As India Votes, Modi’s Party Misleads Online

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Amid India’s weekslong election, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants voters to know that it’s about action, not talk.

“Congress will say, BJP will do,” a poster shared recently by state- and district-level BJP accounts on social media asserted, referring to the opposition Indian National Congress (or Congress Party).

The campaign poster features an image of Modi in front of an elevated metro-railway and touts the expansion of transit services in India over the last decade as evidence of the BJP’s can-do spirit and results-oriented governance. Except, the background photo isn’t of anything the BJP did. In fact, it’s not a train or railway in India at all.

Indian nonpartisan news outlet Alt News identified the misleading background as a free online stock image of Jurong East station in Singapore. (TIME can confirm that the background is of the Singapore Mass Rapid Transit system, which was apparently digitally manipulated to hide the SMRT logo from the front of the train and its side door.)

Stock photo described as “free HD photo of train, grey, singapore, and wallpaper.”
Stock photo described as “free HD photo of train, grey, singapore, and wallpaper.”shawnanggg/Unsplash

It’s the latest example of the flood of disinformation and misinformation spreading in the country, particularly around political discourse. India’s elections of 2019 were already dogged by concerns of rampant false information, but experts say the problem has only intensified—fueled by the growth of generative artificial intelligence as well as the failure of tech companies and social media platforms to enforce safeguards.

And though false information has been detected across the political spectrum—from deepfakes of Bollywood stars endorsing the opposition to video of a single person casting multiple ballots (shared out of context from a training mock exercise) that casts doubt on the integrity of the election—the BJP has been notorious for its cyber armies and organized social media manipulation efforts.

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An April report found that the BJP uses “shadow advertisers” to spread ads in support of Modi, many of which are propaganda targeting the general opposition and/or hate-based. But while much of the disinformation and misinformation appeals to an undercurrent of Hindu nationalism, as employment has become perhaps the most salient election issue this year, the BJP and its supporters have also inflated the party’s economic achievements under Modi’s rule.

In the World Economic Forum’s 2024 Global Risks Report, India was the only country where surveyed experts ranked misinformation and disinformation as its greatest threat—even greater than extreme weather, or infectious diseases, or economic downturn.

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