over 500 full-time employees and at least 3,500 external contractors who focus on election work, on top of the 30,000 people across the company focused on safety and security issues. (Given the fact that India accounts for more than 10% of the global user base of both Facebook and WhatsApp, and is growing rapidly, it would be good to know how many of these people are focused specifically on India.)
Similarly, it is troubling that some coordinated attempts to amplify and spread misleading and false information sometimes seem to emanate from major political parties and activists who support them. This ought to stop, and if it does not, has to be continuously and critically covered by independent journalists to ensure that people are aware of what is going on. Finally, it is clear that Indian news media has a lot of work to do if it wants to gain the trust of the Indian public. Many express high levels of trust in some individual brands, most notably major newspapers and some broadcasters. But many news media are not trusted.
In a situation where disinformation seems to be everywhere, and digital platforms, some politicians and some news media are intertwined in these problems, we can only hope that those news media which genuinely do stand out as providers of credible information are able to convince people that they provide exactly that — news that is worthy not only of people’s attention, but also their trust.
Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Professor of Political Communication at the University of Oxford. Twitter: @rasmus_kleis