New Delhi, Apr 10 (AP/UNB) — New Delhi shop owner Ram Shankar Rai spends at least two hours a day going through political news and videos shared with him on social media.
Rai looked intently at a flurry of videos and photos on WhatsApp about an Indian airstrike in Pakistan, including pictures labeled as militants' corpses.
There was just one problem: The photos were not of militants but of casualties of a 2005 earthquake that killed thousands of people in Pakistan.
But the 50-year-old didn't see anything amiss. "It's news," he said. "How can it be fake?"
Before the world's largest democracy starts voting Thursday in a phased election carried out over six weeks, this attitude is posing a problem for election officials seeking to combat the spread of fake news among a population that experts say has proven highly susceptible to believing it.
Despite efforts by India's Election Commission to work with social media giants, urging them to tackle the spread of misinformation, at least one former top election official is warning that fake news could end up being the deciding factor in some constituencies with extremely tight races.
The election is already taking place in a charged atmosphere as Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party seeks a second term by pushing policies that some say have increased religious tensions and undermined multiculturalism.
The opposition Congress party, which is also spending sizable sums of money on social media ads, is trying to revive its past glory and turn around a declining voter base.
Tackling fake news is a huge challenge in India, a nation with 1.14 billion cellphone connections, the most Facebook users in the world at 300 million, and another 240 million users of the messaging service WhatsApp. In such an environment, fake news can spread faster than regulators can act.
Watchdogs say in the run-up to the vote they've seen everything from manipulated pictures being picked up by mainstream news media, to misrepresented quotes sparking communal division, false news and hateful propaganda. And it looks like people are buying it.
Indian internet users, many of whom are relatively new to the web, may lack the awareness of knowing that "just because it's on a screen does not mean it's true," said Apar Gupta, who runs an advocacy group called the Internet Freedom Foundation.
India's problem with fake news isn't new, though, and it has already proven to have deadly consequences. In late 2018, at least 20 people were killed in mob attacks that were triggered by rumors on social media of strangers abducting children from villages.
Efforts by social media giants to combat fake news in the country were intensified after executives were called in by the Election Commission earlier this year and told to curb the spread of manipulative political information and adhere to the country's laws on election campaigning.
Social media companies followed that with a "Voluntary Code of Ethics" for the elections that they submitted to the government. It's essentially a best practices agreement that they will try to abide by the Election Commission's suggestions and rules, including prohibiting campaign advertisements for at least 48 hours before polling begins.
But at least two former Election Commission bosses said they don't believe enough is being done.
"The potential of mischief for subversion of the process of elections represented by social media is immense," said N. Gopalaswami, who was India's chief election commissioner from 2006 to 2009.
He said he was concerned fake news could play a huge role in very tight races.
Gupta said the Election Commission should have enforced accountability for political parties and social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, with penalties for violations.
"India has clearly not done enough," he said, adding that some of the responsibility lies with the social media platforms.
"The internet has grown up and is having to leave its parents' home and find a job," he said, suggesting that platforms should tune their search engine algorithms to weigh the credibility of sources more heavily than ads and viral content.
Digital platforms have been scrambling to devise strategies to tackle the spread of false information ahead of the election.
Facebook announced a variety of measures last month, from blocking fake accounts to employing third-party fact-checking organizations for the elections.
WhatsApp has introduced a fact-checking helpline, encouraging users to flag messages for verification. It also started re-circulating an old advertising video urging people to "share joy, not rumors." The video was first launched after the 2018 mob attacks.
But with new pages and accounts being created daily to push political content, it's a hefty task.
"It is an adversarial space," said Kaushik Iyer, a Facebook engineering manager who works on election integrity and safety.
"What that means is that we will always see adaptation. We will always see new threats emerge," he told The Associated Press in an interview at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California.
He said Facebook was getting better at tracking down the misrepresented and manipulated videos and audio that form a big chunk of fake content on their platform in India.
And for all its negatives, social media can also play a positive role in an election, especially for young voters who say it has enabled them to better understand candidates and engage with them.
"Rather than campaign rallies where we are just passive observers, social media is a better representation of our opinions," said Sarthak Singh Dalal, a history student at Delhi University.
Rai, the shop owner, said he has started to take a closer look at the social media content forwarded to him, trying to identify biases hidden in what he had just considered news.
"Obviously, we have to use a bit of sense," he said.
Dantewada, Apr 9 (AP/UNB) — Maoist rebels on Tuesday attacked a convoy of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party with an improvised explosive device as it traveled through the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, killing a state party lawmaker and four others in his vehicle, police said.
Police officer P. Sunder Raj said the rebels detonated an improvised explosive device in the Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh, an insurgent stronghold, just two days before a multi-phase general election begins in India.
The BJP state lawmaker Bhima Mandavi, his driver and three security personnel accompanying him were killed in the attack, Raj told reporters.
The rebels, inspired by Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, have been fighting the government for more than four decades, demanding land and jobs for tenant farmers, the poor and indigenous communities. They claim thousands of fighters and control vast swaths of territory in several Indian states.
The government calls the rebels India's biggest internal security threat.
New Delhi, April 9 (Xinhua) - A lawmaker in India's central state of Chhattisgarh was killed by armed rebels Naxals on Tuesday, according to sources in the state government.
The deceased lawmaker, identified as Bheema Mandavi, belonged to the state's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Besides, five security personnel accompanying the lawmaker also reportedly died in the attack carried out by the armed rebels with the help of an improvised explosive device (IED).
The attack took place in the Dantewada district when the BJP lawmaker was traveling in the area while campaigning for his party's candidates ahead of the parliamentary elections beginning on April 11, and ending on May 19.
The IED blast was reportedly followed by indiscriminate firing by the Naxal.
According to the latest media reports, a group of paramilitary troopers of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) has been rushed to the spot to take stock of the situation.
Putrajaya, Apr 9 (AP/UNB) — Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday defended Singapore's proposed law to fight "online falsehoods," but his Malaysian counterpart Mahathir Mohamad warned that anti-fake news laws were a double-edged sword that could be abused by governments to stay in power.
The two leaders were speaking after annual talks Tuesday aimed at resolving disputes over maritime boundaries, airspace management and the price of water that had strained ties since Mahathir's alliance swept to power in elections last May.
Lee said many countries including France, Germany and Australia have legislation to combat fake news.
Singapore took nearly two years to deliberate on the issue before the government unveiled a bill in parliament last week to combat fake news, he said. The law allows the government to remove online content it deems as false and includes a jail term of up to 10 years and hefty fines.
"This is the problem of fake news and deliberate false statement being proliferated online. It is a serious problem which confronts many countries," Lee said at a joint news conference.
"Singapore is not the only one which has taken legislation on this issue. The French has done so, the Germans have done so. The Australians have just done so, something similar and very draconian. The British are also thinking of doing this as well. So Singapore had to do this and we had a long process... finally we have this bill and it will be debated in the house and I hope eventually it will become legislation," he said.
Lee rejected criticisms from rights groups such as Reporters Without Borders which had voiced fear the law could further stifle free speech in Singapore, which already has stern laws on public protests and dissent.
"They criticized many things about Singapore's media management but what we have done have worked for Singapore. And it is our objective to continue to do things that will work for Singapore. And I think (the new law) will be a significant step forward in this regard," he added.
Mahathir, however, said his government will repeal Malaysia's law against fake news as it promised. An earlier effort to do so was blocked by the opposition-led Senate but the government is expected to push it through again.
"For us, we need to learn how to handle such fake news. When we have laws that prevent people from airing their views, then we are afraid the government may abuse the law as it has happened in the last government," Mahathir said. "We do not want any government, whether this or succeeding governments, to make use of this law in order to tell and create fake news in order to sustain themselves. Of course it will be difficult to handle, but we believe we can accept the challenges and we can handle that."
The law, which carries a penalty of up to six years in jail and a fine for offenders, was rushed through parliament by the previous government just before last May's election despite concerns it would be used to silence dissent. Najib Razak's long-ruling coalition was ousted in the vote, leading to Malaysia's first transition of power since independence from Britain in 1957.
Despite rising tensions over the past months, the two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to resolve territorial rows in an amicable manner.
Since Mahathir — who was premier for 22 years until he stepped down in 2003 — returned to power, he has postponed a high-speed rail link that would cut travel time between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to 90 minutes. Mahathir has also demanded a hike in the price of raw water Malaysia supplies to the city-state under a decades-old treaty. Officials from the two countries have also publicly aired disputes over maritime and airspace issues.
The neighbors have, however, agreed to work on their differences with plans for maritime delimitation work to begin in a month and Malaysia to reclaim airspace managed by Singapore under a previous pact over the next few years.
Mahathir said the two countries will "continue the momentum of positive engagements" and Lee added that they will seek win-win outcomes.
The two countries were briefly merged in 1963, but separated two years later due to political and economic differences.
Kuala Lumpur, Apr 8 (AP/UNB) — Malaysian police said Monday that 41 Muslim Rohingya men and boys have been detained in the northernmost state of Perlis, the second group to land in the country in just over a month, and that some 200 others are still believed to be at sea.
Perlis police chief Noor Mushar Mohamad said the group, ranging in age from 14 to 30, landed early Monday on the same beach where 34 Rohingya women and children were found stranded March 2.
Noor Mushar said one of the men told police that they were part of over 200 Rohingya in a large boat that sailed overnight from Thailand, and that 47 of them were transferred to a smaller boat to Perlis after they paid 4,000 ringgit ($977) each to a trafficker. He said the group walked in mud to reach the beach and subsequently fanned out in smaller groups into the villages when their local agent failed to turn up.
Based on the information, he said some 200 Rohingya are believed to still be at sea in Thai waters while six others who landed in Malaysia are missing.
More than 700,000 ethnic Rohingya have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh since August 2017, when a group of militants attacked Myanmar security forces, triggering a massive retaliation by Myanmar's army. The exodus came after hundreds of thousands of other Rohingya escaped previous bouts of violence and persecution. Myanmar rights groups have said that many Rohingya are also being tricked by traffickers into leaving Bangladesh after being warned they may face death if repatriated to Myanmar.
Noor Mushar said the 41 men have been handed over to the immigration department as they have no valid travel documents. He said he would inform his Thai counterparts about the boat believed still at sea at a border cooperation meeting on Thursday.
Malaysian authorities are on the lookout for more Rohingya boats entering the country's waters, Noor Mushar said.
Most people in Buddhist-majority Myanmar don't accept Rohingya Muslims as a native ethnic group. They are instead viewed as having migrated illegally from Bangladesh, though generations of Rohingya have lived in Myanmar. Nearly all have been denied citizenship since 1982 and lack access to education and hospitals.
The U.N. General Assembly approved a resolution in December condemning "gross human rights violations and abuses" against Myanmar's Rohingya.
Myanmar's government denies claims of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The country rejects the U.N. investigators' work and the General Assembly resolution as biased.