India’s online freedom is threatened by political parties using 'armies' to spread misinformation

Activists supporting the group Anonymous wear masks as they protest against the Indian Government's increasingly restrictive regulation of the internet in 2012BCCL

  • India scored 55 on a scale of 100 which measures freedom on the internet.
  • According to Freedom House's annual report, the Indian elections were only 'partly free'.
  • The report alleges the BJP and Congress employed 'armies' to spread misinformation and propaganda during the general election earlier this year.
Internet freedom around the world is declining, and India is no exception. Digital authoritarianism and unregulated areas of social media are being used to distort politics and implement societal control.

"Leading political parties deployed bots and armies of volunteers to spread misinformation and propaganda," according to ' Freedom on the Net' annual report.

It rates the Indian election as only being 'partly free', giving India a score of 55 out of 100 in terms of its freedom online.

During the 2019 general election in India, the primary national candidates — the Bharatiya Janata Party ( BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC) — used WhatsApp and Facebook to push their message. The BJP deployed an estimated 1.2 million 'die-hard supporters' versus Congress' 800,000 to create misinformation and then spread it online.

According to the report, social media — which was once the flag bearer for free speech and leveled the playing field for civic discussion — is taking away fundamental freedoms of individuals.

The 'NaMo' app

"Millions of users were flooded with misleading and inflammatory content on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's NaMo app, which had been marketed to all Indians as a way to keep up with official government news,” according to Freedom House.

The investigation shows that 1.3 million cadets with the India National Cadet Corps were encouraged to download the app by their superiors.

But the app is not impartial. It's owned by Modi and operated by the BJP.

Other than the ingrained bias, a researcher revealed that the Namo app was exploiting user data and sending personal information to a behavioural analytics company.

Shaping public opinion

Political leaders employed agencies and individuals to reshape online opinions in many countries, including India.

These agencies work like online trolls with the purpose of creating political unrest. They build large audiences around similar interests but lace their political message with false or inflammatory content to incite a reaction — and they do so across multiple platforms simultaneously.

Freedom House found that the rise of populism and far-right extremism has grown at the same time as hyperpartisan online mobs.

Another report by BBC Research points to hypernationalism being the main driving force behind India's fake news menace.

Social surveillance

Even before the elections, the right to freedom was curtailed by individuals who spoke out against the ruling party being accused of sedition. Others were detained for violating the National Security Act. Between 2017 to 2018, 50 such arrests were made.

Recently, the government is being called out for 'snooping' on its citizens using NSO Group's spyware, Pegasus. This is the same software Facebook is accusing of being behind the WhatsApp hack in May.

Earlier this week, Google, Facebook and Twitter were ordered by the Delhi High Court to remove all defamatory posts to do with Ramdev — not just in India but anywhere globally. Experts are worried that this sets a dangerous precedent of removing content posted online without any geographical limits.

According to the report, India will also be one of the attendees of the Dubai Trade Show 2020 where companies will showcase their solutions for social media surveillance. One of them — Knowlesys, a Chinese company — will be demonstrating how its technology can monitor messages, profiles and locations of a group of targets, including how to 'monitor public opinion for the election'.

Another company called Semptian charges between $1.5 million to $2.5 million to monitor the online activities of five billion people.

As the applications of artificial intelligence (AI) improve — so does the extent for surveillance.

See also:
Hyper-nationalism behind India's fake news menace: Report



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