Starting today, approximately 900 million voters will confront the polls in what is expected to be the world’s largest democtratic exercise - India’s general elections.
The elections will unfold in seven stages and culminate on May 23, when Indians find out whether they’re in for a further five years of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or whether the opposition Congress Party will stage a comeback.
Unfortunately the palpable tension currently gripping India isn’t solely due to the imminent elections. In recent months, the country has been struggling to combat an epidemic of ‘fake news’.
In a region of over one billion people where roughly 450 million have smartphones, the airing of fake news is having alarming consequences. With social media essentially serving as an open field for misinformation, floating conspiracies are spreading at an unprecedented scale, shaping public discourse and - potentially - the outcome of the upcoming elections.
Since June 2018, lynch mobs, spurred by nothing more than rumors circulating on WhatsApp, have killed over twenty people. Most recently, a barrage of slickly-packaged lies on social media heightened tension between India and Pakistan - bringing both countries to the brink of war.
In this post, we take a look at the apps catering as the dominant source of information for the people of India.
Our data depicts that India is a key emerging market for Facebook, accounting for 17% of the social media company’s total downloads so far in 2019. However, Indian citizens lament that on Facebook they are constantly bombarded by divisive propaganda clogging their feeds. Most of these stories target politicians, religious opponents and dissenting individuals.
Perhaps it is due to this flood of fake news articles that since the start of the year, Facebook has seen a 10% reduction in daily active users (DAU) in India.
Facing pressure from the Indian government, last week Facebook removed hundreds of pages, groups and accounts emanating from India and Pakistan, citing 'inauthentic behaviour'.
Facebook’s subsidiary and encrypted chat service WhatsApp has over 200 million users in India, making the country the messaging platform’s biggest market. Just last month alone, the ubiquitous app was downloaded on over 10 million devices in India.
The fact that up to 256 people can be part of a group chat makes it incredibly popular in India, where people commonly form group chats that include their extended families and large groups of friends. India is also the place where users forward more content than any other country in the world.
Given the way WhatsApp is built, its end-to-end-encryption makes it virtually impossible to moderate content. Not that this has stopped WhatsApp from trying; last week, the messaging app launched a service that enables its users to tip off fake news, misinformation and rumours related to elections. Many have applauded WhatsApp’s efforts to contain this onslaught of fake news but given that people don’t typically check whether what they are reading is true or not, we remain sceptical about the effectiveness of this measure.
As we highlighted in our recent post on app store categories, Twitter has had success in switching from the social media category to news as the company is first and foremost a discovery platform. In the age of citizen journalism, the list of news stories that break on Twitter before they do on mainstream media is staggering.
India continues to be a priority market for the platform, particularly from an audience perspective. Last month, it captured a 12% market share of Twitter’s total downloads for March 2019 on Android devices. However for Indians, the platform is also something of a double-edged sword.
During a recent visit to Delhi, Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey announced that the platform would be adopting several measures to curb the spread of misleading information ahead of the general elections, including the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI). It is a mammoth task for the company and despite all its efforts to uphold ‘healthy’ debates covering the election, Twitter remains a feeding ground for fake news.
Examples of tactics that sow confusion and spread misinformation include the use of false accounts with usernames that closely mimic real personas. Twitter is also infiltrated by bots - fake accounts controlled by software that behave like real people. In the past, these bots have hijacked trending columns by duplicating tweets that promote particular hashtags.
Established in 2012, Dailyhunt is India’s most prolific news discovery mobile app - and we have the numbers to corroborate this claim. Aggregating news from over 500 reliable news sources, the app caters to over a dozen regional languages, including Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil and Bhojpuri.
Over the last few years, Dailyhunt has seen a dramatic growth trajectory. In 2018, the app was installed in over 22 million Indian devices and has since gone on to have a stellar 2019, with its daily active users catapulting by 97% since January 1st 2019 (Android devices only).
Aside from creating a personal news feed for each reader, Dailyhunt is also able to modify its algorithm so that whenever a controversial topic is trending, it automatically channels content with an opposing argument to the users own.
With the electorate scrambling for trusted and reliable news sources at a time when social media is flooded with fake news and propaganda pushes, we expect DAU metrics and downloads for Dailyhunt to increase significantly during the election period.
The key newspaper outlets in India have developed their digital offerings by creating mobile apps, which are making inroads with smartphone users. However, print media continues to thrive in India with consumers remaining loyal to the appeal of a tangible newspaper. A 2017 report by the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) cites economic development and India’s rising literacy rate as factors contributing to the growth in circulation of newspapers.
The Times of India (TOI), the Indian English-language newspaper owned by The Times Group, may only be the third-largest newspaper in India by circulation but in the app world, it trumps all other daily newspapers.
Our 2018 end-of-year data shows that in India alone, the TOI app achieved 8 million downloads - 441% more than Hindi-language Dainik Bhaska - the largest circulated daily newspaper of India.
The Economic Times, India's leading business daily newspaper in terms of circulation, amassed 400,000 app downloads in 2018. When taking into account the country’s sheer scale in smartphone users, this figure isn’t too impressive. However, as the country continues to embrace technological advancement and consolidate its position as a major world economy, we expect the growth of Indian business news apps - such as The Economic Times - to surge.