Farmers gather in front of the historic Red Fort during a protest against farm laws introduced by the Indian government, in Delhi on January 26, 2021. Social media campaigns sought to discredit the protests. Photo: Reuters / Adnan Abidi

The technological age has blessed us with digital platforms that allow people to engage with one another virtually. With the advent of social media, information dissemination has fundamentally transformed.

Though people are more connected than ever before, at the same time, the privacy of users has been invaded and manipulated. The breach of privacy takes place when governments seek to control our opinions and manipulate us for their political benefit.

Across the world, this has resulted in political parties and government actors expanding their social-media footprints.

Since 2014, social media in India have witnessed a surge in online promotions, advertisements, SEO manipulation, politically motivated messages embedded with hate speech from political parties. This has transcended into a new type of competition for political parties, which have to engage tech-skilled young people to perform cyber operations for them.

Such operations include flooding social apps with misinformation, clickbait messages, developing new tools, looking for flaws in social-media apps to exploit them to spread propaganda and manipulate public opinion. 

The Cambridge Analytica scandal in the US revealed that the company harvested user data before the 2016 election and used those data for social-media manipulation. Such incidents provide an understanding of how modern-day social-media apps can be manipulated to amplify a particular political discourse.

In India, social media have become a battlefield on which political parties manipulate public discourse, especially since 2014. Shortly after its victory in that year’s general election, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) extended its political campaigning on social networking platforms by glorifying its base ideology that calls for the creation of Hindu Rashtra.

The 2014 election is often referred to as the “first social-media election” because it was when the BJP used its workers to glorify the campaign on social networks in order to manufacture a new consensus.

People at that time had no idea that the apps they installed on their devices harvested data for political parties to use to manipulate public opinion.

Before 2014, India had different political discourses. Now, everything has changed. Researchers are examining the damage social media have done over the last few years. According to a survey by the University of Oxford in 2020, social media have been manipulated to change the political narrative in a range of countries. And India is no exception to this trend.

Although digital connectivity has expanded a lot, the space it provides has shrunk and the propagation of misinformation has affected many developments. An example would be when the BJP announced the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which the Muslim population resisted. During that time, the BJP cyber cell ran several campaigns to link such protestss with pro-Pakistani groups.

During last year’s farmers’ protest in India, there was an attempt by the ruling party’s sponsored IT cell through social campaigns to muzzle the voices of farmersz to delegitimize the protests. Pro-Khalistani accounts were cited to link the farmers’ agitation with the Khalistani movement

Advances in social-media apps have deepened the gaps between India’s majority and minority populations. Incidents during the last few years indicate that the ruling party has mobilized special cyber operations like flooding apps with content that favors the Hindutva narrative.

The BJP has invested massively in these sophisticated tools. Such tools have been fruitful for the party. It mobilizes the online audience to issue threats, mock the ideology of people who criticize the BJP, and then delegitimize them.

This has succeeded in muzzling critics of the BJP, which has failed to consolidate the growing unemployment crisis, the economic crisis and the rising inflation rates. Whenever anyone questions the ruling party, the IT cell targets him or her for being a critic of the BJP.

Research has shown that the BJP has used disinformation to engage with the audience who usually discuss Hindutva, and engaged in misinformation and defend that philosophy with illogical premises. Such incidents have pushed social-media clients like WhatsApp to add a tag to forwarded messages and limit them to very few instances. 

Political parties have invested in tools that are used to attack individuals’ privacy, and the modern-day trends that arise on social networks get manipulated when IT cells run different trending campaigns to change the discourse. Such attempts are designed to shape the perception of people to a certain political discourse.

Certainly, social-media trends have been fueled by the motive of changing the political discourse, with governments investing in companies that are developing tools to muzzle the voices of common people.

A recent investigation into this was done by The Wire. The Indian media outlet revealed that an app called Tek Fog that is allegedly linked with the BJP IT cell harvests data and manipulate the ongoing trends that are against the ruling party.

Social media have indeed been manipulated for political purposes, which poses a growing threat for democratic countries. Over the last few years, social media have been manipulated and the political discourse has changed a lot.

India is heading for elections in five states soon. Social media are abuzz with hate speech that calls for genocide against minority communities. Some videos openly call for the creation of a Hindu state or Hindu Rashtra. Such videos seek to change the political discourse and obviously, people react to such manipulation and get involved in the new narrative.

These are instances that the BJP uses to make its election process easy as the party knows the audience who directly or indirectly supports the creation of Hindu Rashtra falls for disinformation easily.

It’s time for social-media companies to look into this matter and work to stop misinformation. Social-media companies should look at their algorithms that propagate misinformation.

Yasir Altaf Zargar

Yasir Altaf Zargar is a Srinagar-based Web security analyst. Follow him on Twitter @islambaduk