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Media industry stalwarts discuss how misinformation can affect elections at SFLC.in

According to the panelists misinformation takes a larger shape during elections and hence more concrete policies are needed to empower the fact-checkers who tackle this.

SFLC.in, a legal activist organisation that works on issues of digital freedom, organised a panel event titled “Ballots and Bots: Elections 2024 in a Digital World” at the India International Centre in New Delhi on March 7 where two panels discussed the effect of misinformation and AI on elections. The first panel was named ‘Truth or Tale: Misinformation During Elections” featuring Pratik Sinha, co-founder of fact-checking organisation AltNews, Mmhonlumo Kikon, advisor to the Nagaland government on information technology, Karen Rebelo, deputy editor at fact-checking organisation BoomLive, Vineet Kumar, a media analyst and assistant professor at Delhi University and Jasmine Shah, a leader in the Aam Aadmi Party.

The panellists debated the effects of misinformation on voter behaviour and its implications for democracy. 

Misinformation on apps and the necessity of fact-checking

According to panellist Karen Rebelo, the biggest peddlers of misinformation are political parties and election times see the most amount of misinformation. She described it as a feature and not a bug. She gave examples of doctored videos, cropped or photoshopped images, fake polls and more recently AI-generated fake news and misinformation. She pointed out that fake news was a lot easier to create now as the widespread proliferation of AI allowed anyone to create deep fakes or voice clones. 

Rebelo emphasised on the dangers to democracy that widespread misinformation could pose. “The way young people are consuming the news is mainly through the apps,” said the fact checker “And those platforms are very problematic in the way they have been built. It’s dangerous to think that their ideas about the country and issues in the world in general are being shaped by what they are coming across on social media.” She stated that the fight cannot be fought by fact-checkers alone, but needs the support of governments, academics and other citizens. 

Pratik Sinha concurred and pointed out that the amount of hate speech spread during elections has increased. He drew attention to the societal transformation that accompanied this change, with calls for disenfranchisement of minorities becoming increasingly normalised. Misinformation served to manipulate the general population and polarise the masses. The lack of initiatives in media literacy exacerbates the situation, leaving fact-checkers feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge. He called for governments to take action as small fact-checkers had few resources in comparison. 

Sinha also insisted on being explicit about those responsible for spreading misinformation, naming BJP national IT cell convenor Amit Malviya in his speech. He also believed that the BJP was more responsible for misinformation in India. He warned that unless policy makers move to curb fake news, India would regress.

Misinformation not affecting elections?

On the other hand, Mmhonlumo Kikon argued that misinformation does not sway voter behaviour significantly. According to him, elections are primarily focused on local issues and candidates’ performance and agendas for their constituencies and sweeping statements against parties or governments may overlook their efforts and achievements. The Election Commission acknowledges the dangers of fake news and misinformation, taking steps to address them, including implementing the model code of conduct. Micro-level concerns, such as fulfilling promises made to individual households, play a significant role in voter decision-making, particularly in rural areas. Political parties often focus on communicating their achievements and promises at the grassroots level, such as providing tap water to households under initiatives like Jaljeevan, which can influence voter behaviour. He also felt that any policy measures against fake news should apply to all political parties.

Jasmine Shah spoke about the suppression of dissent and free expression. Legitimate news reports and information are often suppressed through defamation notices and takedown requests, even when no formal orders are issued. He gave the example of Arvind Kejriwal’s retweet of allegations regarding BJP IT cell operations, leading to defamation suits rather than investigations into the claims. He felt that BJP-associated figures and even investigative agencies were responsible for the spread of misinformation without any repercussions. 

The new era of journalism and media literacy

For Vineet Kumar, the media is giving rise to a new generation of ‘post-illiterate community’ who do not care for or trust the education they received. They believe that their educational institutions or teachers have lied to them about history. He also characterised the present era of journalism as “Error 404” journalism, where established journalists were deleting their earlier reporting and emphasised on finding the beneficiaries of widespread misinformation.

The panellists discussed the possibility of a ‘media literacy’ educational program in school. Sinha stated that AltNews was working towards building a curriculum to be implemented in schools from class seven to nine. However, Kumar argued fake news was spread even by educated individuals in order to “create a narrative”. He stated that for as long as peddlers of misinformation were glorified instead of being punished, misinformation would still spread. 

The panel discussion comes at a time when the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeiTY), under the Press Information Bureau (PIB), was working towards the creation of a Fact-Checking Unit which would direct intermediaries to remove any content deemed ‘fake’ or ‘false’. Concerns were raised about the possible impact on free speech and political discourse during an election year. 

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