Misinformation and Politics

In a democracy, when a politician is elected to power — it is due to their work for a specific cause, their response to the public’s demands and the speeches made by them that attract the masses towards their party or its ideology. In addition to this, a politician’s media presence plays a significant role in his/her success or failure in electoral politics. Great leaders and politicians are characterized by their oratory skills and their ability to garner the attention of the crowds towards their own agenda. The more impactful the speech, the more credibility the politician gets.

Therefore, it is apt to say that political speeches hold the potential to help a person rise out of the commons to positions of great importance. A notable example being of Barack Obama — a relatively unknown senator who went on to become the President of The United States Of America. It is said that his Keynote Address to the 2004 Democratic Convention and the 2006 Midterm election laid a strong foundation for his subsequent landmark victory in 2008.

However, the validity that is assigned to politicians and their statements comes along with its own set of drawbacks with people believing what they say without cross-checking the data with alternative sources of information. This allows the political fora to blindside the largely unaware public with information that has no basis in actuality in order further their own political agendas. Before the advent of social media, the public was solely dependent on the traditional media for delivering the truth and acting as a watchdog of the state.

In his popular book, Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann presents the idea that an individual’s perception of world events is largely influenced by the media in addition to those surrounding her and their ideologies and opinions. Thus, the role played by the media becomes an important one. In the present scenario we’re experiencing the rise of a new kind of media— Social media.

Social media is a platform based on user-generated content which has become a one-stop source for collecting data, receiving news and information, connecting with like-minded individuals and sharing one’s own opinions. It has further armed the polity with a new platform to reach out to the masses on services like Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, etc. Along with that, social media also serves to make leaders more accountable and accessible. Their popularity on social media can be traced back to the amount of followers they have. The effect of social media on political campaigning may also be linked to the fast-growing presence of politicians and political parties in the virtual space. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, Narendra Modi’s social media activity, and popularity, skyrocketed before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections – thus contributing to his monumental victory in the same. Political speeches have transitioned into tweets with a 240 words restriction but the statements made by them remain as frivolous, albeit shorter.

The extensive campaigning process the 2019 Lok Sabha elections with its newfound platform of social media, pushed parties to work harder in their attempts to vie young voters. An RTI filed by activist Anil Galgali revealed that during its four years in office, the BJP government led by Narendra Modi spent over Rs 4,343.26 crore on advertising through different media. This provides an idea about the massive amount of mass communication that is coming into play through the various advertising techniques used by political parties these days.

Today, social media plays a pivotal role in the electoral process. It connects leaders with their voters, it is a cost-effective method of advertising, it is a helpful tool to understand audience behavior, it ensures the quickest possible dissemination of messages, and it attracts the youth towards political dialogue through its relevance online. Politicians in power serve as dispensers of information regarding the policies of the government, the statistics regarding their activities, and also their stances about important national as well as international events. The dissemination of this information, in an attempt to simultaneously devalue the opposition or other threats to their dominance, is often distorted. The creation of a misinformed citizen is not only due to their own ignorance, but also due to the distorted data communicated to them by politicians driven by their own agenda.

Both parties are to blame for the fake news crisis; the latter more so because of their footing in the public space. According to the Cambridge dictionary, fake news refers to “false stories that appear to be news, spread on the internet or using other media, usually created to influence political views or as a joke.” In recent years, fake news has not only managed to sustain itself, but it has also found a new platform in social media.

According to a Stanford University based research, “Organised social media manipulation occurs in many countries around the world. In authoritarian regimes it tends to be the government that funds and coordinates propaganda campaigns on social media. In democracies, it tends to be the political parties that are the primary organizers of social media manipulation.” Although it is possible to delete fake or distorted content that has been posted online, the damage is done within seconds. There is a certain credibility associated with a political leader or party which makes them seem like a reliable source of information. In the garb of competition, however, the factual nature of the information get lost and the uninformed citizen is thus misled into believing false information.

A strong democracy requires high-quality news from an independent media, a pluralistic climate of opinion, and the ability to negotiate public consensus. But powerful political actors are increasingly leveraging social media to manufacture consensus, manipulate public opinion, and subvert democratic processes. The political process has a long history of misinformation and popular misper-ceptions, misinformation on social media and has caused widespread alarm in recent years, Essential work on combating fake news has been on a rise in the past few years. Various fact checking websites like AltNews and FactChecker have been monitoring and analysing political speeches, various media houses and viral posts of social media for veracity and correctness of the factual statements in text or speech. However, the onus lies on us as citizens to remain informed and amidst deliberate attempts to create false narratives to aid ulterior motives.

Picture Courtesy- University of Oxford

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