Social Media and Critical Digital Literacy in India’s General Elections

by Anuradha Rao

The recently-held Indian general elections highlighted the crucial need for critical digital literacy as a key tool to fight fake news and uphold election integrity in a social media-saturated environment. In a commentary published for the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), Dr. Anuradha Rao has noted that critical digital literacy is particularly important at the digital fringes, where marginalisations and technology intersect. Developing human capabilities and smarter citizens is essential in light of the inability of artificial intelligence (AI) and technological solutions to detect and weed out fake news, hate speech, and propaganda on their own.

Social Media and Political Engagement
Social media has increasingly influenced public opinion and discourse in India since the landmark 2014 general elections, which saw the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Narendra Modi rise to power through the skilful leveraging of new media. Since then, social media has been used by political parties and actors as a regular tool of political communication, not just during, but between, elections as well.
The advent of social media has significantly impacted the nature and type of political communication and democratic engagement in India. The democratisation of (political) communication has also placed citizens at the receiving end of high levels of propaganda, misinformation, and fake news – resulting in increased political polarization, toxic public discourse, and violence.
Within this context, the ECI directives and internet companies’ monitoring of social media content would make cyberspace a more viable space for democratic engagement. However, these efforts need to be supplemented by citizens and civil society efforts as watchdogs, both online and offline.

For example, the ECI’s cVIGIL app provides citizens a means to report model code violations and electoral malpractices in real time, with a fast-track complaint reception and redressal system. Similarly, as technology companies have now realised, the limitations of artificial intelligence (AI) to weed out problematic and dangerous content make the involvement of humans a necessary condition.

The Digital Fringes
In both cases, the role of informed and active citizens is critical for efforts to clean up social media spaces and uphold election integrity. Where this gets tricky in the Indian context is that the success of such initiatives requires critical digital literacy, a crucial ingredient that is sorely lacking among netizens. Whereas media/digital literacy focuses on the effective use of information technology (IT) devices and services, critical digital literacy goes beyond this to instil critical thinking skills about the authenticity of content, and how it is consumed and shared.

Unfortunately, despite – or perhaps because of – the dizzying speed of mobile phone and internet penetration in India, the state (and even the private sector) has lagged behind in implementing critical digital literacy programmes and public awareness campaigns about the dangers of social media. Populations on the digital fringes viz., those with little or no access to new technologies and/or limited skills to use them effectively, are particularly susceptible to falsehoods peddled online.

The location at the digital fringes is not just a matter of technology, but the result of a series of disempowerments–class, caste, gender, age, geography, etc. Those on the digital fringes include the poor, rural populations, women, the disabled, migrants and internally displaced populations, and the elderly. The combination of rapid digital connectivity with little-to-no critical digital literacy is a time bomb, as evidenced in a string of social media-fuelled mob violence and lynchings in 2018.

Critical Digital Literacy and Election Integrity

Spurred into action by these horrific acts and government pressure, internet companies have initiated measures to detect and remove malicious content and tackle inappropriate behaviour and abuse ahead of the upcoming elections. They have also launched critical digital literacy programmes in partnership with government, private institutions, and civil society organisations.

These, and other digital literacy and cyber awareness programmes initiated by Indian corporate and not-for-profit organisations, are critical first lines of defence in tackling fake news and other problematic content. Such initiatives also play an important role by supplementing the efforts of the national digital literacy schemes launched by the government. Although an ambitious and significant step toward increasing rural digital literacy, the programme has suffered from several limitations, and does not include critical digital literacy in its curriculum.
Already there are a handful of fact-checking websites run by committed individuals, such as Alt News, Social Media Hoax Slayer, Check4Spam and Boom that are fighting fake news on a
daily basis. To make a real dent, however, their commendable efforts must be supported by higher journalism standards in the mainstream media, as well as through critical digital literacy programmes implemented on a national scale.

With the general elections just two weeks away, the thrust on critical digital literacy, particularly for those on the digital fringes, acquires greater urgency. Developing human capabilities and smarter citizens is crucial in light of the inability of AI and technological solutions to detect and weed out fake news, hate speech, and propaganda on their own. The need for collaborative actions – between academia, governments, technology companies, civil society and citizens – to instil critical digital literacy skills goes beyond upholding election integrity to defending the core principles of democracy itself.

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Dr Anuradha Rao is an independent researcher and consultant on information and communication technologies for civic and political engagement, digital politics, and smart cities, based in Singapore. She can be contacted at The author bears full responsibility for the facts cited and opinions expressed in this paper.