Political leanings determine both how organised social media networks are in India and how likely they are to share fake news. And in both spheres, networks supporting India’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government are outpacing others, particularly those that oppose it, a new BBC study shows.
The study, published yesterday (Nov. 12), tried to investigate why and how citizens share misinformation in India.
Its authors—three BBC journalists who partnered with small teams at two agencies, The Third Eye and Synthesis—interviewed 40 subjects who had given them extensive permission to track their social media activity on their mobile phones, including on WhatsApp.
The researchers also used network analysis to map the relationships between around 16,000 influential Twitter accounts that may have shared or amplified fake news. This revealed a dramatic difference between “pro-BJP amplifiers” clustered on the far right side of the map and “anti-BJP amplifiers” on the far left.
“…the anti-BJP amplifiers are very loosely interconnected, but the pro-BJP amplifiers are very closely interconnected,” the researchers noted. This means the pro-BJP accounts are more likely to share the same content and have more overlapping connections with one another.
The study also noted a large difference between the ways key political leaders, drawing support from either side, engage with the amplifiers.
While Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi did not follow anti-BJP amplifiers on Twitter, prime minister Narendra Modi followed many pro-BJP amplifiers, including sources that have published fake news. In fact, the researchers found that up to 30 accounts in the pro-BJP cluster had been the original sources of at least one piece of fake news. Modi followed 15 of them.
The researchers found 34 Twitter handles in all being the sources of fake news, making the vast majority of them pro-BJP accounts.
This predominance of right-wing handles gelled with the data that the researchers found while looking at fake news on other platforms. For example, referring to the social media accounts of their interview subjects, they noted that “fake news messages leaning right seemed to be dominant in people’s WhatsApp and Facebook fields.”
The tightly-knit nature of the pro-BJP cluster may also be related to another of the study’s findings: the difference between the way interview subjects conceived of their identities.
One key reason why right-wing Indians share social media content is a desire to express one’s “sociopolitical identity.” This, the researchers said, was often linked to national pride and Hindu pride. When narratives put forth in fake-news messages upheld values such as “Hindu power and superiority” and “preservation and revival,” then “validation of identity trumps verification of facts,” the study claimed.
Similar feelings existed in the left-wing, but its overall effect on social media was diluted by a broader set of identities on the left.
The multiple identities on the right are all bound by common narratives, according to the researchers. On the left, however, there’s no such common narrative; there are only “micro identities” marked by religion, language, and caste, the study said.
The left is “not animated by a unified narrative but occasionally cohere around particular issues,” the study noted. So when an event occurs, sharing activity increases among left-wing Indians, but “when the news cycle dies down their sharing dies down too,” it said.
Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.