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How much influence does social media have on India's ongoing elections?

UMSI News in large, bold text with a backdrop of students walking to a building.

Thursday, 05/09/2024

ANN ARBOR—India's multiphase general elections have reached the halfway mark. 

The results of the seven-phase election, running from April 19 to June 1, will be announced June 4. This year's election, the world's largest with 960 million eligible voters, will determine 543 seats of the Lok Sabha (the lower house of India's parliament) and India's next prime minister. 

Joyojeet Pal, associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, discusses social media's role in the current elections. Pal studies technology in democracy and labor, specializing in politicians' use of social media and misinformation, particularly in India.

How popular is social media in India?

It is estimated that about half a billion Indians are social media users, most using WhatsApp, YouTube, or both. 

How big of a role do you think social media is playing in these elections? 

Social media plays a massive role on two fronts. The first is the top-down communication from politicians to citizens, which has, for all functional purposes, moved from broadcast television or print to direct communication. Almost every prominent politician uses Twitter/X as an output channel at this point. In addition, they have teams that work on their Facebook, Koo, WhatsApp, YouTube or Instagram strategies, which involve direct outreach or through influencers. The second significant change involving social media and elections is the last mile outreach on WhatsApp, which includes regular/daily messaging with political or ideological content and voting-day reminders for turnout maximization. The WhatsApp coordination is often done using electoral roll information, so politicians have very granular information about who will and will not vote for them and where the pressure points for maximizing results lie.

How do you think AI on social media is affecting these elections?

There is a significant impact on the quality of messaging since social media teams working for politicians now use technology to check the quality of messaging before they put things out, as well as the data collection and analysis work, which has a good amount of technology. There is some use of AI for things like generating stock images, and while deepfake videos are the thing that gets talked about a lot, there is a lot less of that happening in practice and we happen to hear of it only because the cases where it is caught quickly make the news.

Is there a particular form of social media that spreads more false information than others?  

In general, encrypted platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram are where the most misinformation gets spread because there are no structured avenues for checks. Our research found that fact-checking does not work well on WhatsApp because the people who spread the most misinformation tend to be up the hierarchy, so they rarely get challenged. 

How do you think the political parties are using social media in India? 

At this point, most major political parties have very comparable strategies. They have brand managers who work at the national level, large teams for major national leaders, and smaller teams dedicated to working for each politician standing for a local election. Since state legislature and national elections are underway, the teams' sizes can vary.

How can Indians avoid misinformation on social media or at least know the difference? 

As such, the problem is not "misinformation," typically understood as explicitly false information, but innuendo, which is the constant flow of polarizing content. This is much more dangerous since it cannot be "debunked" per se but leads to a slow and much longer-term radicalization of people.


Contact: Sonia Mishra, [email protected]