The rampant misuse of social media platforms to spread fake news has been a global cause for concern, and now researchers are conducting a study in India to find out how misinformation shared through WhatsApp messages is influencing the voters in the country.
According to UK-based Indian researcher Sayan Banerjee, fake news does not change people's political opinions, but rather reinforces the existing beliefs and brings out the worst impulses within us.
Various reports have suggested that fake news is used to create false perceptions about political candidates or specific groups of people -- manipulating the choices of the voters.
Banerjee and his team from the University of Essex in the UK want to understand how fake news spread through WhatsApp affects politics, ethnic violence, and public policy choices in diverse and developing countries like India.
The team is set to conduct a five-week long research study in 18 constituencies across four states -- UP, Bihar, West Bengal, and Jharkhand.
"Political research in the US has already found that fake news only reinforces the existing political ideas and beliefs. Fake news does not make a person change his beliefs," Banerjee told PTI.
"We have a tendency to see fake news as a disease. That is what the narrative is in the public and media. What we are trying to show is that fake news is only a catalyst, the demon is within ourselves," he said.
The experiments will be conducted in two stages. The first involves 3,500 voters across 18 constituencies. Researchers will establish their political preferences and recruit participants willing to share their phone numbers for the study.
In the second stage, the researchers will share verified news with a control group and fake news regarding public goods and security issues to a treatment group.
"These are very innocuous fake news. It will be in the form of images and simple captions. It will not mention any political party or real candidates," said Banerjee.
The study, which is being funded by Facebook, will then try to understand how the participant's opinions change as a result of the messages.
In his previous research, Banerjee found that three major factors drive political behavior in India: security, public goods, and economic patronage.
"Security issues is not just threats of violence against your family or caste, but also about your civil rights, access to police and legal institutions," Banerjee said.
The lack of people from lower castes in courtrooms and police station has always been a significant barrier for Dalits to get justice, Banerjee said.
However, affirmative action to protect the interests of the lower castes -- such as the caste reservations -- is causing a backlash from those who have always been on the top.
"There are a lot of poor, upper caste people who are not getting any govt benefits. They will feel aggrieved. That is where the fake news comes is," Banerjee said.
He said that political parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are using this predisposed belief of being 'left out' to get people to vote for them.
"We see the BJP pushing extremely violent messages in their WhatsApp groups because those things work in getting their voters to the polling booth. They are targeting people who are going to vote for BJP anyway. I don't think it changes a lot of minds," Banerjee said.
"If you look at the numbers, the hate crimes and civil rights violations against caste are through the roof," he said.
On the other hand, Congress and other parties, which are trying to stitch together much larger coalitions, have a much harder job.
Banerjee expects that messages about public goods -- such as roads, electricity, drainage system, etc -- work the best for bigger coalitions.
He also pointed out that fake news is not a new phenomenon. Misinformation has been used by governments for ages to control public opinions for generations.
However, with increased accessibility to smartphones and the internet, the dissemination of such messages has become more decentralised and harder to monitor.
"The government is freaking out because they can no longer control it," Banerjee said.
According to him, at present, the BJP has the first mover's advantage. "BJP has a more organised ground game where they can influence people -- at least motivate their own voter to go to the polls by sharing something racist or bigoted," Banerjee said.
However, every political party is trying to do the same thing. Once they catch up, Banerjee says the influence of fake news will wear out.
The data from the study will not only be helpful for academics, but also for political parties, who will be able to better understand what their voters want.
"We want to let the data speak for itself. It will show what kind of messages work best for influences voters. It is then up to a political party to decide whether they want to be the bad guy -- whether they want to influence their voters with negative messages," Banerjee said.