Misinformation during Indian elections: The saga from 2019 to 2024

A prelude to The Hindu’s coverage of the evolving nature of misinformation in Indian elections, from the use of WhatsApp to AI-generated synthetic content

March 25, 2024 10:24 am | Updated March 26, 2024 07:19 am IST

Image for representational purpose only. File

Image for representational purpose only. File | Photo Credit: The Hindu

This election season, misinformation has a new face. This time, it smiles, talks and woos the Indian voter with an ingenuity that is hard to detect and harder to regulate. The 2019 elections were no stranger to hate speech and disinformation campaigns, but the technology that enables this ecosystem has revolutionised at warp speed. Social media companies are struggling to contain fake news and propaganda; the Indian Government is updating existing legislation to better handle the surge in deepfakes online. The impulse to deceive has found a newer, more eager outlet in the last five years. In an upcoming story, The Hindu will decode how the nature of election-related misinformation online has evolved, from social media bots to deepfakes.

Deepfakes were a concern in 2019 too, but the generative AI boom of 2023 has made their creation far easier, effective and cheaper. Once upon a time WhatsApp forwards and IT bot-run accounts spread resulted in physical violence; the new text-to-image generators now make it easy for perpetrators to further target marginalised people through disinformation campaigns and propaganda. Rights agencies warn, louder than ever, that the average Indian voter in 2024 is at the highest risk of electoral misinformation. There are knowledge gaps in people’s ability to detect what is real and what is AI, leaving them vulnerable to deception and disenfranchisement. 

We spoke with legal experts, activists, and even a professional deepfake maker to place misinformation in a continuum -- tracing its growth and comparing its course. The forthcoming story is a vade mecum for the Indian voter; a guide that offers context to a vacuum of synthetic chaos that undermines trust and truth in a democracy.

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