India’s Teflon prime minister

Shougat Dasgupta

 

Elon Musk is throwing red meat to the free speech absolutist crowd, claiming that principles “matter more than profit.” The target of Musk’s ire is a Brazilian Supreme Court judge who reportedly ordered X to “block certain popular accounts” without explaining why. X characterized the order as unconstitutional and Musk demanded that the judge either “resign or be impeached.” Local Brazilian news outlets reported that some of the blocked accounts were known supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro. The Brazilian judiciary is conducting an exhaustive investigation into the events of January 8, 2023, when supporters of Bolsonaro rioted in the Brazilian capital after his defeat in the general election. At the same time, a bill proposed last year would put the onus on tech companies to report and remove disinformation and illegal content from their platforms. Companies, including Facebook and Google, have claimed that the proposed law could lead to censorship and the stifling of free speech. Musk, who has used X to push right-wing conspiracies, has said he will defy Brazilian court orders to protect free speech. But in his time at the helm of X, Musk has complied with more government requests to block content than his predecessors. 

Brazil’s contention in its bid to regulate platforms is that they need to take more responsibility for the spread of disinformation, which can have devastating consequences for democracies. Microsoft released a “threat intelligence” report last week that claimed “as populations in India, South Korea and the United States head to the polls, we are likely to see Chinese cyber and influence actors, and to some extent North Korean cyber actors, work toward targeting these elections.” The threat, Microsoft says, of actually swaying voters is low, but the disinformation campaigns are a valuable testing ground for memes that stick. The intelligence report was released just as Microsoft was at the end of a scolding from a U.S. government committee that described the tech giant’s security as “inadequate.” Microsoft’s “cascade of avoidable errors” resulted in allegedly state-backed Chinese hackers breaking into the email accounts of senior U.S. officials. A threat, it would appear, to be taken considerably more seriously than that reported in Microsoft’s intelligence report.

For a while now, the Indian government and its supporters have accused opposition parties and independent media outlets of taking Chinese money to spread anti-India propaganda. Prabir Purkayastha, a veteran editor and founder of NewsClick, a news website that leans left and focuses its coverage on progressive movements, has been in jail since October. He was arrested after allegations that NewsClick was funded by China. Last week, the Delhi Police filed an 8,000-page document outlining the charges against Purkayastha, even as Indian opposition leaders said the government was using the state machinery to “suppress dissent.”

Why crony capitalism allegations haven’t dented Modi’s image

The Indian government’s treatment of Purkayastha is in keeping with its intimidation of media it considers unfriendly. Muzzling independent journalism is a crucial part of the strategy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, as they move quickly to check off items on their Hindu nationalist agenda.

Modi’s control of the mainstream media means that news stories that would be scandals in other democracies receive desultory coverage. For instance, how would the news be received in another democracy that the governing party managed to garner about $750 million in funding via anonymous, tax-free bonds? Opposition parties also received funding through these bonds, but nowhere near as much as the BJP, which instituted the scheme in 2018, having become India’s governing party a little under four years earlier.

Last month, India’s Supreme Court, having declared electoral bonds to be illegal, forced the State Bank of India to publish details of donors. It ruled that the bonds violated the electorate’s right to know who was funding political parties. As information about donors was consequently published, it became apparent that the bonds functioned as a way for companies being monitored by the authorities to convince them to go easy and even drop investigations. Other companies, it turned out, paid the BJP millions in donations and then found themselves the happy recipients of lucrative government contracts.

While the evidence is only circumstantial, and the BJP is not the only party to have received funds through electoral bonds, the Supreme Court decision should have been a gift for opposition parties not long before elections. Instead, despite the dogged coverage of a few small digital media operations and one or two mainstream newspapers, it appears electoral bonds and their suggestion of an attempt to legalize crony capitalism will not affect Modi’s chances of winning a third consecutive term when Indians go to the polls on April 19. 

Modi has said little about the Supreme Court’s verdict on electoral bonds. Instead, he endorsed an oblique letter written by pro-BJP lawyers warning the chief justice about an unnamed “vested interest group” that is “trying to pressure the judiciary, influence judicial process and defame our courts.” The implication is, presumably, that the Supreme Court which had just ruled against electoral bonds was somehow being manipulated by opposition parties — because Modi having any connection to corrupt activities would be completely outside the realm of possibility. Modi has crafted an image of himself as an incorruptible prime minister, a man who is entirely dedicated to serving the people. But he is pointedly not ordering an investigation into electoral bonds, into any quid pro quo arrangements or sweetheart deals that were made as a result of funds injected into the coffers of political parties, including the BJP. 

Instead, he has doubled down on his self-declared incorruptibility. On March 31, in his first major election campaign speech, Modi said he had spent 10 years as prime minister fighting corruption. It was “Modi’s guarantee,” he said, using a popular election slogan, that corruption would be removed. The fact that Modi is confident enough to continue to portray the opposition as corrupt and his government as honest, despite the electoral bonds revelations, is testament to the power of narrative capture.

WHAT WE’RE READING

  • Internal Kremlin documents given to The Washington Post by a European intelligence agency show that state-backed trolls were instructed to write “thousands of fabricated news articles, social media posts and comments” as part of a strategy to “promote American isolationism, stir fear over the United States’ border security and attempt to amplify U.S. economic and racial tensions.” The campaign gleefully amplified any statements by U.S. congressmen that echoed Russian talking points.
  • This newsletter regularly puts the spotlight on tech platforms and how they enable lies to metastasize and false narratives to spread. But sometimes it’s nice to be able to celebrate tech’s capacity to share information. The non-profit Internet Archive now houses the entire digitized archives of the Caribbean island of Aruba, preserving its entire historical record online. The only shadow cast across this sunny report in Wired is the question of whether the Internet Archive itself can survive the various legal challenges it faces over copyright claims by record labels and publishers.

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.