How has fake news and misinformation in media changed over the years, and do you think it is worse now than in the past?

Fake news is as old as the hills. Many classic thinkers—Machiavelli, Chanakya—wrote about the importance of using information like a tool. In Nazi Germany, radios were placed in shop fronts and the information that came out of them was homogenised material that told you how great the Führer was. The Rwandan genocide was fuelled in part by the constant attack on Tutsis on the radio. And in India, the Muzaffarnagar riots (in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh in 2013) were based totally on fake news. But now, it is possible to influence people with information in real time, and in ways that of course Chanakya couldn’t even imagine. For instance, when newspapers report on cow slaughter and gau raksha (cow protection) networks, they put out information like: “20 kilos of meat were transported.” They might add that there’s no way of checking what type of meat that is, but even something like that is enough to actually generate a lot of interest and then bring together a critical mass of people who take action into their own hands.

What trends do you expect to see during the 2019 general election?

Modi made great efforts to reach young voters in 2014, and I think the young cohort will be targeted this time too. Young millennials, born in the 2000s, will be able to vote in this election for the first time, and there’s a huge number of them.

I think we will see more polarisation among voters, and more attempts to use media to polarise. In the (2017) Uttar Pradesh state assembly election, WhatsApp groups were a large part of campaign machinery. At every level, party workers could activate people, who in turn activated a number of people within their neighbourhood. So there will be point people who will be given the responsibility of bringing people to booths and posting on WhatsApp groups.

We’re also going to see a lot more use of Instagram and other visual platforms. Images jump across literacy barriers. And young people don’t like to read too much, so if you can have a nice video or meme, it matters much more than three lines of text.

What do you expect mainstream media will do? 

I think they will stick with Modi as their best bet. The corporates who own the media will want their outlets to continue more or less along the editorial lines that they have already adopted. There may be some independent initiatives, but even those will have to hedge their bets. Meanwhile, the Congress, because of its vote base, will have to go slow on seeming gung ho about corporate India. It’s not as if they won’t be gung ho—if you look at their record, they’re as gung ho as the BJP in some ways. But they cannot project themselves in quite the same way.

Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.

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