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India: Media Manipulation and Targetted Use of Fake News by the BJP IT Cell and Other Entities created for the purpose - Selected Reports

24 April 2019

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India: Fake News and Agitprop

We investigate the threat posed to democracy in India by those who use fake news to advance extreme nationalism.

18 Apr 2019

As around 900 million Indian voters decide who should be their next leader, an increasingly troubling question is looming over the country’s general elections: How vulnerable is it to the kind of social media manipulation that has recently been seen in Europe and the United States?

Amid growing anxiety about the effect of fake news and malicious disinformation on the world’s largest democracy, we asked filmmaker Mandakini Gahlot to investigate.


By Mandakini Gahlot

Just as we were putting this film through post-production, a controversy broke out in India that demonstrated exactly how urgent the problem of fake news and propaganda is in the run-up to the world’s largest democratic exercise.

With less than two weeks to go before the hotly contested parliamentary elections began, people from across the country started reporting that a strange channel had magically appeared on their television screens. NAMO TV, the new channel, appeared to be solely dedicated to the speeches of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, interrupted by special hour-long programming of the prime minister doing yoga.

When journalists began enquiring about this blatantly partisan channel, the country’s Information and Broadcasting Ministry said it was being aired without the necessary permissions, and they had no idea who was behind it.

In fact, the prime minister himself said: "I have heard some people have started a channel, though I have not had time to see it myself."

His party distanced itself from the controversy, but the channel remained on air, even though by now there were loud voices saying that not only was this channel flouting broadcast regulations, but in fact, it was also in violation of the model code of conduct that regulates election campaigning in India.

While this may sound like a small local issue, just consider what would happen if a television dedicated to President Donald Trump began broadcasting just days before Americans were set to vote on his re-election. In my lifetime, I have only ever seen authoritarian leaders like Muammar Gaddafi or Kim Jong Un use such tricks, and in a country like India, where we have always prided ourselves on our hard-fought freedom to freely elect our government, this was unheard of.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he is presented with a garland during an election campaign rally in Himmatnagar, Gujarat, India, April 17, 2019 [Reuters/Amit Dave]

By the time the Bharatiya Janata Party’s IT cell - a secretive body within the organisation solely dedicated to digital campaigning - stepped forward to admit that in fact they were running the channel, I was not at all surprised.

In recent years, the party’s IT cell has acquired a reputation for using every dirty trick in the propaganda manual to influence voters. What’s worse is that their success has resulted in similar cells being instituted by nearly every major national and regional party, and social media has become their main battleground.

With people deeply disillusioned by the country’s mainstream media - which has become extremely polarised in the last five years - more and more Indians now get their news entirely from Facebook, Twitter and, most damagingly, from the end to end encrypted chat service WhatsApp. And what shows up on these groups is hateful rhetoric usually targeted at religious minorities or individual journalists, activists and politicians. India is facing information wars at an unprecedented scale, and unlike in the US where much of the misinformation was backed by a foreign country, here it’s all manufactured domestically

Just this morning I woke up to a message on a pro-BJP WhatsApp group that named 68 journalists - among the country’s most respected figures - as being on the payroll of the opposition Congress party. There was no evidence, no proof, but since the messages are being sent to people who have been primed for years to believe such propaganda, the list served its purpose of destroying the credibility of journalists who do not echo the party line.

With only the weakest of data privacy laws, India’s political parties have succeeded in profiling the country’s voters along caste, religion and socioeconomic status as we reveal in this film. The data sets that have emerged from such profiling have been used to add people to different Whatsapp groups where they have been bombarded with misinformation over a span of years to ensure that their perception of reality is skewed beyond repair.

While all parties are guilty of adopting these measures, I have no hesitation in saying that Prime Minister Modi’s BJP is miles ahead in the game.

Just a week before the election, Huffington Post broke another crucial story that revealed that the party has been using a women’s NGO, set up to help acid attack victims, as a front for their digital manipulation activities. Employees paid by the NGO were doing voter outreach and running Facebook pages that regularly carry misinformation.

With this story out, there is no longer any doubt that political parties are paying people to generate misinformation to sway voters.
A BJP supporter wears a NAMO TV channel tee shirt at a rally ahead of India’s upcoming elections [Al Jazeera]

As an Indian journalist and a filmmaker, I have been fortunate enough to cover some of the most important stories of the last decade and a half, but none have been as important as this one. What’s happening in India is a gradual weakening of a democratic process that was built on the backs of brave men and women who took on a mighty British empire to win us our freedom. A generation later, the country’s new leaders are responsible for diluting our election process and building propaganda machinery so sophisticated that it could take us another generation to dismantle.

I would be remiss to not mention the role of global technology companies here. WhatsApp, its parent company Facebook, and Twitter have come under fire for not being able to control misinformation on their platforms.

Facebook banned hundreds of accounts linked to political parties two weeks before the elections, but thousands more are still floating around. Questions have also been raised about why it took them so long to ban these pages. Facebook has 300 million users in India, more than anywhere else in the world, and if they are to preserve their credibility here, they will have to institute more transparent and more sincere measures that will stop misinformation from spreading like wildfire.

Source: Al Jazeera

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Huffington Post, 19 April 2019

How The BJP Automated Political Propaganda On WhatsApp
A thriving ecosystem of private tech companies are finding big business in helping the well-funded political parties reach potential voters.

By Gopal Sathe

BENGALURU, Karnataka — The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been using a Jaipur-based private company, Sarv Webs Pvt Ltd, to push political propaganda through mass-messages on WhatsApp, HuffPost India can confirm.

This could be a violation of Indian election norms, although lawyers say it is a grey area. HuffPost India spoke to Raman Chima, Asia Policy Director and Senior International Counsel at Access Now, an international non-profit, human rights, public policy, and advocacy group dedicated to an open and free Internet.

“If it’s advertising media pushed to people who didn’t sign up for it, it might potentially infringe the guidelines,” said Chima. “But not if it’s a service that people have opted into. Generally, this is a somewhat unclear area.” HuffPost India has written to the Election Commission for more information and will update this copy if the commission responds.

While newspapers have previously reported on WhatsApp groups run by BJP “volunteers”, HuffPost India can establish that the party is also using paid private vendors to run its social channels.

This has allowed the BJP to run covert, highly targeted campaigns aimed at specific groups, sliding into the inboxes of voters hours before they step out to vote.

A BJP campaign expenditure statement to the Election Commission of India, for the 2017 Gujarat campaign.

HuffPost India established this link by triangulating BJP campaign expenditure statements submitted to the Election Commission of India, where the BJP said it paid ‘Sarv Web Pvt Ltd’ Rs 23,60,000 for messaging and voice services during the 2017 Gujarat campaign, interviews with a serving Sarv employee who confirmed that the company is still working with the BJP, screenshots shared by a source on the condition of anonymity, and Sarv’s own declaration on its website where the company said it works with the BJP for “improving information flow to mass scale”.

Given that WhatsApp messages are encrypted, there is no way for WhatsApp or anyone outside these groups — including the Election Commission of India — to monitor the content of these messages.

On Sarv’s website, the company said it works with the BJP for “improving information flow to mass scale”.

Sarv and the BJP did not respond to a HuffPost India email seeking comment. In an email, WhatsApp characterised such behaviour as abusive and said the platform removes over two million accounts per month for bulk or automated behaviour.

“Attempting to distribute content en masse on WhatsApp requires users to work around the design of our platform. Doing so exhibits signals that we use to identify abusive accounts,” the company said.

“When we are confident that an account is abusive, we ban the account from WhatsApp altogether. We then use the information available to us to reverse engineer past behavior to prevent similar abuse in the future.”

Whatsapp’s efforts to curb bulk-messaging, the company said, “are particularly important during elections where certain groups may attempt to send messages at scale.”

This case, where the “certain groups” in question happens to be India’s ruling party, illustrates the challenge facing Facebook and WhatsApp, its subsidiary, in attempts to curb the viral transmission of fake news and propaganda on its platforms.

While Silicon Valley platforms were once praised for advancing free speech and expression around the world, over the past few years, Facebook and WhatsApp have been accused of allowing bad actors to influence elections and even trigger riots against vulnerable groups.

This election, Facebook has embarked on a publicity blitz to highlight its many efforts to ensure its platforms are not used to unduly sway the election.

Yet platforms like Sarv make a mockery of WhatsApp’s recent attempts to curb viral messaging by restricting the number of times a message can be forwarded, and blocking abusive accounts.

“So our numbers get blocked from time to time but we have backups, and you can be sure your messages will get through,” the Sarv employee said.

Meanwhile Indian political parties — and the ruling BJP in particular — aren’t particularly interested in curbing fake news when it can be harnessed to their own ends. Earlier this month, HuffPost India revealed how the BJP has set up its own secretive political consultancy to spread fake news by operating networks of fake Facebook accounts.

How Sarv Works

According to a current Sarv employee, the company maintains a huge cache of mobile SIM cards and sends the messages through multiple registered numbers.

As WhatsApp restricts the number of participants per group, each number is used to set up multiple groups, according to screenshots shared with HuffPost India. He also claimed that it has systems in place to beat WhatsApp’s automated checks (mostly).

Screenshots shared by a source show us how Sarv’s dashboard works. This image shows messages sent on December 13, the day before the Gujarat polls.

A useful set of dashboards helps users keep track of all the phone numbers associated with a particular campaign, the number of WhatsApp groups each of these phone numbers is part of, and the number of messages sent, received, and read by group numbers.

The dashboards also track the number of replies to their messages, giving a sense of engagement levels within each group. The messages can be sent out on an automated schedule, to make the messaging service more efficient.

For the BJP’s Gujarat campaign for instance, Sarv created multiple WhatsApp groups for each constituency, and then created special campaigns to deliver tens of thousands of WhatsApp messages across thousands of WhatsApp groups on December 13, 2017 — one day before the final day of polling.

“Too many messages with the same content all over India is bad,” the Sarv employee said. “You need to customise your message for different groups, to do it without any problems.” The billed cost per message, the employee said, was about 18 paise (a quarter of a US cent).

Screenshots shared by a source show us how Sarv’s dashboard works. This image shows the different groups and metadata about messages delivered.

It’s important to point out that Sarv isn’t the only company offering Whatsapp-based bulk-messaging, and the BJP isn’t the only client. Most political parties today, and many private companies use the service, while media houses have been exploring ways to connect with their readers over WhatsApp — which is itself rolling out “business accounts”.

Companies that use business accounts can set up automatic welcome messages, quick replies, and more, but it’s also very transparent. So far, WhatsApp has not extended business accounts to political parties, and does not verify political accounts, which leaves an opportunity for companies like Sarv.

Yet the Sarv service, as it stands, violates WhatsApp policies, and — in the context of election campaigning — reveals how political parties can reach out to voters without any oversight from traditional watchdogs like the Election Commission.

In the course of this election, HuffPost India peeked into a BJP supporter’s WhatsApp inbox to find a chilling selection of messages that seemed to cross the legal boundary between political expression and hate speech. HuffPost India couldn’t establish who these messages were originally sent by, but their content illustrates how easy it is to spread hate on Facebook.

For instance, one message sent on polling day in the first phase of the elections said, “Residents of Meerut, this is the last appeal.... you will find blood and flesh in your water tanks and taps... if you vote for the lover of slaughterhouses.”
WhatsApp Wallas

The BJP has invested a great deal of time and energy in harvesting millions of WhatsApp numbers of potential voters. Websites linked to the party ask potential voters to share their phone numbers, to be added to BJP groups.

For instance a website called Modi11, run by the Association For Billion Minds — the party’s in house political consultancy, asks volunteers to share their phone numbers with the party, and also offers WhatsApp “status downloads” that allow supporters to replace their WhatApp display photos with their favourite Modi photo (really).

The party has also employed an army of paid consultants to harvest the phone numbers of constituency level WhatsApp influencers, and plug their numbers into a centrally administered Google spreadsheet.

BJP office bearers have often spoken of the importance of social media platforms. In an interview with the Economic Times, Amit Malviya, head of BJP’s IT cell, said, “The upcoming elections will be fought on the mobile phone. In a way, you could say they would be WhatsApp elections.”

Data harvesting strategies like these have allowed the party to build a vast databank that can then be handed over to private vendors like Sarv, who can then unleash a barrage of propaganda.

WhatsApp has tried to curb the misuse of its platform by running public awareness campaigns about fake news, ads in print and television besides on video platforms like YouTube. It has also made a number of changes such as limiting the number of people you can forward a message to, added a tip-line for fake news, and improved privacy settings for groups.

But ultimately each of these measures are unlikely to prevent well-financed political parties, who just happen to run the government, from misusing the platform.

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How Modi, Shah Turned A Women’s NGO Into A Secret Election Propaganda Machine

The Association of Billion Minds is Amit Shah’s personal election unit, recommending election candidates, running Nation with NaMo and creating fake news sites.

By Samarth Bansal
Gopal Sathe
Rachna Khaira
Aman Sethi

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see also:

The Telegraph,

The curious case of NaMo TV

The EC appears to have woken up to its responsibilities after 12 days but the transgressions have already been committed
By Jawhar Sircar
Published 16.04.19