May 2019: Misinformation weaponised to target electoral process and political leaders

Politics was the fulcrum of misinformation/disinformation in May, as India voted in the 2019 general election. Misinformation was weaponized and disseminated in an aggressive, yet strategic manner in a bid to shape public opinion. After the verdict was declared on May 23, the focus moved towards EVMs and the integrity of the poll process.

Continuity in political misinformation

The scourge of misinformation centered around politics, which was in full flow in April, spilled over into May.

1. Fake newspaper clipping claims PM Modi’s family blames him for his father’s death

A clipping that had been floating on social media the last few years resurfaced this election season. It talks about Prime Minister Narendra Modi and alleged incidents from his childhood. “मोदी के भाई बहन नरेंद्र मोदी को ही अपने पिताजी के मौत का जिम्मेदार मानते है  (Modi’s brothers and sister blame Narendra Modi for their father’s death),” the clipping is headlined.

It says that PM Modi’s father, Damodardas Mulchand Modi, used to make ends meet by pickpocketing and stealing coal and iron from the railway station where he worked as a tea seller. He traded the stolen items for gold, which, in turn, were stolen by Narendra Modi when he was a young boy. His father, unable to cope with his son’s actions, suffered a cardiac arrest. The family could not get back the stolen gold despite lodging an FIR and Damodardas Mulchand Modi subsequently died because his family could afford the medical expenses. The story ends by claiming that former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee suppressed the case and the FIR against Narendra Modi in 1996.

The clipping was shared widely on social media and messaging platforms.

Alt News’ fact-check found that the claims made in this ‘newspaper clipping’ are ludicrous and fake. Alt News spoke to PM Modi’s family who confirmed that the contents of this write-up are false. Moreover there are spelling errors in this ‘article’, which betray its fakeness. Alt News’ fact-check can be read here.

2. Gaffe by Rahul Gandhi? Times Now, India Today misreport

The India Today group misreported Rahul Gandhi’s poll speech at Neemuch in MP on May 14, stating that Gandhi had bungled with the names of the chief ministers of Congress-ruled states. An article published on the website was titled, ‘Rahul Gandhi mixes up names of CMs of Congress-ruled states, Twitter has field day’. Times Now too reported that the Congress president had committed a gaffe.

The fact of the matter is that Rahul Gandhi had not bungled the names of the CMs of Congress ruled states, as reported by Times Now and India Today. The basis for this claim was a clipped video. Alt News’s fact-check on this may be read here.

3. Fake, inflammatory quote attributed to Yogi Adityanath

अगर हमारी सरकार गीरी तो पुरे देश में आग लगा दूंगा – योगी आदित्यनाथ (If our govt is voted out of power then I will set the whole country on fire -translated)”, reads a statement ascribed to UP CM Yogi Adityanath in a supposed screengrab of a news channel.

Looking at the logo shown in the screengrab, Alt News found that the screengrab of the news channel belongs to a Gujarati News channel called Mantavya News. We found that the alleged screengrab of Mantavya News, which attributes an outrageous statement to the UP CM, is morphed. Alt News’ fact-check may be read here.

4. Old photo of Mamata Banerjee shared with false claim that she is Muslim

“Picture speaks more than a thousand words. Mamta adopted her mother’s religion Islam which is evident from this picture where she greets Basu with an adab. Her masters degree too was in Islamic History. She is anti Hindu and her vitriolic diatribe against the Hindus proves her allegiance to Islam!”,read a caption attached to an image, featuring West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee and former West Bengal CM Jyoti Basu. The caption along with the image, suggested that Banerjee’s mother was Muslim, and Banerjee had adopted her mother’s religion and was therefore greeting Basu with an adab.

Alt News found that the claim about Banjerjee’s mother being a Muslim is untrue. Gayatri Devi, the mother of Mamata Banerjee died at the age of 81 on December 17, 2011. Further, Alt News also found that Gayatri Devi, the wife of Promileswar Banerjee and mother of Mamata Banerjee, was cremated, a ritual followed by those who practice Hinduism.

5. False claim of PM Modi spending Rs. 80 lakh per month on make-up

“Information received through RTI reveals that, on an average, Rs 80 lacs are paid to the beautician each month for make up of our PM,” is a claim which was affixed to a video that went viral on social media. The video shows Prime Minister Narendra Modi preparing for what looks like a photo shoot.

Information recieved through RTI reveals that, on an average, Rs 80 lacs are paid to the beautician each month for make up of our PM.

Posted by Sunil Dsouza on Monday, 6 May 2019

The claim is false. The clip used to propagate that the Prime Minister spent Rs 80 lakh on beauticians has been picked up from the video showing the making of PM Modi’s wax statue in Madame Tussauds, Singapore.

6. Congress spreads misinformation about Modi govt secretly transferring RBI gold abroad

The official handle of the Congress party tweeted a link to an article by the pro-party publication National Herald, titled ‘Did the Modi govt secretly transport 200 tonnes of RBI’s gold to Switzerland in 2014?’  The article had appeared online on May 2.

The claim is untrue. Alt News perused the annual reports of the central bank for successive years- 2011-122012-13 and 2013-14, and compared it with the annual reports of the RBI from 2014-15 to 2017-18, the latest report. The total gold stock of the Reserve Bank of India has remained consistent throughout, and has in fact increased marginally in 2017-18.

7. ISIS destroying artefacts in Iraq shared as TMC workers breaking Vidyasagar statue

A couple of images, of bearded men destroying a statue, were circulated on social media. “CCTV फुटेज में साफ दिख रहा है विद्यासागर जी की मूर्ति को टीएमसी के लोग तोड़ रहे हैं #घटिया_राजनीती और इल्जाम BJP पर….pls share this post (It is clearly visible in the CCTV footage, TMC workers are breaking the statue of Vidyasagar. #filthypolitics and blame on BJP. -translated)”, read a message posted along with the images by an individual user on Facebook. It was claimed that these images are the visual evidence of TMC workers who are supposedly seen vandalizing Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s statue.

Upon reverse searching the image on Google, Alt News found that the images pertain to an incident when artefacts in Iraq were destroyed by ISIS terrorists. “ISIS has again destroyed cultural treasures, this time bulldozing the site of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in northern Iraq, the nation’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said.”, stated a report published by American news network CNNon March 5, 2015. The Guardian had also published the images in an op-ed related to the incident on February 27, 2015.

Misinformation reigned supreme in poll season, from social media to sections of mainstream media as well. Alt News has compiled a list of the most prominent instances, which may be read here.

Post-verdict misinformation

There was no respite from misinformation even after the poll verdict on May 23.

1. BJP MP falsely terms death of 19 year old in Belagavi as murder by cow smugglers

“Shivu Uppar, a 19Yr old boy was murdered &hanged in Bagewadi Bus stand in Belagavi. He was hacked to death just for protecting cows from the cow smugglers, that was the only mistake he did. I demand CM to deal this sternly & arrest the culprits.”

The above message has been tweeted by BJP MP from Karnataka, Shobha Karandlaje, along with disturbing images of a young boy hanging from his neck. The tweet was later deleted. The archived version may be accessed here.

The claim is false and inflammatory. Shivu Uppar was NOT killed by cow smugglers as claimed by Karandlaje. He had committed suicide. This was confirmed by Karnataka police which cited the post-mortem report.

2. “Modi destroying old termite ridden banyan tree”: Write-up falsely ascribed to Mark Tully

A write-up attributed to celebrated journalist Mark Tully has been shared widely on social media. Titled ‘Modi destroying termite ridden old Banyan tree’, the write-up is critical of the Nehru dynasty, calling it a “termite ridden old Banyan tree which will still try its best to stop any one growing to the extent that it may even turn the soil upside down before falling down”. The write-up cautions against the lingering ‘old order’ and how it will do anything and everything in its power to preserve the status quo and prevent positive change. The full text may be accessed here.

Alt News discovered that the write-up ascribed to Mark Tully is to be found nowhere in his book ‘No Full Stops in India’. We then contacted Mark Tully who confirmed that this so called article/passage is fake. “It is a rehash of an older fake which has been in circulation for years now. I would be enormously grateful for anything you can do to make it known the so called article allegedly  by me is a fake”.

3. False claim: Pakistani flags waved at Rahul Gandhi’s victory procession in Wayanad

“Wayanad People Celebrating Rahul Gandhi’s Victory with Pakistani Flags”, posted a user, with a video where people can be seen waving green flags and heard shouting ‘Rahul Gandhi Zindabad’. The user claimed that Pakistani flags were waved at Rahul Gandhi’s victory procession in Wayanad.

Alt News had earlier debunked a video where it was claimed by netizens that Pakistani flags were waved at Rahul Gandhi’s pre-nomination rally in Wayanad, Kerala. In the video, the green flags waved by the crowd are Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) flags and NOT Pakistani flags. This is a claim which is circulated after almost every election.

4. Old video shared with false, communal angle of Muslims in Jhansi tortured by Hindus

A video of a woman, who is seen wailing with a bloodied mouth, was shared in the Pakistani social media ecosystem. Facebook Page Pakistani Defence Command shared the video with a communally charged message –“Endian Hindus are entering Muslim’s Homes and killing them for no Reason. Here a Muslim sister calling us for help. This is Muslims life in Endia. My dear sister we will take your Revenge. Dear Pakistanio Pls Value your PakArmy who are protecting u from these Hindus since 70yrs.”

The message suggested that Hindus in India are arbitrarily killing Muslims. It was claimed that this Indian Muslim woman seen in the video is desperately calling out for help. The narration in the background suggested that this incident took place at Barau Sagar in Jhansi district, UP.

Endian Hindus are entering Muslim’s Homes and killing them for no Reason.
Here a Muslim sister calling us for help.
This is Muslims life in Endia.
My dear sister we will take your Revenge.
Dear Pakistanio Pls Value your PakArmy who are protecting u from these Hindus since 70yrs.

Posted by Pakistan Defence Command on Thursday, May 23, 2019

The claim was not only false but provocative. Alt News found that the video is actually from Telangana and NOT Jhansi. It’s a 2018 video related to an incident in which a sub-inspector was caught on camera beating his wife and mother-in-law. “The incident happened at his residence where the victim had gone to confront him over his alleged illicit relationship with another woman”, stated a Times Now report published on August 31, 2018.

5. Fake quote: Wg Cmdr Abhinandan Varthaman said, “Pulwama attack a BJP conspiracy”

“पुलवामा हमला बीजेपी की सोची समझी साजिश थी -विंग कमांडर अभिनंदन (Pulwama attack was a well-planned conspiracy of the BJP -Wing Commander Abhinandan -translated)”, read a message posted along with a newspaper clipping.  The clipping had attributed a quote to IAF pilot Abhinandan Varthaman. It said, “पुलवामा हमला बीजेपी की सोची समझी साजिश थी और पाकिस्तान पर नकली हमला करवाया, मोदी को चुनाव जीतने के लिए इमरान खान मदद कर रहा है। बालाकोट पर बमबारी इमरान खान की सहमति से हुई है (Pulwama attack was a well-planned conspiracy of the BJP whereas the attack on Pakistan was a sham. Imran Khan is helping Modi win the elections. Balakot airstrikes were conducted with Imran Khan’s permission -translated)”. 

Alt News found that the newspaper cutting, which was circulated on social media, was clipped from a fact-check article published by Dainik Jagran regarding the statement ascribed to Varthaman. The fact-check by Dainik Jagran had arrived at the conclusion that the quote is fake.

Misinformation about EVM, EC and the poll process

After the declaration of the poll verdict on May 23, aspersions were cast on the electoral process. In several cases, misinformation was the crutch.

1. False claim about multiple BJP candidates polling identical number of votes- 2,11,280

A message viral on social media claimed that multiple BJP candidates had received an identical number of votes, and it was suggested that such a result cannot be achieved without EVMs being rigged. The text of the claim is, “बिना ईवीएम सेट किए ही अलग अलग सीट पे भाजपा प्रत्यासी को एक जितने वोट कैसे मिले ? हर लिस्ट में बीजेपी को एक ही 2,11,820 का अंक मिल रहा है। (Without rigging EVMs, how is it possible that BJP candidates got identical votes on multiple seats? In every list, the count corresponding to BJP is identical – 2,11,820)” It was shared on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.

This viral claim about BJP candidates getting identical number of votes on multiple seats is absolutely false. In order to verify this claim, Alt News looked up the 2019 Lok Sabha results on the election commission website and checked the numbers for the corresponding constituencies. Alt News found that each of the BJP candidates in the constituencies listed above have unique number of votes, and not a single match was found.

2. False claim of 6 lakh votes polled in favour of Rahul Gandhi vanishing from EC records

Did over 6 lakh votes polled in favour of Congress president Rahul Gandhi in Wayanad disappear from the records? This was a claim made on social media, on the basis of a screenshot of the website of the Election Commission of India. According to this claim, the EC website had showed over 13 lakh votes in favour of Rahul Gandhi, which became 7 lakh when the final result was declared.

The figure of over 13 lakh votes polled in favour of Rahul Gandhi is false. This is because the total number of votes polled in the constituency was 10,89,819. There is no discrepancy in the records. The claims floating on social media were the outcome of an error on the website of the ECI, which was later rectified.

3. Old pictures, videos shared to claim EVM manipulation/EC lapse

Several instances came to light, wherein social media users had shared old photographs and/or videos to claim that the Lok Sabha 2019 election was heavily compromised. In one instance, a video of alleged EVM malfunction during the 2017 civic polls in Uttar Pradesh was shared as recent. A video of an incident which took place ahead of the MP assembly election of December 2018 was shared with the implication that this represented the state of affairs in the general election.

The above photographs, for example, were clicked in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Yet, they were circulated with the false claim that they represented an outpouring of anger against the use of EVMs.

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