"If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes accepted as truth," these words are attributed to the Nazi Joseph Goebbels. And they hold relevance even today as we witness a sharp rise in mis/disinformation.
While the dangers of fake news, malformation, mis/disinformation, manipulated content are well known, the problem increases manifold when the source of such falsehoods are people in power, whose voices are amplified way more than verified news.
Political parties, politicians are often caught peddling rumours and falsehoods for reasons best known to them. But with the influence they have, combined with the power of IT cells, false narratives get amplified and reach hundreds of thousands of people.
Between 1 January to 24 December 2021, The Quint’s WebQoof team fact-checked at least 123 claims made by politicians and political parties cutting across political lines.
These claims were about a host of issues including COVID-19, state elections, farmers' protest among others.
Based on our sample, we saw that the most claims were related to parties/politicians relying on misinformation for propaganda. 73 percent of our fact-checks fall under this category.
And most often, despite fact-checks, politicians neither delete such false claims, nor issue a correction.
We analysed all these claims and categorised them into broad themes/narratives. Based on the fact-checks that we have done, we will attempt to elaborate on the following points:
What was the most predominant narrative?
What kind of misinformation was shared?
Who were the ones sharing it?
What Was the Most Predominant Narrative?
We broadly categorised our data into five major themes:
Propaganda: False claims that promoted ones idea or party, or those that targeted others.
Communal: False claims that targeted or criticised other religions and communities.
Science: Claims that had little to no scientific backing, including claims related to COVID-19.
Nationalism: Claims that relied on misinformation to promote a certain idea of the nation.
Others: Claims that do not fall under any of the above categories.
Of the 123 fact-checks, we found that 74 percent (nearly 90 fact-checks) of the false claims shared fell under the category of propaganda.
Leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dominated this category, as 58 percent of the stories under this category were shared by BJP members, followed by Congress, whose leaders shared 25 percent of them.
We noticed that all of the false claims (which we fact-checked) shared by the All-India Trinamool Congress (TMC) fell under the theme of propaganda.
Notably, these claims were made during March and April, during polling for the West Bengal Assembly Elections.
The second most dominant theme was related to 'communal claims'.
Close to 11 percent of the total stories fall under this category. Leaders of the BJP such as Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, IT Cell Head Amit Malviya shared inaccurate claims which had Islamophobic undertones.
Owing to the ongoing pandemic, we found that leaders also peddled misinformation related to science and COVID-19.
3.3 percent fact-checks fell under this category, followed by politicians sharing mis/disinformation which invoked sentiments related to nationalism which accounts for 2.4 percent of the total sample.
For instance: Several leaders, including BJP minister from Madhya Pradesh Usha Thakur made unscientific claims on the using cow urine, cow dung and other products to protect oneself from COVID.
Such claims aren't just unscientific but health experts argue that using such substances can lead to other infections.
It must be be noted that there were certain fact-checks that fell in more than one category.
What Kind of Misinformation Was Shared?
To classify these pieces of misinformation shared by politicians, we followed First Draft’s categorisation of misinformation:
Satire: No intention to cause harm, but can potentially fool.
Misleading content: Misleading use of content to frame an individual or issue.
Imposter content: Genuine sources are impersonated.
Fabricated content: Content that is 100 percent false and is meant to deceive and do harm.
False connection: When text or visuals do not support the content being shared
False context: When genuine information is shared with a false context.
Manipulated content: When genuine information or imagery is manipulated to deceive.
From a total of 123 stories, 30.9 percent of the content shared was misleading in nature. This means that text and visuals were used in a manner which showed a set of individuals, events or groups in a bad light, which could potentially mislead a person.
One such claim was one in February, in which then Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting Prakash Javadekar said in the Lok Sabha, that "nobody was deprived of education and online education.”
Javadekar’s statement contradicted the government’s own report which highlighted a stark digital divide among students in India.
Approximately 55 percent of all false claims made by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) fell under this category.
26.8 percent of claims were shared with a false context, while 18.7 percent of claims were fabricated, meaning that these claims were completely untrue.
Claims which relied on morphed or clipped visuals made up 13 percent of all stories and a little over 8 percent of the stories shared old, but true content as recent incidents.
Such content is often shared to put down another individual, cause or party, and can be used to set false narratives regarding events or issues.
1.6 percent of the claims were categorised as ‘Imposter content’ and had stories wherein politicians responded to, or shared content that was published by fake Twitter accounts.
Who Were the Ones Sharing it?
In our sample of 123 stories, we found that members of the BJP shared nearly 60 percent of the mis/disinformation, followed by the Congress party leaders who shared 24.2 percent of all claims.
Here, we saw that certain claims were shared by several leaders of the same party. For instance, a photograph of Beijing’s Daxing airport was shared by at least five BJP leaders — four Members of Parliament and one Member of Legislative Council — in November, claiming that it showed the new Noida International Airport in Jewar, Uttar Pradesh.
‘Other’ parties — which includes the Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Lok Dal, Shiromani Akali Dal, among others — shared 6.1 percent of all claims.
We also noticed that while AAP made 6.8 percent of the claims, half of them came from Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal himself.
Several government handles like Ministry of Ayush, the Prime Minister's Office and radio programme Mann Ki Baat also shared misinformation at some point. Though they don't fall under the category of politicians or political parties.
While there is a growing internet user base, relatively low digital literacy makes it difficult for people to verify information at a personal level and when people in power, such as politicians, share mis/disinformation it makes it even more difficult for people to sift fact from fake.
(Data visualisations by Meghnad Bose)
(Editor's Note: The purpose of this piece is to highlight the mis/disinformation trends of 2021 to better understand the problem of fake news. It is based solely on the fact-checks done by The Quint in the said period and is not a comprehensive study based on all the misinformation shared/spread by politicians or parties.)