A major transformation, which the elections around the globe have witnessed, is the dissemination of messages through the internet especially, the social media to reach to a larger audience. A number of Asian democracies are undergoing elections in 2019 particularly the two largest: India and Indonesia. The role of social media in democratic elections was clearly reflected in the 2016 US elections, which was mired in allegations of Russian meddling. As such, it becomes imperative to analyse the impact of social media during election campaigning, as major parties and their associated groups in India and Indonesia try to persuade potential voters.
Both the democracies have experienced a staggering rise in internet usage in the past few years supported by low-cost data, affordable smartphone penetrating deep in the rural areas. It has particularly helped to micro-target the voters extensively through social media to sway the public opinion and the votes. The case of Cambridge Analytica is a well-known case where user data from Facebook was used for political advantage; allegedly linked to political parties from India as well. The use of social media as a tool to connect to voters has found increasing relevance with the rising populist wave. The advantage of social media is that content being delivered is in the local language and covers the geography of the region which is necessary to connect to the masses. While the decentralization of information provides a voice to the groups vital to the functioning of democracy at the same time, it offers a space for manipulation often in the form of misleading information.
With 340 million users on Facebook and Whatsapp in India, the highest globally, the spreading of misinformation has been dubbed as unprecedented in nature and scale. It has particularly raised severe concerns as through the use of such social media platforms the violence has been inflicted such as lynching’s based on rumors on Whatsapp which have been dubbed as ‘social media killings.’ The use of social media during elections is often seen to be driven by themes of identity politics drawing on the distinction of caste, religion, and understanding of nationalism amplifying the differences, which already exist in the society.
The political parties including ruling Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) and the opposition party Indian National Congress (INC), in particular, have designated cyber workers to reach the grassroots level involved in a cyber-campaign targeting each other. The divisive campaign has been accompanied by fake news to draw voters on party lines. However, removal of the harmful content has been placed in the form of various regulations by the government and tech companies putting a mechanism for monitoring and restricting forward messages. Still, such a vast volume and diversity of the data being processed make it next to impossible to limit it.
In Indonesia, the rhetoric includes radical messaging playing on religious and ethnic sentiments. An important lesson of the social conflict in early 2017 was the case of the Jakarta Governor of Chinese origin who was accused of targeting Quran in a video, which was later revealed to be work of a conservative group called Muslim cyber group. The Mafindo groups, a cybersecurity body revealed that the level of fake news has spiked by 61% from December 2018 to January 2019 as the elections draw closer. The extent of polarisation in the form of hate speech is not limited to elections period; instead, the misinformation continues and reinforces itself. The incumbent leader Joko Widodo has been projected as a ‘communist puppet’ which first appeared in 2014 elections and then after the accusation of removing religious education from courses in school.
Apart from the national narrative being built for the elections, foreign interference is also not an exception. Fear of the foreign hackers linked to Russia and China penetrating the electoral system in Indonesia has been put forth, leading to the manipulation of the content and the creation of the ‘ghost voters’. In an effort to curb the foreign interference, Facebook has limited the political ads from abroad. The probability of foreign interference has also come up in India. The situation reflects the emergence of the cyberspace as a space for political contestation where foreign powers can wield influence. Apart from the US elections, Russian and Chinese interference in the elections has also been in the European states to smaller nations like Cambodia, and Madagascar.
The capability to monitor these scrupulous activities in social media is too limited especially during elections in democracies like India and Indonesia, which have a diversity of language, ethnicity, and culture. While the term “post-truth” has been debated, the manipulation of facts to depict as truth often in the way of emotional appeal is driving the politics of social media. Elections are testing times for democracies, and political parties resort to a number of ways for vote gains and in the current scenario, the role of social media is ever growing. Regulation mechanisms pertaining to political ads, fake accounts, content monitoring including an audit by third parties supported by government and media are some of the ways to put a restraint on this issue. They also need to invest in public education campaigns that help users grow more skeptical of online content and more judicious about sharing it. Finally, at this election time, it is crucial that politicians restrain themselves and their operatives from spreading fake news on their own.
*** The author is currently a PhD scholar at the Centre for Canadian, US & Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University ***