As Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Manipur, and Uttarakhand geared up for Assembly elections in 2021 (to be held in 2022), voters saw robust campaigning by political parties and leaders in the months ahead of the beginning of polling.
While usually used to share party messaging with the masses, social media was also used to push large amounts of misinformation by policies parties, leaders, party supporters etc to sway the voters.
The Quint’s WebQoof analysed 109 of its fact-checks published between July 2021 and 15 March 2022, focusing on the narratives that were built using mis/disinformation around the five state Assembly elections.
As per our dataset, we saw that claims regarding Assembly elections had been circulating since mid-2021, but the volume of these claims rose significantly around December.
In this report we will elaborate on the following points based on our analysis:
What kind of narratives were built?
Who shared this misinformation and who was targeted?
What type of media was used the most to push misinformation?
Narratives Around Assembly Elections
Of the 109 stories we examined for this report, a whopping 67.8 percent (74 stories) were categorised under ‘propaganda’, where we saw claims that were blatantly false or exaggerated, in order to:
Either portray a political leader, party or a movement in a favourable light
Target the Opposition
We noticed that claims under this category were targeting (or supporting) politicians cutting across party lines.
For instance: Indian National Congress shared a video from Rajasthan, which showed police personnel falling down on a waterlogged street claiming it to be from Uttar Pradesh. The claim took a dig at Yogi Adityanath and the state of development.
While many Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders shared a photograph of a dam in Andhra Pradesh, claiming it to be from UP to hail the saffron party.
The second major category, as per our dataset, was that of 'communal' narratives. This was nearly 10 percent (11 stories) of our sample.
Of these, we saw that 45 percent (five fact-checks) of the stories here targeted the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, with claims such as a large number of mosques being built under Akhilesh Yadav’s leadership in Uttar Pradesh.
Another ten percent of the stories fell under the category of ‘mud-slinging’. These were claims intending to target individuals or parties.
For example, a video claiming that BJP MP Ravi Kishan raised an issue with the smell of sweat of Dalits was shared massively ahead of the elections, however, he was speaking to and about his staff members in the car and not about the Dalit community.
We also noticed older videos of 'allegations of voter fraud' re-emerged during this polling season.
This formed 5.5 percent of our data set, while claims by politicians on government's performance were 3.6 percent of our fact-checks.
The lone story under 'History' category was a claim made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi about Goa's Portuguese occupation and the Mughal empire in India while speaking at an event in the state.
While most claims could be successfully categorised under one type, 24 fact-checks (22 percent) saw claims being classified under more than one category.
For instance, a video of a march where pro-Khalistan slogans were raised was shared falsely claiming to show Punjab's situation under the Aam Aadmi Party fell under the 'communal' category due to the separatist slogan angle.
It was also categorised under 'propaganda' as the video was originally from a rally taken out to mourn the demise of Punjabi actor and activist Deep Sidhu and was taken before AAP's election win.
Who Shared the Most Misinformation? Who Was Targeted the Most?
Political parties and leaders also played a major role in peddling misinformation.
Among well-known parties and leaders, 68.75 percent (10 from BJP leaders and one from UP government) of claims came from BJP and its leaders including party spokesperson Sambit Patra, Home Minister Amit Shah, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and even Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
For example, while BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra had shared pictures of a dilapidated school from BJP's tenure to criticise the Samajwadi Party, Home Minister Amit Shah and CM Yogi turned blind eye to facts while praising the governance in Uttar Pradesh.
Samajwadi Party and Congress finished off with a tie at 11.8 percent.
SP chief Akhilesh Yadav had shared a video on Twitter, claiming booth capturing in UP’s Kunda, however, the video was taken inside a polling booth in Haryana during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The tweet was later taken down.
Jumping into the misinformation peddling race, several Congress party accounts used photos of BJP Government’s 'Pink Bus' scheme for the campaign in Punjab.
Similarly, specifically, we noticed that in our fact-checks, we had 15 stories where leaders were directly targeted.
Of these, five claims (33.3 percent) targeted Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav, and most of these were communal in nature.
The Aam Aadmi Party was also targeted in two stories, one of which showed an edited photo of party leader Kejriwal sitting in front of a liquor shop with Punjab’s now-Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann.
What Kind of Media Was Used the Most? Old Images, Videos?
We also looked at what kind of media was used to propagate misinformation.
Here, we found that nearly half (50.5 percent or 55 stories) of all stories contained videos that were shared to make false or misleading claims, followed closely by photographic claims, which comprised 41.2 percent (45 stories) of all fact-checks.
The statements made by politicians fall under the ‘Neta Fact-Check’ category and form a four percent of the sample set.
Two fact-checks (1.8 percent) fell under the categories of newspaper clippings or mixed (photo and video) media claims each.
We have categorised one story as a text claim. This was a WhatsApp message that made unfounded statements regarding the destruction of temples and Hindu killings under the Samajwadi Party’s governance in Uttar Pradesh.
We further analysed the media and found that most claims were made using old videos and edited photos, i.e. as per our data, 26 stories were old videos passed off as recent, while 19 stories saw edited photos being shared with a false claim.
Social media has become a breeding ground for misinformation and with the amount of claims floating around, it gets tricky for laypeople to sift the truth from all the clutter.
And when it comes to elections, false, and misleading information regarding political parties and leaders is likely to influence people as they cast their votes.
So even as you rely on social media for most of your information, be sure of what you believe in and what you don't.
(Editor's Note: The purpose of this piece is to highlight the mis/disinformation trends in claims seen ahead of the 2022 Assembly elections in five states to better understand the problem of fake news. It is based solely on the fact-checks done by The Quint in the said period.)
(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)