MUMBAI, India — In the continuing Indian elections, as 900 million people are voting to elect representatives to the lower house of the Parliament, disinformation and hate speech are drowning out truth on social media networks in the country and creating a public health crisis like the pandemics of the past century.
This contagion of a staggering amount of morphed images, doctored videos and text messages is spreading largely through messaging services and influencing what India’s voters watch and read on their smartphones. A recent study by Microsoft found that over 64 percent Indians encountered fake news online, the highest reported among the 22 countries surveyed.
India has the most social media users, with 300 million users on Facebook, 200 million on WhatsApp and 250 million using YouTube. TikTok, the video messaging service owned by a Chinese company, has more than 88 million users in India. And there are Indian messaging applications such as ShareChat, which claims to have 40 million users and allows them to communicate in 14 Indian languages.
These platforms are filled with fake news and disinformation aimed at influencing political choices during the Indian elections. Some of the egregious instances are a made-up BBC survey predicting victory for the governing Bharatiya Janata Party and a fake video of the opposition Congress Party president, Rahul Gandhi, saying a machine can convert potatoes into gold.
Fake stories are spread by legions of online trolls and unsuspecting users, with dangerous impact. A rumor spread through social media about child kidnappers arriving in various parts of India has led to 33 deaths in 69 incidents of mob violence since 2017, according to IndiaSpend, a data journalism website.
Six months before the 2014 general elections in India, 62 people were killed in sectarian violence and 50,000 were displaced from their homes in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Investigations by the police found that a fake video was shared on WhatsApp to whip up sectarian passions.
In the lead-up to the elections, the Indian government summoned the top executives of Facebook and Twitter to discuss the crisis of coordinated misinformation, fake news and political bias on their platforms. In March, Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s global vice president for public policy, was called to appear before a committee of 31 members of the Indian Parliament — who were mostly from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party — to discuss “safeguarding citizens’ rights on social/online news media platforms.”
The hearing was an exercise in absurdist theater because the governing B.J.P. has been the chief beneficiary of divisive content that reaches millions because of the way social media algorithms, especially Facebook, amplify “engaging” articles.
As elsewhere in the world, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are ambivalent about tackling the problem head-on for the fear of making decisions that invoke the wrath of national political forces. The tightrope walk was evident when in April, Facebook announced a ban on about 1,000 fake news pages targeting India. They included pages directly associated with political parties.
Facebook announced that a majority of the pages were associated with the opposition Indian National Congress party, but it merely named the technology company associated with the governing B.J.P. pages. Many news reports later pointed out that the pages related to the B.J.P. that were removed were far more consequential and reached millions.
Asking the social media platforms to fix the crisis is a deeply flawed approach because most of the disinformation is shared in a decentralized manner through messaging. Seeking to monitor those messages is a step toward accepting mass surveillance. The Indian government loves the idea and has proposed laws that, among other things, would break end-to-end encryption and obtain user data without a court order.
The idea of more effective fact-checking has come up often in the debates around India’s disinformation contagion. But it comes with many conceptual difficulties: A large proportion of messages shared on social networks in India have little to do with verifiable facts and peddle prejudiced opinions. Facebook India has a small 11- to 22-member fact-checking team for content related to Indian elections.
Fake news is not a technological or scientific problem with a quick fix. It should be treated as a new kind of public health crisis in all its social and human complexity. The answer might lie in looking back at how we responded to the epidemics, the infectious diseases in the 19th and early 20th centuries, which have similar characteristics.
In response to infectious diseases, over a period of more than a century, nations created the public health infrastructure — a combination of public and private institutions that track outbreaks, fund research, develop medicines and provide health services. We need a similar response to tackle disinformation and fake news.
Epidemics taught us that citizen education is the first and most critical step for a solution. Without the widespread knowledge that washing hands with soap can prevent infections, all other interventions would have sunk under the sheer volume of patients. No number of tweaks to the Facebook algorithm, no size of fact-checking teams, no amount of government regulations can have the same impact as a citizen who critically examines the information being circulated.
Public education might seem a soft measure compared with regulation, but informing the people is the best investment to tackle the problem. In the long term, it will be effective because content distribution will be cheaper and the political and commercial incentives to spread lies will only grow.
Even if technology giants are subject to severe controls, new methods will emerge to meet the demand. In the short term, a broad antismoking-style campaign against misinformation on social media is likely to be effective. It can win broad political support because ostensibly every political party is against fake news.
India has an inspiring track record of such public education efforts, the pioneering family-planning campaigns of the 1950s, the decades-long successful campaign against polio and more recently, convincing millions of citizens to voluntarily give up their subsidies on cooking gas.
India also has a vast publicly funded Press Information Bureau, and a television and radio network, which should monitor, track and debunk fake news. Though they remain under complete control of the government in power and the ruling party and wouldn’t tackle political disinformation, they could make a beginning with apparently apolitical disinformation such as rumors of child kidnappings.
The heroic efforts of India’s small band of independent fact-checking organizations should be bolstered with public and private support. Funding public-interest journalism should be as high on the list of priorities of social-impact investors as other issues of public health.
If we want to preserve the bedrock of liberal society — the principle that ideas of all kinds can be shared in privacy — then the real battleground is not technology platforms or changing the behavior of politicians but increasing the immunity of citizens.
This story first appeared in NYTimes.com here.