Fake news is undermining poll processes in Britain, India

Personal experience suggests Ravi Shankar Prasad is having difficulty in controlling what is happening in his own backyard. Social media are most frequently misused by posting fake news

columns Updated: May 20, 2018 17:28 IST
Fake News,UK,India
A polling staff tallies the candidates’ names on the Electronic Voting Machines, Bengaluru, May 11, 2018(Arijit Sen/HT Photo)

There have been many occasions when the fissiparous tendencies of Indian political parties and their members’ willingness to abandon loyalties and adjust principles have made me wonder whether the party system can survive in Indian democracy. In Britain over the last month I have witnessed strains in British democracy, which amount to a civil war within the two main parties, Labour and Conservative, over the arrangements to be made for leaving Europe.

The Conservative foreign minister Boris Johnson has written a newspaper article telling the Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May her plan for exiting from Europe is “crazy”. But she has so little control over the war, which has spread to her cabinet, that she didn’t feel secure enough to take any action over this open flouting of her authority. There are revolts too against the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Both parties are divided on the issue of whether Britain should retain a custom’s link with Europe. May wants a link but her opponents say that would be “a denial of the peoples voice,” which they maintain spoke for a total break with Europe.

Now the very validity of the Brexit vote is being challenged on two fronts. New evidence released by the US Congress suggests that adverts targeted at British Facebook users paid for in Russian roubles by the Irish Republican Army, the IRA, were released in the run-up to the referendum. The British Electoral Commission has also found the accounts of the Leave EU Campaign reveal it was guilty of multiple breaches of the electoral law, The commission has referred its chief executive to the police.

These two question marks hanging over the British referendum lead me back to Indian politics. The information technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has warned that India too could face problems similar to Britain’s problem with Facebook, which would undermine Indian elections and issued this threat: “In the wake of recent data theft from Facebook let my warning be heard across the Atlantic far away in California. Any covert or overt attempt to misuse Social Media, including Facebook, to influence India’s electoral processes through undesirable means will neither be tolerated nor permitted.”

But is Ravi Shankar Prasad overestimating his power to reach across oceans? Personal experience suggests he is having difficulty in controlling what is happening in his own backyard. Social media are most frequently misused by posting fake news. For several years now two fake despatches, purported to have been written by me have been appearing and still are appearing in e-mail in-boxes. One despatch is an offensive attack on Sonia Gandhi and the other is an over-the-top endorsement of Narendra Modi. When he was information and broadcasting minister Venkaiah Naidu rang me to ask whether I had written the Modi despatch. I denied it and complained that although I had made several representations to the government there was no evidence of any action having been taken. The minister replied: “We are having a problem with fake news too.”

Pratik Sinha of the anti-propaganda site Alt News has told me that the government has taken no action against fake news beyond putting out a circular, which was seen as threatening journalists. Alt News has documented 13 examples of fake news relating to the Karnataka election. Amit Malviya, head of the BJP IT’s cell admitted there was an impression that political parties put out fake news but he maintained his party did not falsify news. When I asked him why then there was so much fake news on social media he replied: “There are enough statutes to prevent this. There is a need for better enforcement, and a higher level of awareness and responsibility.” Whatever the need, there is no doubt that fake news has been undermining the fairness of both India and Britain’s electoral processes. As for the fraudulent accounting in the British referendum, it is estimated contestants in the Karnataka elections spent Rs 10,000 crore. How many crore were accounted for?

The views expressed are personal

First Published: May 19, 2018 18:11 IST