Welcome to The Election Fix. Today, we look at the big question about digital interference in Indian elections, what makes people vote for Modi and why copycats mean Andhra Pradesh doesn’t have manifestos yet.

Please tell us what you think of The Election Fix by emailing me at rohan@scroll.in. I’d like to thank Joseph, Sundar, Ragavan, Shubhayan, Ramachandran, Somasekara and Saim for sending notes and suggestions about previous issues of the Election Fix, which you can find here. If you haven’t already signed up, subscribe here to get the Election Fix in your inbox.

The Big Story: Digital danger

Facebook took down hundreds of pages pushing political content this week, in a move that raises questions about oversight of the digital sphere and how it might impact India’s electoral process. So, of course, the mainstream Indian media did the most Indian media thing possible and turned it into a Bharatiya Janata Party versus Congress thing. Which side had more pages come down?

Of course, one could accuse Facebook of creating this impression by naming only the Congress initially. But eventually it became clear that the BJP’s ecosystem might have taken a larger hit, including the take-down of one page with 26 lakh followers.

However, there are bigger questions here.

First, these pages weren’t taken down because they were running fake news. They were deleted because they were using fake accounts or sketchy practices – what Facebook calls “inauthentic behaviour” – to try and drive traffic to specific political content aimed at influencing voters.

Shoaib Daniyal has a full explainer on the Facebook takedowns here and you can read the blogpost by the DFRLab here that analysed some of the pages.

This was DFRLab’s conclusion: the development “suggests that the use of covert assets has become an accepted part of campaigning, at least in Indian politics, and that parties which aspire to governance will likely look to inauthentic amplification as a necessary tool in the broader campaigning toolkit”.

In other words, this has become standard practice for parties and it’s not going away anytime soon. Indeed, read this piece by Dinesh Narayanan and Venkat Ananth (paywall) from before the takedowns to understand how these pages work.

By this point, you are probably familiar with the broader question of “fake news” spreading in India, primarily on WhatsApp (both the Atlantic and the New York Times had pieces on it this week). Last year a number of lynchings were attributed, at least partly, to the speed with which false information traveled on WhatsApp.

Let us add another scary thought here: what if India, like the US, finds these avenues being targeted by foreign entities? It has already happened on a small scale, and an essay on the Observer Research Foundation site this week warns that Pakistan and China would happily attempt to undermine India’s democratic set-up if they could. Indeed Pukhraj Singh says this should be the main takeaway of the Facebook takedowns, since they also included Pakistani military pages.

But things get even more complicated when we try and figure out what to do about this. The government has proposed new rules for the internet that go so far that Chinmayi Arun called them the “Purdah” amendment, because of the effect they would have on free expression and as a result democracy.

We can’t just leave it to Facebook, or Jio, Twitter, UCweb or any of the others. What if tomorrow they take down a page accidentally or, worse, because a political party pressures them into doing so?

India isn’t the only place grappling with these questions, which is why this week Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg himself called for more internet regulation, though no one is inclined to trust him.

This is not a problem limited to this election. Indeed, the conversation around this is just starting. What I can say is that it’s important not to reduce this to BJP versus Congress, figure out who was hit harder and then move on.

If you would like to read more about this, check out Aria Thaker’s reportage, coverage by Venkat Ananth and Pranav Dixit, reporting on Medianama as well as the Quint, updates by the Internet Freedom Foundation, newsletters by Casey Newton (for the global perspective) and, though he doesn’t cover it every week, Samarth Bansal, plus also read Shivam Shankar Singh’s How to Win an Indian Election.

What can be done about the digital question? Did I miss any good sources? Write to rohan@scroll.in

Reader Mail

On Monday, we asked if the Left was still relevant to Indian politics. There were lots of responses, many saying they had become irrelevant and quite a few telling me I was simply wrong. Here is one, from Anirban:

“A narrative is sought to be created in the media, your own institution being no exception and dare I say, in this regard, you toe closely the lines of the corporate media, that the left has all but gone into irrelevance in Bengal which, I am afraid, is not a clear reflection of the present political scenario...

Attempts had been made to discount the left before and would be made after this elections as well but as long as people would suffer and would be deprived of their rights, it would be the left parties who would tirelessly raise their voices.”

Elections 2019 on Scroll.in

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Policy & reportage

  1. Read Apurva’s report in the Indian Express from Western Uttar Pradesh, where he finds an intergenerational divide: “As Kripal [Singh] complains about not being paid dues from mills for several weeks now, his son Manoj, who is travelling with him to the main market to buy new water pipes, disagrees: “But papa, this election is not about sugarcane; it is about the nation and security.”
  2. Bhavya Dore begins a four-part series for FactChecker looking at hate crimes in Rajasthan, where the residents have “been gradually but steadily polarised”.
  3. The “There is No Alternative” narrative appears to be strong in Bihar, finds Parth MN in Firstpost, where, despite anger at Prime Minister Narendra Modi about a lack of jobs, they still do not see who else to vote for.
  4. A Reuters team reports on plans to ensure that, even as Hindu groups mobilise for a Ram temple in Ayodhya, it doesn’t turn into a Bharatiya Janata Party event ahead of elections.
  5. Firstpost is carrying an 18-part series by Greeshma Kuthar, recounting the way that coastal Karnataka – now a right-wing stronghold – was first saffronised.

Political titbits

Poll toon

Op-eds & analysis

  1. Gautam Bhatia writes in the Hindustan Times that the Election Commission needs to be transparent about how voter names have been deleted off the rolls, to ensure that potentially flawed algorithms are properly scrutinised.
  2. The BJP “sees the Kashmir issue not as a political matter to be settled with Kashmiris, but as a land dispute with Pakistan, in which the people are disposable so long as the land is secured”, writes Aditya Sinha in the Mumbai Mirror.
  3. Shruti Rajagopalan in Mint examines the oddities of India’s first-past-the-post system, where 31% of the vote can give you more than half the seats in the Lok Sabha.
  4. It is not Amethi where Rahul Gandhi will face a test, writes Aunindyo Chakravarty on NDTV.com pointing out that 2014 was only close because the Bahujan Samaj Party was in the fray. Instead, he argues, Wayanad will be a much closer battle for Gandhi.
  5. Saubhik Chakrabarti in the Economic Times says that, regardless of data that suggests coalition governments have been good economically in the past, global and economic conditions right now make it clear India needs a “single-party government, or even a coalition government hugely dominated by a single party”.

Did we miss any reports or op-eds that you thought were relevant? Send thoughts, suggestions and WhatsApp forwards to rohan@scroll.in.