As Bengal Elections Approach, Digital Media Fills Up with Propaganda Camouflaged as News

More than 30 such websites and channels have emerged since 2018, making this another set of elections that could be won by social media.

Kolkata: As political parties in West Bengal gear up for the 2021 assembly election, more than 30 propaganda-spewing websites and video channels have emerged, all camouflaged as ‘news’ sites and channels. These websites and channels produce unverified and biased content as well as fake news.

In its investigations into these channels and news sites, The Wire has learned that they were floated between 2018 and 2020; that most are biased towards the Bharatiya Janata Party; and that, barring two, all produce content in Bengali.

With names like India Rag, Baarta Today, Campaign Calling Media, Bharat News, Bangodesh, Kolkata Prime Time, Times Bengal, Bengal News 24, SOM Extra, Bengal Times, GS Media and 4u Bangla, about 80% of these websites and channels offer no background information about their ownership. The remaining 20% provide only vague information, such as, “We are a media and news portal” and “This channel will provide daily news updates on West Bengal”.

Of the 26 YouTube channels tracked by The Wire, six came into existence in 2020 (the latest one on August 22), 11 started operations in 2019, four in 2018 and six in 2017, according to the information provided on the channel pages.

As for the ‘news’ websites, most provide no information about themselves at all. None have dates of incorporation and very few offer contact details. Articles published on these websites do not have bylines; typically they use tags like ‘staff reporter’, ‘admin’, ‘desk’ and so on. Some websites attempt to make their articles appear more authentic by crediting the writers with names, but the surnames are never included.

Facts and fiction

Three YouTube channels that call themselves news channels have rather unusual names: ‘Tech News Bangla’, ‘Daily Jobs Update’ and ‘Banglar Loko Gaan’. When The Wire investigated, we learned that they had once been popular channels providing non-news content. ‘Tech News Bangla’, for example, used to upload videos related to new gadgets, mobile phones and so on until a year ago. Likewise, until last year, ‘Daily Jobs Update’ uploaded videos on government jobs, job eligibility criteria, skill requirements and so on. Now both are ‘news’ channels.

Also read: Why Mamata Banerjee Is Backtracking From the Bengali Regionalist Stance

Speaking to The Wire on the condition of anonymity, a person who once worked as a senior member of the BJP IT cell said, “There is a content creation department whose responsibility is to create daily or periodic propaganda content in the form of news.” Since reach is an important metric for YouTube channels, the BJP sometimes buys out channels with large subscriber bases for their own benefit, this person added.

When The Wire analysed the content of the dubious YouTube channels and websites, most were found to have a BJP/RSS bias. India Rag, Sri Bangla, Bangodesh, Bharat News, Rupam TV and The Bengal Owl are all biased towards the BJP and peddle fabricated news.

Channels like 4u Bangla, SOM Extra, Bangla News 24, NK Digital Magazine and Drishtibhongi, on the other hand, favour the ruling Trinamool Congress government. Interestingly, while NK Digital Magazine and 4u Bangla have been active since August 2017 and July 2019 respectively, the other two started operations in August 2020.

Recently, when social media posts claimed that economist Amartya Sen had said India’s economy would be hit by the ban on PUBG, the quote went viral in Bengali after being posted by a website called Bharat News. When BOOM Live fact-checked this post, it proved that Bharat News had been peddling misinformation and that this was not the first time. Bharat News is on our list of dubious ‘news’ sites.

Earlier this year, a social media post published by a portal called ‘India Rag’ quoted CPI(M) party general secretary Sitaram Yechury as saying ‘Hindus are violent’. Taking cognisance of the issue, the state unit of the CPI(M) filed a police complaint at the cyber cell of the Kolkata police. India Rag is also on our list of dubious ‘news’ sites.

The biases of these dubious news websites and digital channels range from the absolutely crass to the very subtle. Some of them liberally distort well-known facts to fit their political agenda and some manufacture fake news from scratch.

The Wire emailed queries to some of these websites and channels when contact details were available. Three websites – Khabor 24×7, Sri Bangla and The News Bangla – have responded so far.

“Thanks for contacting us as a freelance journalist. We have some questions for you: why we need to send you the details about our media house and our editorial policy because you have mentioned that you are a freelance journalist. Then why do you need this kind of information as a freelance journalist? We would like to know,” Khabor 24×7 said in the mail.

The identity of the person responding was not disclosed in the mail.

Sri Bangla replied to the query saying, “We work for independence and truth all the time. Our office is in Goranagar, Vrindavan, India. All those who work here work voluntarily and diligently all the time. We give full freedom of thought and expression to our employees. We do not indulge in any partisanship.”

‘Secular mask-wearing jihadi Umar Khalid caught’, ‘Conspiracy Going on to turn West Bengal into West Pakistan’, ‘Mamata’s Police did not allow Independence Day celebration and Puja’ – these are some of the headlines published by Sri Bangla.

When The Wire sent another mail to clarify how these above articles are unbiased and factually correct, the website responded saying, “These are the writers’ opinion and the management is not responsible for it.”

None of the articles published in Sri Bangla website has writers name.

Like Khabor 24×7, the person who replied to the mail did not disclose their identity.

The third news portal that responded to the query was The News Bangla. The portal said, “The information you require is given on our Facebook page. But why are you asking this? Why do we disclose our private information to an unknown person?”

The Facebook page has their office address, located in South Kolkata and it also says the company is “undoubtedly the most transparent, unbiased and people-friendly web news portal. It has got no political leanings. It doesn’t favour any.”

A contact number was also given on the page, but when called, it went unanswered.

When The Wire further sent a mail asking why reporters’ names are not mentioned in any of the articles and why the editor’s identity is not revealed, the media house said, “Thank you for reading The News Bangla. Give us feedback like this.”

Online manoeuvres

Many of these digital channels post videos about opinion polls for the West Bengal assembly election in 2021. Political experts believe that these opinion polls have no credibility, given that no authentic news agency or election consulting company conducts opinion polls one year before the actual election.

However, they point out, bombarding social media with opinion polls on a regular basis impacts the psyche of the rural electorate, because most of them cannot understand that what they read is false.

“Social media plays a crucial role in modern elections. Fake news and propaganda have penetrated deep and are hijacking the electorate’s mind. Social media has become the Goebbels of today. Political parties with deep pockets can successfully run their propaganda campaign through social media,” said political analyst Maidul Islam.

Also read: CPI(M) Internal Letter Reveals Bengal’s Young Are Still Shifting Support to BJP, TMC

In May this year, The Wire had been the first to report that a fake news website purporting to belong to Anandabazar Patrika – the largest circulated newspaper in Bengal – was spreading false and inflammatory news about the Telinipara incident. The ‘news’ portal, which became active on April 7, was subsequently taken down.

The former BJP IT cell employee told The Wire, “Fake news and propaganda worked really well for the BJP during the 2019 general elections. The use of fake news or propaganda content via WhatsApp has become a lethal tool for the party’s election engineering. The BJP’s WhatsApp network is huge and strategically structured for elections.”

In 2018, when he addressed the party’s social media volunteers in Kota, Rajasthan, Union home minister and former BJP president Amit Shah said the group had the power to make any message go viral, whether real or fake. “All of Rahul Gandhi’s followers are foreigners, don’t be afraid of hired goons. It is through social media that we have to form governments at the state and national levels. Keep making messages go viral,” Dainik Bhaskar quoted Shah as saying.

In Kolkata, Ujjwal Pareek, convenor of the IT and social media cell of Bengal BJP, told the Telegraph that the 50,000 WhatsApp groups that the BJP had in Bengal had been a game-changer in the 2019 general election. “I think this election was a WhatsApp election and we did well because we could use WhatsApp efficiently to spread Modiji’s message,” the newspaper quoted Ujjwal Pareek as saying.

India is WhatsApp’s largest market, with over 200 million users.