Fake news reports, morphed videos: How misinformation dominated Telangana poll campaign

Fake news reports, morphed videos: How misinformation dominated Telangana poll campaign

By: rohith gutta&
rajeswari parasa&
November 30 2023

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Fake news reports, morphed videos: How misinformation dominated Telangana poll campaign

Election results for Telangana, which went to polls on November 30, will be announced on December 3. (Illustration: Matthew Hunter/Logically Facts)

From fake news articles to manipulated videos, the run-up to the polls in the southern Indian state of Telangana saw political parties and figures being targetted, often by supporters from their rival groups, by almost every kind of tool available in the misinformation handbook. With the curtains on the polls drawing on November 30, when the people of Telangana cast their votes to decide the fate of 2,290 candidates, and the state now keenly awaiting the results, political analysts are concerned about how much role the rapid and often unchecked spread of false and misleading information through social media played in shaping the electorate’s voting choices and eventually the final outcome. 

"The misinformation circulating online tends to confuse the voters and might lead to distrust in the long term in anything they see online. While the voters usually make decisions depending on development happening in their area and the party affiliation, edited videos, morphed news clips, and fake letters can confuse them if they are not in a position to verify it themselves,” senior journalist and political analyst Gowri Shankar told Logically Facts. 

Shankar’s concerns were shared by V Sashidhar, a political analyst who has been tracking elections for over a decade. According to Sashidhar, supporters of political parties use social media to propagate negative content about rival candidates through edited videos and fabricated lies. “While the urban crowd might try to do some research, a layperson staying in a village might believe what they see on their mobile. So the misinformation might impact their decision-making process to some extent at least.” 

Edited videos, old clips used to target political figures

Digitally manipulated videos, old visuals missing context, and clips overlaid with fake audio were circulated widely online during the election campaign, constituting one of the most prominent mis/disinformation trends that has analysts like Shankar and Sashidhar worried, and with good reason.

From a cropped video of Telangana Congress head and opposition leader A Revanth Reddy shared out of context to falsely claim that his party was bribing voters with liquor and Rs 10,000 to pro-Congress slogans being digitally added over a campaign video of KT Rama Rao, incumbent Information and Technology Minister and leader of the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS)—manipulated visuals seem to have targetted political parties of all hues and colors. 

Telangana Congress had shared a video on X falsely claiming that pro-Congress slogans were raised at a BRS rally.
(Source: X/Screenshot/Modified by Logically Facts)

Many times, such videos, shared with false and misleading claims, are amplified by supporters of political parties to malign rival groups. For instance, videos shared by Telugu influencers, roped in by the  BRS, dancing to the incumbent party’s campaign song were overlaid with a song ridiculing the latter and shared widely by Congress supporters.

Experts believe that the push behind the spread of false and misleading videos often comes from political parties themselves. “This is what reaches the public faster because a systematic push is given to them, and it has become a trend in the digital era. Political parties are more interested in investing money in propagating negativity about rival candidates,”  Sashidhar said. “Parties have their own IT cells, and people working in these cells are mostly teenagers and college-going students, who are not even aware of the political landscape. They are often unable to take in the gravity of what they are doing and why they are doing it but are lured in by money to promote political parties’ propaganda, ” he added. 

Fake newspaper reports shared to mislead people

Another feature that was prominent in the mis/disinformation campaigns during this election was the circulation of fake newspaper reports about leading political leaders. 

A case in point is a purported article published by the Telugu daily Disha that was widely circulated with the false claim that the news outlet reported that the Congress and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) had come together ahead of the elections to merge Telangana with Andhra Pradesh (from which it was carved out in 2014) once the grand old party came to power. Disha had never carried such a report and had to file a police complaint after the fake article went viral. 

Another fake article, purportedly published by Telugu newspaper Mana Telangana, claimed that N Chandrababu Naidu, national president of the TDP and former chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, had struck a deal with A Revanth Reddy for Rs 5,950 crore for the merger of Telangana with Andhra Pradesh if Congress won the polls and formed the government. Mana Telangana’s editor P Anjaiah told Logically Facts that the report was fake and never published by the newspaper.

Screenshot of the fake news article attributed to Mana Telangana. (Source: X/Screenshot/Modified by Lofically Facts)

Irreddy Srinivas Reddy, a senior political journalist working with The New Indian Express, recalled a similar wave of mis/disinformation during the November 2020 Dubbaka bypolls. He said a fake clip using the logo of regional news channel TV9 was shared to claim that the Dubbaka Congress candidate had shifted to BRS. “The clip was widely circulated just a day before polling, and in my opinion, to some extent, it impacted the voting pattern and aided in the loss of Congress candidate.” Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate Raghunandan Rao had won the bypoll elections.

According to Naveena Ghanate, Telangana Bureau Chief of English daily The Pioneer, misinformation masquerading as news reports spreads quite rapidly. “Voters might not verify if a newspaper clip is real or not, and because news organizations have credibility, the misinformation is further substantiated.”

Adding to the chaos created by edited videos and news reports, fake letters claimed to be penned by political leaders and false posts claiming to predict a win for a certain political party in a pre-poll survey were shared widely before the elections. 

Political leaders have themselves observed that the unabated spread of mis/disinformation has far-reaching effects. Speaking to Logically Facts, S Naresh, a Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) candidate from the Uppal constituency, said, “The posts circulating on social media are leading to a discussion among the masses as well.” He said that after a fake letter claiming that the TDP had decided to support the BRS had surfaced, contestants like him who were campaigning on the ground were being asked by voters if the rumors were true.

As the scope and scale of political misinformation grows, experts advise to err on the side of caution. Senior journalist Surya Reddy said that the spread of misinformation has increased with many altered images, edited videos, and others making the round on social media. He said that during the polls, seasoned journalists like him received several videos from multiple sources; however, they only took into consideration information they had received from official channels, bureaucrats, and other primary authentic sources. 

(Edited by Priyanka Ishwari)

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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