BJP Amit Shah addresses a gathering at the party headquarters in New Delhi. (Source: PTI)

Head of India’s Ruling Party Emboldens Volunteers Spreading Fake News

(Bloomberg) -- The powerful president of India’s ruling party has encouraged his organization’s social media volunteers to spread viral messages supporting the government ahead of next year’s election, and even seemed to praise fake news that worked in their favor.

"We are capable of delivering any message we want to the public, whether sweet or sour, true or fake," said Amit Shah, the head of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, at a rally for social media volunteers in the Indian state of Rajasthan on Sept. 22.

In India, where smartphones have proliferated but digital literacy remains low, fake news and viral social media posts have proved deadly in the past. Over the last year, Indian police have linked numerous mob lynching attacks across the country to fake messages spread over the WhatsApp messaging service.

WhatsApp messages warning of child kidnappers have prompted anxious villagers to form mobs that attack strangers. India was already facing a wave of Hindu nationalist vigilante attacks on Muslim cow traders and dairy farmers.

Viral Message

In Shah’s comments, which were posted on the BJP’s YouTube channel and reported by India’s The Wire, he spoke approvingly of one "smart" social media volunteer who spread a fake rumor over WhatsApp during a state election in 2017.

Shah said the BJP social media team had helped spread a volunteer’s false message that a rival -- the state’s then chief minister -- had slapped his politician father in the face. The fake message went viral.

"One should not do such things, but in a way he created a certain perception," Shah told the crowd. "This is something worth doing, but don’t do it," he added, prompting the audience to burst into laughter. "Do you understand what I am saying? This is something worth doing, but don’t do it!"

G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, a spokesman for the BJP, referred questions about Shah’s comments to the party’s head of information technology, Amit Malviya, who declined to comment. A prime minister’s office spokesman did not respond to calls or texts seeking comment.

In a previous meeting with party faithful, Shah had told social media volunteers to avoid posting fake news because it would endanger the BJP’s credibility, according to a Times of India report.

Concern about fake social media posts has reached India’s highest institutions.

India’s Chief Justice Dipak Misra asked central and state governments to "take steps to curb and stop dissemination of irresponsible and explosive messages, videos and other material on various social media platforms."

India’s Election Commission has also expressed concern about "fake news and paid news" ahead of the elections.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.