India’s raging fake news menace has reportedly led to dozens of mob-lynchings over the past few years, besides muddying the country’s politics and turning the heat on popular social media platforms and messaging apps.
Alarmingly, a major hub for the collection and dissemination of such spurious information is the official mobile application of the country’s prime minister Narendra Modi himself, according to a report published yesterday (Jan. 27) by journalist Samarth Bansal.
The NaMo app, downloaded over 10 million times—mostly by the cadres and supporters of the prime minister’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—already faces a range of other allegations. These include sharing of user data with third parties without obtaining prior consent and requesting sweeping access to invasive permissions on users’ phones.
Bansal’s report only deepens existing charges that Modi is prone to uttering statements that are either wide off the mark factually or just completely false. Besides, the BJP itself is viewed as one of the biggest sources of fake news. A BBC study from last year used network analysis to show that pro-BJP social media accounts were more likely to share fake news than anti-BJP accounts. Last week, TIME reported on how the BJP uses misinformation, religious provocation, and caste-based profiling on WhatsApp.
The issue of misinformation will only assume greater prominence in the following months as India readies for its next general election, expected in May.
A “private Twitter” and Facebook pages
The NaMo app lets users buy Modi merchandise, take surveys on political issues, and view the latest BJP messaging on “My Network”—a “private Twitter” of sorts to which any user can post content. My Network has a gamified sharing framework, allowing users to accrue “activity points” by engaging with posts.
Because My Network’s feed is full of user-generated content, it is especially prone to fake news, often of the religiously inflammatory variety.
One such post, Bansal reports, claims that the BJP lost the state assembly election in Karnataka because of low voter turnout among Hindus. In reality, no such data about voter turnout among different religions is ever released by the election commission of India (ECI).
Another post claims to show the president of the opposition Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, sitting in the party headquarters behind a painting of a Mughal emperor. This image was debunked over a year ago by fact-checking website BOOM Live, which showed that the painting had been photoshopped to replace an image of Indian freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi.
Another post claims that, according to the BBC, the Congress is the world’s fourth most corrupt political party. Obviously, nothing of the sort has been reported by the news organisation.
The BJP, however, sees nothing wrong.
“When such large volume of content is posted freely by volunteers, karyakartas, and fans, there remains some scope for misinformation,” Amit Malviya, the head of the BJP’s “IT Cell,” or digital-media team, said responding to Bansal’s queries about My Network.
But the justification that the content is user-generated, and therefore prone to being misinformation, doesn’t quite pass muster, according to Pratik Sinha, co-founder of the fact-checking website AltNews. This is because much of the fake news shared on My Network comes from accounts that all app users are automatically subscribed to when they download the app. Three of these accounts, “The India Eye,” “Modi Bharosa,” and “Social Tamasha,” are popular Facebook groups whose content gets cross-posted to the NaMo app.
“These are people that have been specifically selected to be seen everywhere, and by everyone,” Sinha told Quartz. “There, they cannot have an excuse that ‘it’s user-generated content.’”
These three pages have all been known to perennially share fake news debunked by fact-checking websites such as BOOM Live and AltNews. For example, Bansal found that on the Indian Eye’s Facebook page, “at least six of the 20 most shared posts from September to November 2018 constitute misinformation.”
The fact that the app continues to place the pages in users’ default feeds indicates that “they’re promoting entities that are known propagators of misinformation,” Sinha said.
Mobilising the party machinery
The NaMo app is not only useful for communicating with voters, it is a major tool of mobilisation for party workers themselves. Shivam Shankar Singh, who worked for the BJP in data analytics for almost two years starting in 2016, told Quartz that one of the app’s core functions is to be an internal platform that’s accessible only to party workers. On this platform, “people higher up in the chain can send messages to the party workers below them.”
In the months ahead, Singh said, “that section of the app will basically be used for telling people ‘we need you to mobilise crowds here, we need you to increase the following for, say, this Facebook page, we need you to get this twitter hashtag trending,” and other such tasks. The NaMo app, then, will likely only grow in importance as elections heat up.
Singh, who left the BJP in April 2018 because he disagreed with the party’s use of propaganda, says there had been aggressive drives to get workers to use the app. Employees were paid by the BJP “and basically told that your job is to get this app installed into every party worker’s phone,” Singh said.
Those employees, in turn, “started providing incentives for people to install it, because they wanted to be at the top” of the list of performers, Singh added. However, to his knowledge, there aren’t any monetary incentives offered in exchange for sharing content on My Network.
The BJP’s Malviya did not immediately respond to a questionnaire, but this piece will be updated as and when he does.
Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.