India’s election campaign is being fought in voters’ pockets

“ARE YOU there? It’s me, your sweetheart,” a push notification coos at 7am. It comes from one of India’s most popular smartphone apps, Helo, which allows users to chat and share content. But the flirtatious burble soon gives way to political anecdotes and jokes aimed at national leaders. Many question whether Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the opposition Congress party, is really Hindu, or make him look weak. The torrent of political content is only natural, given that voting began in the country’s seven-phase election on April 11th. But who is behind it all, and what effect will it have on voters?

The campaign still features billboards and little lorries with loudspeakers plying through towns and villages. But this year’s election is being waged most vigorously on voters’ phones. At the previous general election, in 2014, India’s 1.3bn citizens had barely 100m smartphones between them. Now they have more than 400m. Mobile data are cheap, with a gigabyte costing just $0.26. India has become the biggest market for Facebook (more than 300m accounts), WhatsApp (more than 200m active users) and a host of other social-media apps. Many, such as Helo and SHAREit, a similar service, are owned by Chinese firms. Together, they were downloaded 950m times last year.

Many social circles and extended families form WhatsApp groups, to share gossip, humour and everything else. The messaging app’s encryption makes the source and content of the material circulated all but invisible to everyone but its intended targets. That can have grim consequences. After a rash of rumours about child-snatching led to several lynchings last year, WhatsApp made it harder to forward messages to big groups, to slow the spread of misinformation.

The app remains political parties’ favoured means of disseminating propaganda, factual and otherwise. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) recruited a “troll army” of volunteers in time for the last election, which it won in a landslide. In the five years since, its social-media soldiers have made life online miserable for its ideological enemies, mainly liberals, leftists, Muslims and feminists. Other parties have established their own IT cells, but with the BJP raking in 93% of all declared campaign donations, its technological superiority is only to be expected.

The BJP aims to have 150,000 cyber-soldiers in the state of Uttar Pradesh alone. And then there are the bots. Twitter is not especially influential in India, but is relatively easy to study since its content is visible to all. The Atlantic Council, an American think-tank, examined Twitter’s traffic during a two-day spell in February, when Narendra Modi, the prime minister, toured the state of Tamil Nadu. Bots pushed both pro- and anti-Modi hashtags by the thousands per second, with the pro-Modi bots working three times harder.

At 8.40am, Helo bleeps again, unbidden. It wants to share the good news that “America has dealt a tight slap to India’s pimp-journalists!” The pimps in question are news outlets that had reported that India had not downed a Pakistani F-16 last month, as the government had claimed. The accompanying post states—wrongly—that the American government has denied the reports. It comes from an outfit called Special Coverage News, which seems to specialise in machine-generated copy with a pro-Modi tilt.

There is no obvious way to prevent such claims from circulating. Indeed, the chief executive of a rival app to Helo acknowledges there is no law to prevent his company going further, and taking fees for surreptitious advertising or selling data about users’ locations. (He would never do that, he hastens to add.) The Election Commission has been meeting social-media firms to try to find ways to ensure that they delete content that violates its code of conduct. But many of the apps concerned, such as WhatsApp, are impossible to police. And even those that can be invigilated can be overwhelmed by the volume of propaganda. When it comes to filtering out falsehoods, it seems, India’s voters will be left to their own devices.

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