How misinformation took center stage during Assembly election campaigning in Andhra Pradesh

By: rohith gutta&
May 10 2024

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How misinformation took center stage during Assembly election campaigning in Andhra Pradesh

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy receives a warm welcome during a public meeting at Banaganapalle in Nandyal on Thursday. (Source: Reuters Connect via Sipa USA)

A month prior to the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, a local postwoman delivered my voter ID card and offered an unusual piece of advice. "Do vote. If you fail to vote, you will be charged Rs 350." She didn't clarify who would impose the alleged fine, but the source of this "information" was clear: the relentless WhatsApp machine.

She was referring to a viral message claiming that the Election Commission of India (EC) would fine non-voters, a piece of misinformation circulating on the internet since at least 2019.

This is just one example of the many instances of misinformation circulating in Andhra Pradesh, where elections are being held concurrently with the general elections on May 13. However, these false narratives aren't limited to a handful of social media users. Misinformation has also become a tool for the political parties contesting the elections.

For instance, the official account of the ruling YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) shared an image of an empty road with Chandrababu Naidu’s convoy, claiming that his campaign trail saw no public participation. However, this was an old photo from 2019, and in reality, Naidu’s rallies attracted a significant crowd.

In another case, the state’s Education Minister, B Satyanarayana, falsely claimed that Andhra Pradesh topped the country’s educational accessibility ranking. The credibility of being a government minister lends such false claims an air of truth. Although cases were filed against the party for spreading misinformation, there's no evidence of any police action.

D Soma Sundar, a senior journalist from Andhra Pradesh and a secretary of the Indian Journalists Union (IJU), highlighted how the scope of misinformation was amplified during these elections. He said, “While we can say the spread was there during the 2019 elections, these elections were also the ones vigorously fought on social media as much as on the ground. Misinformation is bound to proliferate in such circumstances.”

Logically Facts has been monitoring and debunking viral claims and misinformation circulating on social media in the state. While there is a proliferation of fake pre-poll results, fabricated news reports, and altered videos, the damage done by unverified information has emerged as a bigger challenge.

Limitations of online fact-checking tools

In April, an alleged audio clip of N Bhuvaneswari, the wife of Opposition Telugu Desam Party (TDP) chief N Chandrababu Naidu, went viral. The clip was circulated with a claim that she had verbally abused party workers and individuals from underprivileged castes. The TDP dismissed the audio as a "deepfake". Despite this, the clip spread rapidly and was used to criticize the party, which is contesting the elections in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Jana Sena Party, led by actor-politician Pawan Kalyan.

However, experts have asserted that the clip is not a deepfake. The question of whether the voice in the clip belongs to Bhuvaneswari remains unanswered. The Deepfakes Analysis Unit (DAU), a specialized team within the Misinformation Combat Alliance in India, which includes Logically Facts, consulted experts and analyzed the audio clip. They confirmed that the clip was not generated by AI but did not comment on its provenance — who spoke the words, and where and when they were spoken.

Shashidhar Vuppala, a political analyst who has been monitoring the politics of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, told Logically Facts that these elections are more influenced by personal narratives than ever before, providing ample opportunity for the spread of misinformation. He suggests that the misinformation circulating on social media is a byproduct of the highly charged campaign seen in the lead-up to the elections.

In recent months, numerous images and videos purporting to be published by local news outlets such as the Telugu channel Andhra Jyothy, the Telugu daily Disha, and the popular local news aggregator Way2News, have been widely shared on social media with false claims. These posts have propagated narratives targeting political parties and their leaders. In most instances, politicians were falsely quoted, or edited screenshots were circulated to implicate political rivals.

Templated misinformation

Way2News, a popular news app based out of Hyderabad, has inadvertently become a conduit for misinformation. Its brief news report templates have been frequently exploited to lend credibility to false narratives.

Consider this example: YS Sharmila, the younger sister of Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, distanced herself from her brother's party and assumed the role of Andhra Pradesh Congress head. As she began campaigning against him in the state, a screenshot of an alleged Way2News article, claiming that Jagan Mohan Reddy had physically assaulted her during their youth, began to circulate on social media. Despite being a fabrication, the screenshot was widely shared on social media.

In another instance, a similarly fabricated screenshot from Way2News was circulated, alleging that a pre-poll survey had forecasted a YSRCP victory in the Andhra Pradesh Assembly elections. The reality? Way2News had never published such a report.

In response to this growing menace, Way2News introduced a fact-check feature on its website, enabling users to verify the authenticity of any article purportedly published by it. It actively uses its official X account to issue clarifications regarding stories it has published. However, despite numerous fact-checks, the dissemination of these false claims and narratives continues to outpace the spread of fact-checks.

How news events fuel viral misinformation 

Misinformation is often framed within real-life contexts to make it appear factual. For example, a viral image of a fabricated BBC article quoted Andhra Pradesh BJP chief D Purandeswari criticizing the party’s alliance partners TDP and JSP. There was also a claim that she stated the BJP would end Muslim reservations in Andhra Pradesh.

In the case of the BBC article, the claim surfaced shortly after BJP leader Siddharth Nath Singh reportedly declined to pose with the TDP-JSP manifesto. Although the BJP did endorse the manifesto, it sparked speculation about discord within the alliance.

The claim that Purandeswari stated the BJP would terminate reservations for Muslims in Andhra Pradesh emerged months after Union Home Minister Amit Shah made a similar statement at a rally in Telangana in November 2023. Despite the fact that she never made such a statement, doctored news clippings were used to reinforce the claim.

However, Sundar believes that readers are more aware of the spread of misinformation on social media compared to 2019. He noted that people have recently begun to scrutinize social media to verify the authenticity of the information they consume. He also highlighted that political parties have established mechanisms to address misinformation related to them.

As more people rely on social media for news and information, experts argue that there needs to be a more coordinated effort to combat misinformation before it significantly erodes trust in the democratic process.

(Edited by Sanyukta Dharmadhikari and Nitish Rampal)

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We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before