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In India, Fake News Floods Social Media as Voting Begins

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Indian voters begin marking ballots this week in a general election that will continue over the next six weeks.

The election will decide seats in India's lower house of parliament. The winning party or coalition will choose India's prime minister.

Current Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, is seeking a second term in office. The main opposition Congress Party, led by Rahul Gandhi, is seeking to take control of the government.

The election will be held in several rounds of voting through May 19, with vote counting expected to begin May 23. The country has about 900 million eligible voters.

FILE - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he speaks after releasing India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s election manifesto for the April/May general election, in New Delhi, Apr. 8, 2019.
FILE - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he speaks after releasing India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s election manifesto for the April/May general election, in New Delhi, Apr. 8, 2019.

Experts say a high percentage of India's citizens are getting election-related information from social media. They say this has raised concerns about fake news stories and images influencing the election.

Media watchdog groups say in the run-up to the election, they have seen fake, made up pictures being published by major news media. They have also seen hateful propaganda based on made up comments.

A lot of people seem to be believing the information they are seeing.

Ram Shankar Rai owns a store in the city of New Delhi. Rai told The Associated Press he spends at least two hours a day examining political news and videos shared by others on social media.

On the WhatsApp messenger service, Rai received a series of videos and images that were said to show results of an Indian airstrike in Pakistan. The information included pictures identified as the bodies of dead militants.

FILE - A man walks past a woman who sits by a wall with graffiti that mocks Indian politicians ahead of the general election in Kolkata, India, Apr. 1, 2019.
FILE - A man walks past a woman who sits by a wall with graffiti that mocks Indian politicians ahead of the general election in Kolkata, India, Apr. 1, 2019.

But Rai later found out the images were falsely identified. They were not militants. Instead, the pictures showed victims of a 2005 earthquake that killed thousands of people in Pakistan. Rai told the AP he could not tell the pictures were not real. "It's news," he said. "How can it be fake?"

Another example of fake news appeared on Facebook in February after a suicide bombing in Kashmir, an area claimed by both India and Pakistan. The bombing killed 40 Indian soldiers and increased tensions between the two sides.

Two weeks after the attack, a Facebook user shared a recording of what he said was a telephone call in which the head of the BJP, Amit Shah, was speaking. Shah was supposedly heard saying, "We agree that for election, we need a war." But the recording was not real. It was made by putting together different pieces of audio from older stories.

The Facebook post was seen by 2.5 million viewers and shared more than 150,000 times before it was removed by the company.

In this file photo, a man reads a newspaper at the reception area of Facebook's new office in Mumbai, India, May 27, 2016.
In this file photo, a man reads a newspaper at the reception area of Facebook's new office in Mumbai, India, May 27, 2016.

In India, Facebook has partnered with fact checking companies and increased efforts to block fake accounts. On Monday, Facebook said it had removed 1,126 accounts, groups and pages in India and Pakistan for "inauthentic behavior."

One of the fact checking companies partnering is Boom. Jency Jacob directs the operation. He told the AP his biggest worry is "the blatant misuse of old videos and images to suggest that one political party or leader is not good for the country." He added that most people do not take the time "to go back and check whether what they are seeing is true or not."

Apar Gupta is head of an Indian-based group called the Internet Freedom Foundation. He said many Indian internet users seem to lack the knowledge and skills to judge that "just because it's on a screen does not mean it's true."

I'm Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English based on reports from the Associated Press, Reuters and VOA News. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments section, and visit our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

rounds – n. a series of repeated actions or events

eligible adj. having the right to do or receive something

fake adj. false, not true

watchdog – adj. involving or related to something that guards against loss, waste or undesirable actions

viewer – n. someone who watches or inspects something

check – v. to inspect or examine

inauthentic adj. not real or true

blatant adj. very obvious, with no attempt to be honest or behave well

screen n. the area where information and operations are shown on an electronic device

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