By: priyanka ishwari
January 30 2024
Type EVM (short for electronic voting machines) into YouTube’s search bar, and a ‘Context’ information panel on top of some videos on the subject redirects you to the ‘General Q/A’ section of the Election Commission of India’s (ECI) website. Implemented by YouTube in the first week of January, this label has been rolled out in India in the run-up to the general elections at a time when Opposition parties have once again raised concerns on the reliability of EVMs.
Search results for EVM on YouTube show the ECI information panel on top. (Source: YouTube/ Screenshot)
YouTube reportedly added the label after the commission wrote to the video-sharing platform flagging 70 videos as part of its efforts to address doubts on EVMs. Over the years, Opposition parties have alleged that voting machines can be tampered with, resulting in the manipulation of election results — claims that have been categorically rejected by India’s highest poll-conducting authority.
While experts say that theoretically any machine can be hacked, the technical safeguards around EVMs and the procedural checks put in place during elections make large-scale rigging of the machines unlikely.
The social media platform has included a label titled “Electronic Voting in India, Election Commission of India” linking to the ECI’s website on coverage by mainstream media outlets reporting on issues regarding EVMs.
However, the move has policy experts and media researchers concerned.
“I can’t recall any other instance where YouTube has taken a similar approach. I don’t think YouTube relies only on the election body’s own press or information page in any other country or geography for a warning label,” said Raman Chima, Asia Policy Director at Access Now — a non-profit that focuses on digital civic rights. “If the conduct of the election body or something that comes under its control is questioned and has been a matter of controversy, YouTube or Google (its parent organization) would normally refer to a fact-checking website, a media outlet, or something else out there.”
In response to questions addressing the new label to some videos, YouTube told Logically Facts, “Our systems recommend election news and information from authoritative sources and display information panels at the top of search results and below videos to provide even more context, including one on electronic voting machines, which provides additional context from the Election Commission of India.”
YouTube’s support page states a panel on election information may show when watching videos related to election candidates, parties, or voting and “also feature results for specific elections sourced from non-partisan, third-party sources.”
Sample this, multiple news reports of Congress party leader Jairam Ramesh seeking an appointment with the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) to discuss concerns of alleged tampering with EVMs and VVPATs (voter-verified paper audit trails) is accompanied with ECI’s ‘Context’ panel.
CNN-News 18 report on Ramesh writing to the CEC tagged with the ECI label. (Source: YouTube/ Screenshot)
An older video of a former senior police official alleging EVM malfunction during the 2019 elections also carries the label. In addition, videos by news outlets like The Indian Express explaining the concerns raised by political parties, an interview of a former election commissioner chief recommending information about EVMs-VVPATs be made public, and investigations into EVMs by outlets like The Quint are also accompanied by the context panel.
Former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi’s interview with The Quint in December 2020 suggesting information be made public to assuage concerns regarding transparency carries the new label on YouTube. (Source: The Quint/YouTube/ Screenshot)
Emphasizing the lack of transparency in the process, Chima fears that YouTube’s move could undermine trust in the election process.
“If the election commission or anybody else is trying to flag content around videos like these, then they (YouTube) should at least put a disclaimer mentioning that, or disclose this in a standalone press statement or their transparency page. But the platform has not been transparent about what has been their methodology for choosing the terminology and the label’s content. This opaqueness only reduces trust in the information available around Indian elections,” he said.
Other experts echoed Chima’s demand for more clarity.
Srinivas Kodali, a researcher working on data, governance, and the internet told Logically Facts, “If the election commission is flagging certain kinds of videos to social media platforms then this needs to be made public. If the election commission wants a particular video flagged or removed, it maintains a record of it, but even if you file an RTI (right to information) application, they won't tell you why they did it.”
While YouTube didn’t comment on whether the move is in response to the ECI flagging videos to the platform, it told Logically Facts, “We’re connecting people to authoritative election news and information on YouTube in various ways.”
Citing topics prone to misinformation such as the moon landing as an example, the platform further said it provides an information panel on such videos. “The panels show basic background information, sourced from independent, third-party partners, to give more context on a topic. These information panels will show regardless of what opinions or perspectives are expressed in the video,” the platform said.
We looked at the labels used by YouTube around topics prone to misinformation and noticed that it included links to non-government entities or provided an array of multiple sources if it included official government sources.
Information panels on topics prone to misinformation (like the moon landing and COVID-19) include links to links to non-government entities or directed viewers to multiple sources (Source: YouTube/Screenshots)
While the above examples of labeling show the platform lists multiple sources, currently it only cites the ECI in videos addressing alleged EVM tampering.
Chima calls this a “worrying” move that could potentially undermine the value of labels. “For EVMs, YouTube could have pointed to credible news outlets or statements by independent election watchdog groups,” he said.
Relying on multiple sources is an approach recommended by media researchers as well. “Providing convergent evidence across multiple reliable sources is a good approach for adding accurate additional context to videos. Even experts and reliable sources can disagree — so aggregating multiple sources of information is preferable,” said Cameron Martel, a researcher at MIT Sloan School of Management, when asked about YouTube relying only on the election commission’s point of view on EVMs.
For instance, when former U.S. President Donald Trump alleged that the 2020 election was “stolen” and that “voting was rigged,” YouTube added an information panel linking a webpage on ‘Rumor Control’ by Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) — a U.S. government entity. However, information on this webpage referenced multiple federal and state databases as well as independent, non-government entities.
The information label that YouTube used for reports on Trump and his supporters alleging “voting fraud” in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections. (Source: WayBack Machine/YouTube/CNN/Screenshot)
In contrast, the ‘Q/A’ section of the ECI website linked in the label only includes information from the poll body and no other government or non-government institutions.
It is also riddled with typographical errors, many details have been repeated verbatim, and exhibit redundancy. Some sentences feature multiple times on the webpage; sometimes even within the same answers.
ECI website showing typographical errors in the question and answers section (Source:eci.gov.in/Screenshot)
Question and answers page on the ECI website showing the same sentence repeated twice in a question (Source:eci.gov.in/Screenshot)
The ECI label on EVM reports even appears on some unrelated videos in India. For instance, this news report on alleged “election fraud” in Detroit in 2020 also carries the label referencing information from India’s election commission. Another clip on U.S. midterm elections by a Singapore-based outlet also carries the same panel.
A news report from February 2021 by a U.S.-based media outlet tagged with the Election Commission of India label. (Source: YouTube/ | Local 4 | WDIV/ Screenshot)
YouTube’s latest move to include the ECI panel has not only raised doubts about the platform’s commitment to transparency, but has also brought the focus back to whether using labels is efficient in combating misinformation.
“Labeling does give social media users additional information, for instance, if a news outlet is partly or fully state-controlled. So the use of labeling is a good thing to a certain extent,” said Kodali, who believes that labels, which mostly rely on fact-checking, only have a limited role in combating misinformation. “We live in a post-truth society and everybody wants to fact-check what's out there. But they (labels and fact-checks) don't really work as by the time you fact-check a rumor, it has already spread.”
However, a research paper published in December 2023 on Science Direct argues that warning labels generally reduce belief and sharing of falsehoods. “Overall, warning labels are effective at countering labeled misinformation: once a warning is applied to a false post, it is less likely to be believed and shared. However, warning labels have shortcomings. Compared to removing or downranking (i.e., making them less likely to appear in news feeds) false posts, warning labels have smaller effects on belief and sharing,” Marter, who also co-authored the paper, told Logically Facts.
While labels alone cannot rise to the task, experts believe that education might hold the key to combating misinformation given its monumental scale.
“Warning labels should be thought of as one tool in a toolbox of interventions targeting misinformation, and should be combined with content-neutral approaches such as media literacy training and prompting people to consider accuracy when sharing news,” according to Martel.
Logically Facts contacted the ECI for comment and will update this article if and when we receive a response.