The month of April saw misleading information surrounding gangster-politician Atiq Ahmad's assassination and the upcoming Karnataka assembly election emerge as prominent topics of false information, accounting for 5% and 7% of the total false claims that BOOM investigated last month, respectively.
Islamophobia was still the most prominent topic, with 10% of claims promoting demographic anxiety among readers. It is important to note however that the intensity of communal posts targeting Muslims has lessened in prominence compared to February (16% Islamophobia in Feb, 11% last month). A new entrant to the fake news environment is AI-generated imagery, accounting for 6% of false claims.
In April, BOOM published a total of 99 fact checks across three languages - Hindi, English, and Bangla. Each of these fact checks reflect a unique false/misleading claim.
Our analysis reveals that majority of the claims were 'Political', accounting for 35% of the total data set, followed by Communal and Scripted Content, comprising 17% and 11% of the claims. It is important to point out that the surge in Scripted content is due to us identifying generative imagery as scripted, since AI generation requires the input of 'scripts' to prompt the algorithm to 'create' images.
Atiq Ahmad Assassination
The assassination of gangster-turned-politician Atiq Ahmad provided enough fodder to generate sensationalist and smearing claims that dotted the false claims BOOM investigated last month. We also found that claims surrounding the incident didn't necessarily target Atiq, but also other political stakeholders like Akhilesh Yadav and Kamal Nath. BOOM looked into 5 unique claims surrounding this incident. Here are a couple of examples
Following the assassination of Atiq Ahmad and and his brother Ashraf Ahmad in Uttar Pradesh's Prayagraj in front of police and media personnel, video recordings of the event showed assassins chanting slogans of 'Jai Shri Ram'. Misleading claims soon emerged that the video was 'fake and dubbed' and that police have confirmed no such chants were heard. BOOM investigated and found that the chants were not 'fake' but genuine. Read more about it here.
A photo of Madhya Pradesh Youth Congress leader standing behind Akhilesh Yadav at an event in Madhya Pradesh was peddled with the claim that it shows one of the three assassins who murdered Atiq Ahmad. An incriminating claim, and as it turned out, a false one. BOOM found that the man circled out in the photo is not one of the assassin, but is a Youth Congress leader named Rajkumar Yadav. Read about the fact check here.
Rising Smear ahead of Polls
Karnataka Assembly elections is this year's big electoral event with parties like Congress, JD(S), and BJP locking horns for the future of the state. Characteristic of earlier poll-based misinformation done by BOOM last year, smear campaigns and sensationalist claims are in full swing. Interesting thing to note is that all smear claims are Anti-BJP in rhetoric. Here are a couple of examples of poll-based fact checks
An image masquerading as a BBC pre-poll survey predicting a huge landslide victory for the incumbent BJP regime in the upcoming elections was peddled across social media. The fake poll precited a decisive victory for the ruling party, with victory guaranteed between 130 to 142 seats. BOOM found out that no such survey has been conducted by BBC. Moreover, BBC itself clarified that the above image was fake and that the organisation does not commission pre-election surveys in India. Read more about it here.
A set of images; one of them showing a woman opening an envelope revealing 2000 rupee notes and the other a zoomed-in image of the envelope bearing the BJP insignia with the image of what appears to be a candidate. These are being shared with the false claim that this image is taken in Karnataka, where BJP candidates are distributing money to buy votes. BOOM found out that the above images date back to 2021, and were taken in Hyderabad for the-then by-elections. Read more about the story here.
The intensity of demographic vitriol targeting Muslims hasn't abated since last month, although it clearly has lessened compared to what was observed in February. It is observed that giving a communal spin to generic events was the crux of islamophobic claims last month. Here are a few examples of claims addressed by BOOM -
An old video from Hyderabad showing the arrests of several people was being linked to Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar (formerly Aurangabad) to claim that muslims have been arrested for causing arrests on Ram Navami. BOOM found that the video is from August 2022, and depics the arrests of several people in connection with protests against the release of T Raja Singh, a former BJP MLA. Read about it here.
The above video featuring people in traditional attire and heavy make-up reciting Islamic verses was peddled with the misleading spin that now since Muslims have taken over temples, Hanuman ji is being served with alcohol and meat. BOOM found out that this is video is of Mappila Thayyam, a syncretic cultural practise that has nothing to do with aggressive takeovers. Read about it here.
Deepfakes on the Rise
Deepfakes are applications of a form of artificial intelligence called deep learning that is used to create images of events which never occurred. Last month saw this technology being used to target several world leaders, including India's PM Narendra Modi. Although some deepfakes follow real life incidents, the images refer to circumstances that never transpired eg., arrest of Donald Trump following his arraignment. Otherwise, the images targeting world leaders were completely a complete lie. Last month, 55% of scripted content was deepfake-related. Here are a few examples of this new menace
The above claim corresponds to several mugshots of former President Donald Trump following his arraignment in New York at the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse for felony charges against him implying that he has been found guilty and consequently arrested. BOOM found out that these images are in fact deepfakes and the former President is not behind bars.
An image showing PM Modi in lab gear struggling to operate a microscope was being peddled with the false claim that it is the latest in publicity stunts for which the PM won't be held answerable but any opposition leader in his place would have been hounded by the media. BOOM found that the image is in fact a deepfake and the PM in reality did no such thing. Read about it here.
Top Targets of Misinformation
Muslims are the biggest targets of false information in the month of April, being targeted in 14% of the false claims investigated by BOOM. All the claims are negative in sentiment. 75% of the claims targeting Muslims are islamophobic in terms of prevalent themes while the rest (25%) are pertaining to fabricated accounts of love jihad. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the second biggest target, accounting for 8% of the claims. 25% of the claims targeting the PM are positive while the rest are negative. At the third spot, BJP has been targeted in 7% of the claims. 86% of the claims targeting the party have been found to peddle false information connected to the upcoming assembly election in Karnataka. Most of the claims targeting the party (86%) are negative. Hindus have been targeted in 5% of the claims, where 60% of the claims targeting them are negative, while the rest are positive.
Language of False Claims
63% of false claims in the month of April were in english. 25% of the claims were in Hindi and the rest 11% were in Bengali.
Type and Outcome Effect of False Claims
We classified the false claims based on the type of false information they convey and their intended impact (outcome effect).
Last month, the most common type of false information was of the 'misleading' variety - where someone/a community/organisation is framed by taking facts out of their original setting. It accounted for 46% of all fact checks. 32% of misleading content is communal in nature and 40% of it is political. Some examples of salient misleading claims and fact checks are provided below -
Surrounding the news cycle of Amritpal Singh and his separatist ties, several divisive claims dotted social media that harkened back to the times of distrust being aimed at the Sikh community owing to the existence of Khalistani movement and the aftermath of operation Blue Star. One such false claim is the one above where an unnamed Sikh person apparently opened fire on his colleagues of the 18 Horse regiment. Claims like these were intended to promote alarmist tendencies among readers towards Sikh persons. BOOM reached out to an Indian Army spokesperson and got clarification that the casualties are from 80 artillery regiment and that 18 Horse regiment does not exist in India. Read about it here.
Images of one Angikta Vijaya, a 'communist secular' girl were viral on social media on the premise that she was deluded into a relationship with a Muslim man following which violence was meted out to her. The claim is very typical of 'Love Jihad' alarms that BOOM has been investigating. Our investigations showed that the pictures are of one Anicka Vikahraman, a Malayali actress who was assaulted by her ex-boyfriend Anup Pillari. So it was proved that this was not an instance of a Hindu girl being a victim of Love Jihad. Read about our story here.
A new development in the false information ecosystem of the country is the rising popularity of deppfakes. These have targeted several world leaders, sparing not even this country's current Prime Minister. We assessed that the intent behind these images is mostly for laughs and gags, and so we decided to characterise these under 'spoof' content (alongside dramatised videos) - meant for mischief if nothing more. Here's a look at a couple of claims debunked by BOOM last month -
The above image is not a photo of Pope Francis in a hot tub with young women; in fact, it is a deepfake of this world renowned religious leader that became viral on social media owing to people being misled into believing it as genuine. Our fact check showed how this isn't genuine. Read about it here.
A video appraising the Indian army went viral on social media for showing some of their state-of-the-art machinery. BOOM found this image to be of a videogame called Spintires: Mudrunner that simulates vehicular traversal over rough terrain. Read about our fact check here.
The most commonly identified impact of spreading false information last month was to 'smear' individuals/groups/organisations - the claims intend to damage reputations/social standings with false accusations. It accounted for 44% of our fact checks. In second place, we have fake sensationalism - claims meant to provoke public excitement, accounting for 33% of our fact checks. Last, but not the least, we have demographic anxiety - claims meant to pit communities against each other, accounting for 22% of our fact checks. 59% of demographic anxiety claims targeted Muslims in a negative light, while 14% targeted Hindus.
Social media claims targeted PM Narendra Modi asserting his dishonesty in revealing his educational qualifications by showing that former Gujarat University Vice-Chancellor Professor K S Shastri, whose signature is seen on PM's Masters' Degree, passed away two years prior to the date on the certificate. BOOM found this claim to be completely false as the dates on the screenshot show his tenure as Vice-Chancellor, not that of his life. Read about it here.
Screenshot of an instagram story went viral with the false claim that real 500 rupee notes were distributed alongside food at the recent inauguration ceremony of Nota Mukesh Ambani Cultural Center (NMACC) in Mumbai. BOOM found that the image refers to a special dish that is served with fake currency notes. Read about it here.
This viral video shows a woman disrupting prayers at a mosque in Virginia, USA on the occassion of Eid-ul-Fitr. The claim identifies her as Hindu. BOOM found that the accusation is baseless and that the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) clarified that the woman is a Muslim who suffers from mental health issues. Read about our story here.
Videos the most sought-after medium of Deception
Videos were the most preferred medium of mass misinformation, contributing to 51% of false claims. This is followed by images (42%) and finally, texts (7%). 68% of claims propagating demographic anxiety were spread via videos. Similarly, 57% of fake sensationalism relied on videos to get their message across. The only exception here is smear campaigning, which relied on images more; 55% of smearing was done via Images.
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