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Big tech and the BJP vs Indian democracy

In the world’s most populous country, democracy hangs by a thread. Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter/X accelerate this phenomenon by fuelling hate speech, fake news and violence.

The ruling BJP has infiltrated and weaponised these platforms, leading well-placed observers to describe disinformation in India as a “public health crisis”, and the country itself as the “disinformation capital of the world.

Big tech is complicit. Testimony from current and former employees shows the problems are enabled and compounded by the companies breaking their own rules, treating India differently from other countries, and allowing their systems to be compromised by foreign intelligence.

The coming months are crucial. Assembly Elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, and Mizoram will take place between November 7 and 30, with results on Dec 3rd. They are hugely important in their own right and critical tone-setters for the national elections in April 2024.

This briefing sets the context and highlights key themes to look out for. Most importantly it outlines steps social media companies need to take to protect users, and what governments and the media should hold them accountable for.

Significant concerns already exist over the platform’s approach to India

This is already doing great damage to Indian democracy:

  • Hindu extremist group Bajrang Dal openly incites violence and mass atrocity against vulnerable Indian caste and religious minorities, but Meta has resisted calls to remove it from its platforms.

The threat is going global as other autocracies copy India.

  • Other autocratic regimes - such as Nigeria and Turkey - have copied India’s strategy in forcing social media platforms to override their policies, enable repression and undermine democracy.

  • The specialist operations set up to conduct this kind of activity are now exporting disinformation - especially Islamophobic content - abroad, for example in Gaza.

  • Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen exposed the company’s complicity in ethnic violence in Ethiopia and it has admitted the same in Myanmar, while Global Witness has shown Facebook-approved adverts containing hate speech and calls to violence in Kenya, and election disinformation in Brazil.

India’s upcoming elections will see the threat ramp up again:

Assembly Elections in Madhya Pradesh (17 Nov), Rajasthan (25 Nov), Chhattisgarh (7 and 17 Nov), Telangana (from 30 Nov), and Mizoram (7 Nov) will deliver results on Dec 3rd. The first 3 listed are true battleground states and the latter two BJP vote banks.

It is certain that misinformation – and social media companies’ willingness and ability to police it – will play a critical role in both the process and the outcome.

Many organisations which criticise the government have had their Twitter accounts blocked without warning, in moves that mirror a widespread crackdown on independent media.

Many of these campaigns are developed and run by political parties - mainly Modi’s BJP - with nationwide cyber armies to shape elections and public discourse; they target political opponents, religious minorities, and dissenting individuals.

Often, the BJP paints a false picture of India where the nation’s 14 percent Muslim minority, abetted by the secular and liberal Congress party, abuses and murders the Hindu majority, and where justice and security could be secured only through a vote for the BJP.

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