When Amit Shah talks about social media we must listen with great attention. After all this is the man under whose watch the BJP's social media strategy has become the envy of all political parties.
Thus it is with some bemusement that we hear Amit Shah tell the youth of Gujarat to not fall prey to WhatsApp and Facebook propaganda.
If they took him at his word, much would be different in India today. Dadri. Muzaffarnagar. Basirhat.
If they took him at his word, much would be different in India today. Dadri. Muzaffarnagar. Basirhat. All those stories of riots and lynchings would have panned out differently. Some would have been nipped in the bud. Some would not have even taken off. Some would have never been ballooned into a full-fledged conflagration.
A WhatsApp video of two boys being beaten helped set off the 2013 riots in Muzaffarnagar. That the video was two years old was discovered later. By then at least 60 people were dead and 50,000 homeless.
In Dadri, an ironsmith was lynched and slaughtered on suspicion that he had eaten a cow. HuffPost India found that for many who were involved, the clinching proof was a WhatsApp forward of three photographs of meat and bones. The Additional District Magistrate said the authenticity of the photographs was not verified but it did not matter. Almost everyone in the village had the images on their phones.
After a Facebook post that Muslims found blasphemous triggered a clash in Basirhat, images of the 2002 riots in Gujarat were passed off as 2017 Bashirhat on WhatsApp and Facebook to inflame passions. A BJP spokesperson used one of those images to call for protests at Jantar Mantar.
Fake news does not always cause riots. It can just help deepen polarization. A Guatemalan mob beating up a woman becomes a Marwari woman being beaten up by Muslim men. The murder of an Awami League leader in Bangladesh is passed off as a Hindu man being killed by Muslims in Bihar with the message: "Share this video so much that it reaches Narendra Modi. If you are a true Hindu, then forward it." When Pakistan defeated India in the Champions trophy final, videos of Indian Muslims celebrating did the rounds of social media though they were fake. One was old. The other was from Karachi.
Bhardwaj says a BJP IT cell member said their priority was to enter at least 5,000 WhatsApp groups before the elections.
WhatsApp news can help deliver votes as well. Amit Bhardwaj of NewsLaundry analysed the role of smartphones in the recent elections in UP and quotes a hardcore Akhilesh Yadav supporter who switched to the BJP after getting WhatsApp messages about a Hindu girl abducted in Kashmir. Bhardwaj says a BJP IT cell member said their priority was to enter at least 5,000 WhatsApp groups before the elections. As it happened, by the time UP went to the polls they had access to over 9,000 groups with an average of 150 members per group.
It would be sobering to think that Shah has understood that social media is a double-edged sword and can damage as much as it can deliver. After all, the abuse of social media can prove to be a great problem for governance. WhatsApp rumours of a salt shortage caused panic in November 2016. During demonetization the government had to scramble to debunk many conspiracy theories about GPS chips in Rs 2000 notes that popped up all over the internet. Modi himself once had to debunk a story which claimed he had urged Indians to boycott firecrackers made in China.
Alas, Shah is merely concerned about "anti-BJP propaganda" on social media.
He told the youth at the Gujarat townhall, "I appeal to the youth not to blindly believe the anti-BJP propaganda being spread on WhatsApp and Facebook... I want you to apply your mind before believing what is being circulated in WhatsApp. "
If only his party's karyakartas were as diligent about all social media propaganda. The great bane of social media is we seem to tweet first, think later.
If only his party's karyakartas were as diligent about all social media propaganda. The great bane of social media is we seem to tweet first, think later. And many of the BJP's trigger-happy internet warriors are prone to that. Thus Paresh Rawal creates a row by lambasting Arundhati Roy for a quote she never made. But it made the internet warriors happy to have yet another reason to beat up on Roy.
Amit Malaviya posted a picture of Rahul Gandhi with Nirankari Baba as a way to prove that he too was hobnobbing with Gurmeet Ram Rahim. Sambit Patra has fallen prey to fake news tweeting a Times of Islamabad story on Modi's Make in India programme. Meenakshi Lekhi has fallen to a fake news story about UNESCO judging Jana Gana Mana as the best anthem in the world.
The BJP's social media strategy has been the great beneficiary of many of these forwards. It has benefited mightily from doctored photographs like the one of Narendra Modi sweeping the floor during an RSS rally in 1988 which turned out to have been doctored. Or the BJP might brag "major diplomatic success of PM Modi" on Twitter saying its efforts led to the UAE government seizing Dawood Ibrahim's property. Later intelligence sources said these reports were baseless.
All parties want a piece of the social media pie.
All parties want a piece of the social media pie. Other parties are no saints. It's just that BJP has stolen quite a march in the social media wars. The BJP and its like-minded fraternity of organizations are the indisputable leaders. A Hindu Sena leader told BuzzFeed News he is part of more than 50 right-wing WhatsApp groups and sends thousands of forwards around the country every day.
With end-to-end encryption, WhatsApp is the ideal choice for spreading conspiracy theories, fake news alongside jokes and Good Morning messages with blooming flowers. It exists inside its own pre-fabricated echo chamber largely away from prying eyes. But the social media battle happens on all fronts. Krishna Prasad, former editor-in-chief of Outlook remembers a social media strategist asking at a meeting with BJP politicians "What have you gotten to trend on Twitter today?"
While we are happy to jump on mainstream media for paid news, many of us are quite unaware that we consume and forward "paid" hashtags on Twitter everyday.
"A dangerous online army of lakhs is following us, which is not even in our control."
But Shah has no interest in reining in these demons for they are working quite well for his party for now. He is only concerned about stamping out anti-BJP propaganda. Luckily for him, few parties can take on that social media army as yet. But it is playing with fire if we truly have a fake news vs fake news war.
While he was proud at the success of social media in the UP elections, BJP's UP IT cell member Mukteshwar Mishra also warned: "A dangerous online army of lakhs is following us, which is not even in our control."
What happens if a Frankenstein's monster grown humungous on its steady diet of fake news one day turns on its master?