Between April and May 2019, voters in the world’s largest democracy are taking to the polls to elect a new lower house of parliament. In India’s previous parliamentary elections, approximately 550 million people out of 900 million eligible voters cast their ballots. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is expected to retain its majority and ward off the challenge of the principal opponent, the Indian National Congress, led by Rahul Gandhi. Both parties are running extensive social media campaigns to garner voter support. But rising social divisions, and past incidents of violence triggered by misinformation on social media, have raised fears that social media messaging will be used to stoke political tensions and trigger communal violence.

Until the recent sabre-rattling with Pakistan, which saw mutual displays of military force in the disputed Kashmir region in February, India’s key election themes have centred on the country’s all-time high unemployment rate, as well as growing discontent among the country’s rural population, which is struggling with the falling price of many staple crops. In response to the rural malaise, both parties have proposed populist remedies: Modi’s government has introduced cash payments for farmers, while Gandhi has indicated that, if elected, his government would initiate a guaranteed minimum income for the poor.

 HINDU NATIONALISM 

Combative nationalism appears to have now usurped this competitive populism. While the BJP’s policies have traditionally reflected Hindu-nationalist positions, nationalist rhetoric following the flare-up of tensions with Pakistan has emboldened political Hinduism. With the BJP’s 2014 election promises of furthering development, jobs and economic growth largely unfulfilled, nationalism offers an alternative rallying point.

However, the rhetoric and sentiment of the BJP’s nationalism largely exclude India’s 170 million Muslims, who will be observing the nationalist chest-thumping with a growing sense of unease. Another potentially marginalised segment of India’s population is the Dalit community (sometimes referred to as untouchables), which makes up approximately 16 percent of India’s population. The BJP’s support among the Dalit community has reportedly fallen since 2014, and violent — sometimes fatal — confrontations between Dalits and Hindu nationalists occur relatively frequently. For example, in May 2018, clashes between Hindus and Dalits in Sivaganga, Tamil Nadu, left three people dead.

By some accounts, it would play into the BJP’s hands to create divisions among the 200 million strong Dalit community, rather than risk them forming a united bloc in support of the opposition. Under these circumstances, the political parties’ messaging will have the potential to significantly impact communal tensions, for better or worse.

TAKE IT ONLINE 

The upcoming elections, dubbed by some observers as “the WhatsApp elections,” sees both major parties make widespread use of social media. For example, the BJP has amassed more than 900,000 volunteer smartphone pramukhs (chiefs) to share information about the party’s achievements and activities via WhatsApp groups. In turn, the National Congress has launched a Digital Sathi (digital companion) smartphone application and appointed their own volunteers to discuss party policies in dedicated WhatsApp groups.

In 2013, the WhatsApp messaging platform had an estimated 20 million active users in India. Current estimates suggest the figure has exceeded 210 million (out of a population of 1.4 billion). Unsurprisingly, uptake of the platform is more concentrated in the younger urban population and, notably, one out of five rural Indians says they regularly use the app. With relatively low data costs and the falling price of smartphones, that number is expected to keep growing, and with it the importance of online news sources. According to a recent survey, 29 percent of respondents in India trust news that is shared on WhatsApp and Facebook. Observers fear that misinformation spread through social media will find a receptive audience among this segment of the population.

 

FROM THE CLOUD TO THE STREETS 

The BJP has in the past been accused of using abusive social media posts to attack critics and of using social media platforms to spread misinformation and sectarian rumours. Given the increased prominence social media looks to be playing  in the 2019 elections, there is good reason to anticipate further violence triggered by malicious online messaging. Outside of the political realm, there is ample precedent. The use of WhatsApp has been linked to at least 30 incidents of murder and lynching, following the circulation of child abduction rumours, as well as to the lynching of Muslims accused of smuggling cows, which Hindus consider sacred.

 “WhatsApp use has been linked to at least 30 incidents of murder and lynching in India” 

While it is unlikely any political party will use social media platforms to openly encourage violence against political opponents, by its very nature social media is subject to abuse. Though accounts may not be officially connected to political parties, they can still carry party messages, or messages that appear to come from parties. Social media companies have come under increased pressure to limit false and potentially harmful information from spreading, but there are significant challenges to curbing online abuse, particularly in a country with as many subscribers as India.

With Indian politics often shaped along religious or social lines, violence against minority groups is not uncommon. And social media offers an easy tool through which those divisions can be exploited. As more than half a billion Indians head for the polls, there remains a high likelihood for social media messaging to prompt politically motivated violence.

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