How the BJP Spread Disinformation on Social Media

A woman checks the Facebook page of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in New Delhi, India. Credit - Manish Swarup—AP Photo

In early May, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to the podium at a political rally in Madhya Pradesh and launched an attack on the opposition party while campaigning in this year’s election, where a seven-phase voting period concluded on June 1. Observing that India was at a turning point in history, Modi told voters they would have to choose carefully between “Vote Jihad” —a term repeatedly used by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its supporters to describe votes from Muslims—and “Ram Rajya,” which translates to “governance under Ram,” referring to the Hindu deity.

The term “Vote Jihad” first entered the Indian public sphere after a local opposition politician, Maria Alam, used it while campaigning in the state of Uttar Pradesh a month earlier, where she asked the minority community to “Vote Jihad” to defeat the BJP. The local police charged Alam with civil disobedience for trying to seek votes based on religion, but the ruling party nevertheless latched onto the term to criticize leaders from opposition parties like the Congress Party—who ran in the election by forming an alliance called “INDIA”—and to amplify divisive rhetoric between Hindus and Muslims through social media.

So frequent was the BJP’s use of the term that a new report published May 31 by The London Story (TLS), an Indian diaspora-led nonprofit foundation based in the Netherlands, documented at least 21 instances in March and 33 in April where the BJP’s Facebook page, which has 19 million followers, along with other affiliated accounts, posted claims that Muslims are waging “Vote Jihad” in this year’s election. In one example, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a militant Hindu nationalist organization with several verified accounts on Facebook and over 100,000 followers, posted a recorded press statement where the spokesperson referred to Indian Muslims as “Jihadis” and blamed them for allegedly committing “Vote Jihad.”

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The group says these efforts are part of a sustained disinformation campaign designed to disenfranchise India’s 200 million Muslim voters. “We looked at how the BJP uses disinformation narratives around ‘jihad’ to rationalize policymaking,” Ritumbra Manuvie, the Executive Director of TLS, tells TIME. “This is an imminent danger because we have seen how similar instances have led to actual disenfranchisement in the past.”

But these instances are just the tip of the iceberg. India’s 970 million eligible voters include over 750 million active internet users, a sharp 43% increase in users since the last general elections in 2019, according to the Economic Times, which cites data from the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and KANTAR. That includes 314 million users on Facebook, 362 million on Instagram, and 535 million on WhatsApp—all of which are owned by Meta.

Across all platforms, Islamophobic narratives and other hate speech spread by pro-BJP pages, have become a “ubiquitous part of Indian election campaigns as political parties and their leaders seek to directly connect with their followers,” notes Usha M Rodrigues, a professor at the Charles Sturt University. As a result, “misinformation, manipulated messages, malicious claims, and AI-enabled fabrications are being circulated online with impunity,” Rodrigues writes.

Since the BJP first came to power in 2014, disinformation on social media has played an important role in election campaigns. For example, the 2014 election was dubbed the “Twitter election,” while the 2019 election was called the “WhatsApp election.” This year, election campaigning moved beyond X (the platform formerly known as Twitter), Facebook, and WhatsApp to include YouTube and other short-video channels, according to a study by Oxford University. The BJP was dominant in using the platforms as a key route to connect with voters, while other parties have “simply not responded to the challenge of developing strong digital and offline campaign organizations,” the study’s authors write.

Rampant electoral disinformation 

A recent investigation by Civil Watch International and Ekō, a corporate accountability organization, found that Facebook had approved adverts containing known slurs towards Muslims such as “let’s burn this vermin” and “Hindu blood is spilling, these invaders must be burned,” as well as Hindu supremacist language and disinformation about political leaders. In February, Meta pledged to prevent the spread of AI-generated or manipulated content on its platforms during the Indian election, but all the approved adverts featured AI-manipulated images, which Meta’s systems failed to detect.

In response, Meta told TIME that while it removes severe forms of misinformation and content that violates platform policies, it does not “fact-check politicians due to our commitment to free expression and the belief that political speech is heavily scrutinized in mature democracies with a free press,” according to a company spokesperson. In the last decade, India's press freedom has declined significantly, dropping to 161 out of 180 countries surveyed in the World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders in 2023.

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The BJP and its supporters aren’t the only ones using social media platforms to gain votes this election; others have also harnessed AI and WhatsApp to engage voters. AI-generated content including campaign videos impersonating political candidates (in some cases, even dead politicians), personalized audio messages, and automated calls steadily reached voters’ smartphones. Notably, two AI-generated deepfake videos of Bollywood stars Ranveer Singh and Aamir Khan criticizing the prime minister and asking people to vote for the opposition Congress went viral at the start of the election and drew half a million views. Despite two police investigations, similar videos are still floating online.

And with nearly 400 million Indians forming WhatsApp’s largest user base in the world, the messaging platform has been the primary source of political news and information for voters since the last election in 2019. This year, political parties and campaign teams once again reached out to potential voters by enrolling them in WhatsApp groups and constantly circulating a stream of election-related messages. “Disinformation and hate speech are rampant, while the grey market of personal information fuels targeted propaganda,” noted a report by the Mozilla Foundation.

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Little accountability, widespread effects 

The proliferation of electoral disinformation in India is usually governed through overlapping laws and regulations, as well as content moderation policies designed by the platforms themselves. While India’s Information Technology Act usually governs online platforms, the Election Commission of India specifically regulates communications during elections. In light of recent reports on the rampant spread of disinformation in the 2024 elections, the ECI has issued instructions to  officials across India to be “proactive in debunking fake news on social media.”

Yet, as noted by the Mozilla Foundation, the ECI has not been effective in regulating the use of social media or messaging platforms during the elections, particularly in ensuring that platforms were compliant with its established “voluntary” code of ethics.

Similarly, the policies established by messaging platforms to monitor the spread of hate speech and disinformation have limited effectiveness. Manuvie from TLS told TIME that META responded to the group’s concerns by saying that such posts did not warrant removal as they pass the Rabat Principle, a Plan of Action developed and adopted by experts at the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner to prevent violence and discrimination through open dialogue, rather than censorship.

But Manuvie warns that free speech, particularly in the form of hate speech and ‘jihad’ narratives, can also have dangerous long-term effects like institutionalized violence against Muslims, as well as result in regulatory and state legislative actions. For example, the spread of ‘love jihad’ narratives—a conspiracy that Muslim men seduce Hindu women to convert them to Islam— on X has contributed to widespread Hindu-nationalist support for criminalizing interfaith marriage, with several states in northern India passing laws to that effect. Several instances of state-sanctioned violence against Muslims married to Hindus have also been documented in the past few years.

“These divisive narratives are being allowed and used by political parties for their election campaigns, but they clearly violate the ECI’s Model Code of Conduct,” says Manuvie. More than that, she continues, “they are contributing to segregation in Indian society by dehumanizing, caricaturing, and demonizing Muslims during the elections.”

Write to Astha Rajvanshi at