Hate Speech, Trolls and Elections: A Nefarious Nexus
Social media has been a buzzword for the Lok Sabha Elections of 2019. It had a huge role to play in determining the fate of elections in the USA which was visible after the disclosure of Cambridge Analytica Scandal.[i] The Indian elections have also been affected by social media and it has been responsible for swaying people’s opinion one way or the other. From January 1, 2019 to May 23, 2019, Twitter recorded 396 million conversations for Lok Sabha elections and this was 600% more than what was observed in 2014.[ii] Furthermore, from February to June 2019, Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) had spent a total of over 4 Crores on advertising on Facebook while the Indian National Congress (INC) had spent over 1 crore for the same.[iii]
The political parties in the country have not shied away from using these platforms to get an edge over other parties but the ways so adopted have not all been ethical and rather Machiavellian as trolls, hate speech and propaganda are unethical means to achieve ambitious political goals as against rational and constructive speeches to gain favour of the public. They have led to an increased amount of fake content and flow of misinformation and disinformation.[iv] With the coming of Elections, the flow of misinformation and disinformation shoots up with the spread of fake news[v] and hate speech, memes and trolls add fuel to the fire. Such mediums adversely impact first time voters and people who are new to the internet facilities and are uneducated, and render them vulnerable to propaganda and misinformation[vi].
Elimination of Gatekeeping
The rise of trolls, hate speech and fake news can be highly attributed to the elimination of gatekeeping to a large extent. The use of social media has increased the direct contact between the candidates and the public thereby increasing public participation in this democratic society.[vii] However, this has led to a complete foreclosure of any sort of gatekeeping[viii] hitherto effectively performed by the news agencies. Gatekeeping concerns the function of controlling, mediating or filtering of information for dissemination[ix], but through social media sites, the role of gatekeeping played by the news agencies in filtering the relevant and important news is no longer possible and the parties can feed whatever they wish to feed to the public without any check.
Direct communications through platforms like Facebook and Twitter eliminates gatekeeping and this restricts the elimination or filtration of fake or irrelevant information. All such information flows without any restriction or check to the public which may easily brainwash their minds. It is in such manners that fake news and trolls lead to spread of misinformation and disinformation.[x] The people believe what they see and cast their vote in accordance with the information so received so if #MainBhiChowkidar becomes trending, people tilt in Modi’s favour while #ChowkidarChorHai gains traction, the tilt shifts to the other side. This would be difficult if gatekeepers are allowed to function effectively since only relevant information would come to the fore and not unnecessary propagandist policies. As philosopher Stephen Lukes puts it, this enables the exercise of the third face of power- the power of domination and manipulation which leads to development of a ‘false consciousness’[xi] among the people which is based on unchecked and unverified news instead of reason and rationale. In this light, the impact of hate speech, trolls and propaganda can be understood as below.
Social media has been instrumental rather negatively in the dissemination of hate speech[xii] which can be defined as an effort to marginalise individuals based on their membership in a group[xiii] and expressing hatred of a particular group of people.[xiv] This dissemination becomes dangerous during the time of elections since hate speech is an extremely powerful medium of changing popular opinion against a community as even the basis of hate speech is the ‘politics of hate’.
The laws involved[xv] to prevent hate speech include provisions from the Indian Penal Code[xvi] and the Representation of People Act, 1950[xvii]. These laws exist but their implementation has not been effective and surprisingly, deletion of certain sections is on the cards like Section 124A.[xviii] The recent case of Abhiram Singh v. C.D. Commachen[xix] clearly highlighted that there can be no appeals based on the grounds of religion, race, caste, community etc. and designated it as a corrupt electoral practice. This was in light of protecting national unity and for giving a broad interpretation to Section 123(3) of the RPA.
Social media is a powerful tool in the normalising of hate speech against minority groups. Islamophobic content was the biggest source of hate speech on Facebook in India, accounting for 37% of the content while fake news (16%), casteism (13 %) and gender/sexuality hate speech (13%) were the next biggest groups.[xx] In India, where there are religious tensions between the Hindus and the Muslims, hate speech during the time of elections deepens the already existing edge between the two communities. More importantly, hate speech undermines the electoral process. At the most fundamental level, elections present the opportunity to build up a nation or the risk of tearing down democracy.
The quality of election officials at the helm of Election Commission can have a profound impact in determining the effective conduct of elections[xxi]. Essentially, the Election Commission is tasked with the responsibility of conducting free and fair elections. The Election Commission portrayed this type of leadership when it banned Yogi Adityanath, Maneka Gandhi, Mayawati, and Azam Khan from campaigning[xxii] due to inciting speeches resembling hate speech. However, the problems are much more intricate with the involvement of social media in the equation. Firstly, it is difficult to enforce liability for hate speech due to the large number of users and entities disseminating it. Secondly, there is a lack of regulatory mechanism when the liability of numerous social media sites is concerned and thus restricting and filtering hate speech and propaganda by imposing intermediary liability on the social media sites becomes difficult.
Trolling can be defined as “posting of deliberately obnoxious or disruptive messages to discussion groups or other online forums simply to get a reaction from other participants”.[xxiii] These disruptive or provocative messages are quick to attract the attention of the public and thus, spread like fire. These trolls, specifically during elections, are set to mock the opposing candidates or create hate for that candidate so as to turn the odds in one’s favour. These trolls work on the concept of ‘Politics of Hate’[xxiv] i.e. they try to create hate for one so as to raise the value for the other. Thus, the voters are easily swayed by the trolls and cartoons and their minds are affected by them. In the absence of trolls, hate speech was the only resort but trolls allow for a more subtle attack on the opponent and thus, it does not incite or invite a violent reaction from the public.
For example, the meme on Congress President Mr. Rahul Gandhi saying- “Result ki baat chhodo manoranjan mein koi kami rahi ho to batao” gained a lot of traction and tried to show Mr. Gandhi as a politician only of big words and not of any constructive mindset. Various ‘pappu’ memes were targeted at the Congress President which showed him in bad light. This is the aim of trolls and memes which use the politics of hate to bring benefit for one by shedding bad light on the other.[xxv]
Russia had set up troll factories in 2016 for indulging in the American Elections of 2016 with an aim to alter the election results by manipulating the voters’ minds through trolls and media posts.[xxvi] On similar lines, political parties manage to gather bots and cyber-armies[xxvii] to influence the hashtags and create more and more re-tweets to divert the traffic on twitter so as to manipulate the wave of elections in their favour.[xxviii] All these tweets and re-tweets greatly affect the minds of individuals who seem to become a part of the wave as soon as the wave is at its crest in initial stages and it stops their own creative and pragmatic thinking. The herd mentality is forced to prevail and the majority rule reinforces itself over individual thinking and thoughts. This eclipse of rationality and pragmatism is because of the overarching spread of misinformation and disinformation through these social media platforms.
Hate speech and trolls are aggravated through the extensive online propaganda by different political parties and it is used for discrediting certain political, social, and religious groups in a bid to normalise hate. Propaganda on the other hand is used for replacing meaningful issues with issued that serve the advantage of either side. For example, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, jobs which were predicted to be a big election issue did not gain traction. Essentially, through propaganda it became a competition of cult personalities. This idea of cult personalities was spread on social media by way of disparaging propaganda in the form of memes. It is fair to say, therefore, that propaganda memes played their part in this election.[xxix]Also, terms like ‘chowkidar’ gained currency and BJP politicians used this phrase as prefix to their official twitter handles like ‘chowkidar Narendra Modi’, ‘chowkidar Amit Shah’ etc.[xxx] Also, hashtags like #MainBhiChowkidar received around 1.5 million mentions on twitter.[xxxi] This was aimed at countering the hashtag of #ChowkidarChorHai against Narendra Modi and BJP. This is also an example of propaganda.
Another dangerous aspect of propaganda is that it can be and is used to discredit political opponents. It can be in the form of false facts, news, and videos. This whole phenomenon is specifically dangerous for a democratic system because propaganda has previously been used to enable a fascist form of a government. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister for propaganda is known to be the greatest propagandist for a reason.[xxxii] It was his propaganda that normalised hate in the erstwhile Nazi Germany and gave legitimacy to the regime. Therefore, the regulation of political propaganda on social media platforms is an issue that needs to be dealt with.
Trolls, Hate Speech and Violations of the Model Code of Conduct
The Model Code of Conduct (“MCC”) is a set of guidelines issued by the Election Commission to regulate political parties and candidates prior to elections, to ensure free and fair elections.[xxxiii] The rationale behind the MCC is to create a level playing field for all political parties in an election. It is understood that the incumbent government has an advantage by creating policies which could lure voter groups. Therefore, in 1979, the Election Commission added a section to regulate the ‘party in power’ to prevent it from gaining an unfair advantage at the time of elections[xxxiv]. Clause VII(4) of the MCC on the Party in Power[xxxv] prohibits the use of using the official mass media for advertising the party in power. However, with the advent of social media, the ‘party in power’ clause has failed to serve the purpose with which it was introduced. The need for official mass media for publicity is barely needed when it comes to social media. The ruling party can easily advertise under the guise of a normal citizen and circumvent the MCC requirements.
Therefore in the new age of social media, where the ways of advertising are changing, a thorough overhaul of the MCC is required to meet with the changing political realities.
Impact on the First Time Voters
Lastly, considering the impact of social media on the first time voters, India witnessed 15 million first time voters in the 2019 election.[xxxvi] These are a voter group who have witnessed the evolution of social media and represent a significant portion of all social media users. With the significant increase in fake news and propaganda shared on social media[xxxvii], the Gen Z is an impressionable group. The staggering number of first time voters suggests that they are a group where political interests lie. Moreover, this is a group that will make the bulk of future voters. The spread of fake news and propaganda in order to garner their political affiliation creates a long-term problem for the political order of India. Since minority groups are being demonised through the spread of such fake news and propaganda, the long-term political exclusion of such minority groups becomes a reality with the targeted influence on these first time voters.
In a time where fake news is perverse and hate speech is normalised, the political environment is already unhealthy. When these first time voters are bred in such an environment, the cost that could be paid for it could very well be the democratic character of the political setup.
The social media platforms and the increasing trolls, hate speech and propaganda has aimed at diverting the traffic and people’s minds to impeccable pictures thereby forcing them to overlook the blemished ones. The 2014 Lok Sabha Election was dubbed as Twitter Election[xxxviii], the year 2016 was the “Year of Political Troll”[xxxix], and the recent 2019 Lok Sabha Election as “Whatsapp Elections”[xl]. It is difficult to imagine what the next Lok Sabha Election will turn out to be given the snowballing social media impact on the voters.
Given the impact galore of these platforms and the fact that they are here to stay, ways need to be devised to counter the spread of misinformation and disinformation and to introduce some sort of gatekeeping at least during the times of elections. The people should be aware enough to be able to differentiate between fake news and facts having veracity. More and more application of mind and reason is the need of the hour rather than thoughtless forwarding of messages and spreading of fake news. Also, the Model Code of Conduct needs to be revamped so as to tackle the social media challenges.
Recently, in the case of Tehseen S. Poonawala v. Union of India[xli], the Apex Court directed all the states to designate a senior police officer as a nodal officer of the state who shall constitute a special task force for prevention of mob lynching. The task force shall procure reports about people who are likely to be involved in spreading hate speeches or fake news. Such steps are welcome but the feasibility and practicality with respect to their aims raises serious questions. In 2018, France passed a law against fake news[xlii] and similarly in May 2019, Singapore passed a law titled “Protection from Falsehood and Manipulation Act”[xliii].The recently passed laws against fake news in Singapore and France seem to be innovative steps but yet again the privacy rights come into question when any such laws are passed. Thus, a law which protects privacy and even then fights fake news will be an open sesame against all the problems hitherto faced.
[i] Sam Meredith, ‘Here’s everything you need to know about the Cambridge Analytica scandal’, CNBC, 2018, available at- https://www.cnbc.com/2018/03/21/facebook-cambridge-analytica-scandal-everything-you-need-to-know.html (last accessed on June 14, 2019).
[ii]AnumehaChaturvedi, ‘Twitter recorded 396 million tweets for #Loksabhaelections2019’, The Economic Times, 2019, available at- https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/elections/lok-sabha/india/twitter-recorded-396-million-tweets-for-loksabhaelections2019/articleshow/69470397.cms (last accessed on June 14 2019).
[iii]Facebook Ad Library, available at- https://www.facebook.com/ads/library/?active_status=all&ad_type=all&country=IN&q=Bharatiya%20Janata%20Party%20(BJP)&view_all_page_id=121439954563203 (last accessed on June 14 2019).
[iv] Ben Collins, ‘In secret chats, trolls struggle to get Twitter disinformation campaigns off the ground’, NBC News, 2018, available at- https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/tech-news/secret-chats-trolls-struggle-get-twitter-disinformation-campaigns-ground-n931756 (last accessed on June 14, 2019).
[v]Tehseen S. Poonawala v. Union of India, (2018) 9 SCC 501.
[vi]Rishi Iyengar, ‘In India’s last election, social media was used as a tool. This time itcould become a weapon’ (2019) CNN, available athttps://edition.cnn.com/2019/03/11/tech/india-election-whatsapp-twitter-facebook/index.html (Last Accessed on 14 June 2019).
[vii]YannisTheocharis, Pablo Barbera, et. al.,‘Twitter trolls are actually hurting democracy’, The Washington Post, 2016, available at- https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/11/04/twitter-trolls-hurt-democracy-more-than-you-realize-heres-how/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.281fc0b0f5b2 (last accessed on June 14, 2019).
[viii]NurettinGüz, HayrullahYanik, et. al., “Gate Keeping and Online Journalism”, International Association of Social Science Research, 2015
[x]Bernd Carsten Stahl, “On the Difference or Equality of Information, Misinformation, and Disinformation: A Critical Research Perspective”, Informing Science Journal, 2006.
[xi]MareileWiegmann, Lukes- Three Faces of Power: Their importance for the Policy Process, 2014.
[xii] Michael S. Waltman and Ashely A. Mattheis, ‘Understanding Hate Speech’ (2017) Oxford Research Encyclopedia, available at https://oxfordre.com/communication/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228613.001.0001/acrefore-9780190228613-e-422 (Last Accessed 16 June 2019).
[xiii]PravasiBhalaiSanghatan v. Union of India, (2014) 11 SCC 477.
[xiv]Understanding Hate Speech, supra note vii.
[xv] Government of India, “Report No. 267- Hate Speech”, Law Commission of India, 2017, available at- http://lawcommissionofindia.nic.in/reports/Report267.pdf (last accessed on June 17 2019).
[xvi]The Indian Penal Code, 1860, ss. 124A,153A, 153B and 295A.
[xvii]The Representation of People Act, 1950, ss. 8, 123(3A) and 125.
[xviii]Government of India, “Consultation Paper on Sedition”, Law Commission of India, 2018, available at- http://www.lawcommissionofindia.nic.in/reports/CP-on-Sedition.pdf (last accessed on June 17 2019).
[xix]Abhiram Singh v. C.D. Commachen, (2017) 2 SCC 629.
[xx]David Gilbert, ‘Facebook in India Is Drowning in Anti-Muslim Hate Speech’,Vice News,2019, available at https://www.vice.com/en_in/article/mb8xxb/facebook-in-india-is-drowning-in-anti-muslim-hate-speech (last accessed 13 June 2019).
[xxi] Vasu Mohan, ‘Countering Hate Speech in Elections: Strategies for Electoral Management Bodies’, International Federation for Electoral Systems, 2018,available at-http://www.ifes.org/sites/default/files/2017_ifes_countering_hate_speech_white_paper_final.pdf (Last Accessed 13 June 2019).
[xxiii] McIntosh, S. and Pavlik, J. V., Converging Media: A New Introduction to Mass Communication, Oxford, New York, 2011, Oxford University Press.
[xxiv] MK Raghvendra, ‘Politics of Hate: Is it social media, or a failure of language which engenders violent responses?’,Firstpost, 2017, available at- https://www.firstpost.com/living/politics-of-hate-is-it-social-media-or-a-failure-of-language-which-engenders-violent-responses-4050855.html (last accessed on June 14 2019).
[xxv] India Today Web Desk, ‘Pappu forever: Twitter trolls Rahul Gandhi after Amethi no-show’, India Today, 2019, available at- https://www.indiatoday.in/trending-news/story/pappu-forever-twitter-trolls-rahul-gandhi-after-amethi-no-show-1532911-2019-05-23 (last accessed on June 22 2019).
[xxvi] Neil MacFarquhar, ‘Inside the Russian Troll Factory: Zombies and a Breakneck Pace’, The New York Times, 2018, available at- https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/18/world/europe/russia-troll-factory.html (last accessed on June 14, 2019).
[xxvii]Snigdha Poonam and Samarth Bansal, ‘Misinformation Is Endangering India’s Election’, The Atlantic, 2019, available at- https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2019/04/india-misinformation-election-fake-news/586123/ (last accessed on June 14 2019).
[xxviii] PTI, ‘Bots tweaking pre-election Twitter trends in India: US experts’, The Economic Times, 2019, available at- https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/tech/internet/bots-tweaking-pre-election-twitter-trends-in-india-us-experts/articleshow/68793868.cms (last accessed on June 14, 2019).
[xxix] PTI, ‘BJP marketed ‘product Modi’ well, built ‘extraordinary personality cult’: Shashi Tharoor’, The Economic Times, available at- https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/bjp-marketed-product-modi-well-built-extraordinary-personality-cult-shashi-tharoor/articleshow/69556582.cms?from=mdr (last accessed on June 17 2019).
[xxx] Nikhil Rampal, ‘BJP wins Chowkidar game on Twitter with over 1.5 million tweets’, India Today, 2019, available at- https://www.indiatoday.in/elections/lok-sabha-2019/story/bjp-chowkidar-game-twitter-1481324-2019-03-18 (last accessed on June 22 2019).
[xxxii] Dr. E. Bramsted, “Joseph Goebbels and national socialist propaganda 1926–1939: Some aspects”, 1954, Australian Outlook, Vol. 8, Issue 2.
[xxxiii]Roshni Sinha, ‘Model Code of Conduct and the 2019 General Elections’,PRS Legislative Research, (2019), available at-https://www.prsindia.org/theprsblog/model-code-conduct-and-2019-general-elections (Last accessed on 15 June 2019).
[xxxvi]BI India Bureau, ‘General Elections 2019: India expects over 15 million first-time voters in the 18-19 year age group’, Business Insider India, available at- https://www.businessinsider.in/general-elections-2019-india-expects-over-15-million-first-time-voters-in-the-18-19-year-age-group/articleshow/68353207.cms (last accessed on June 17 2019).
[xxxvii] Editors, ‘In India, Fake News Floods Social Media as Voting Begins’, Voice of America, 2019, available at https://learningenglish.voanews.com/a/in-india-fake-news-floods-social-media-as-voting-begins/4868589.html (last accessed 17th June, 2019).
[xxxviii]Raheel Khursheed, ‘India’s 2014 #Twitter Election’, Twitter Blog, available at- https://blog.twitter.com/en_in/a/2014/indias-2014-twitterelection.html (last accessed on June 14 2019).
[xxxix] The Washington Post, supra note xxvii.
[xl] Time, supra note xxiii.
[xli]Poonawala, supra note vi
[xlii] Michael-Ross Fiorentino, ‘France passes controversial ‘fake news’ law’, Euro News, 2018, available at- https://www.euronews.com/2018/11/22/france-passes-controversial-fake-news-law (last accessed on June 17 2019).
[xliii] The Protection from Falsehood and Manipulation Act, 2019 (Singapore), available at- http://www.parliament.gov.sg/docs/default-source/default-document-library/protection-from-online-falsehoods-and-manipulation-bill10-2019.pdf?sfvrsn=0 (last accessed on June 17 2019).
By Aditya Vyas, Junior Editor and Faiz Uddin Ahmad, Associate Editor.