Election 2024: Peddling lies for a price

Tehelka SIT report unveils the challenge posed by deliberate dissemination of misinformation during polls, with digital marketing companies eager to play along for profit


“For spreading misinformation during elections, we don’t need any facts or evidence to work on. We simply create fake accounts on social media to disseminate misinformation and promptly close them. The Election Commission of India (ECI) can’t trace these bot accounts. This is our guarantee, backed by our 14 years of experience in the social media business. In 2019 general elections also, I managed a big Hindi news channel to post a tweet in favour of a big politician contesting Lok Sabha election by paying the media house Rs 5 lakh for one tweet.”

Meet Gaurav Maggo, the director of Seoage Digital Marketing company, headquartered in Dwarka, New Delhi. Accompanied by his associate manager, Akshay Kumar, Gaurav met us at a five-star hotel in Delhi to discuss the digital marketing strategy for our fictitious candidates purportedly running independently in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections from Uttar Pradesh.

As the Election Commission of India announced the poll schedule for the 2024 general elections, it singled out the challenge of reining in “4Ms” — muscle, money, misinformation, and Model Code of Conduct (MCC) violations — to ensure free and fair elections. In previous issues, Tehelka conducted investigations on the misuse of muscle power and MCC violations. This time, we areshifting our focus to the menace of misinformation. Specifically, our report delves into how digital marketing companies are aiding and are prepared to assist candidates in the election fray by spreading misinformation or disinformation on social media, effectively pulling the wool over the eyes of the Election Commission of India.

Our investigation commenced as we delved into the realm of digital marketing companies involved in the business of spreading misinformation during elections. Our focus narrowed to Seoage Digital Marketing Company Private Limited, headquartered in Delhi. Armed with their contact details, we initiated communication. A phone call from the company swiftly led to a face-to-face meeting at a five-star hotel in Delhi. During the meeting, we met with two representatives of the company: Gaurav Maggo and Akshay Kumar, a seasoned duo experienced in political promotion on digital platforms.

Akshay Kumar

We presented them with a fictitious scenario, stating that several of our candidates were independently contesting the 2024 Lok Sabha elections from Uttar Pradesh and required digital promotion, including spreading of misinformation about their rival candidates.

Gaurav Maggo

Gaurav, with a calculated air, apprised us of his strategy: deploying bot accounts to disseminate disinformation about our opponents. Crucially, he assured us that he would promptly close these accounts, thus evading the vigilant gaze of theElection Commission of India even as he emphasized his extensive experience of 14 years of experience in the digital marketing business.

Gaurav- Account banega misinformation dalogey.. aur band…!

Reporter- Phir wahi baat hai na.. immediately band ho gaya to EC ki nazar mein aa jayega..?

Gaurav- Nahi..that will be.. sab cheezein hoti hain.. kaise banti hai hum jaantey hain, hum to already usmein hain, hum to 14 saal se kar hi rahe hain wo kaam..

Reporter- 14 saal se hain aap digital media mein.

Gaurav- haan ji

[Gaurav reveals the sophisticated tactics used in political campaigns and the challenges of regulating digital misinformation even as he tries to leverage the long experience he has in digital media to cut a deal.]

When we told Gaurav that we were not armed with evidence or facts about our rival candidates, he tried to reassure us by saying that for spreading misinformation, he did not require facts or evidence, adding that for that black collar or fake accounts are used. He suggested leveraging existing information and exploiting uncertainties.

Reporter- Nahi mein ye jaanna chah raha hoon opposition candidate ki misinformation jo hum karenge..wo kaise karenge..

Gaurav- Accha misinformation…sir dekho.. information to aap hi dogey ki ye chal raha hai..usko chalayenge.

Reporter- Idea to aap de saktey ho..?

Gaurav- Idea to main tab de sakta hoon jab aapko kuch bhi na pata ho us aadmi k baare mein..ke uska koi mislead kiya hai ya nahi bhi kiya hai…ya aapko pata hai ki is cheez mein wo phasa tha..wo purane mudde utha ke lao..

Reporter- Maan lijiye koi document nahi milta hai,evidence nahi milta hai..to?

Gaurav- Evidence ki zaroorat nahi hoti hai ismein…tabhi to black collar hota hai…tabhi to usey black collar kehtey hain..

[As our undercover reporter and Gaurav discuss the strategy of spreading misinformation about the opposition candidates, we learn about the tactics involved in orchestrating malicious campaigns.]

We now inquired from Gaurav as to how he will spread misinformation about the candidates who have clean image, to which he mentioned using bots for dissemination tactics and targeted social media campaigns.

Reporter- Mujhe ek cheez bataiye kya misinformation ka counter misinformation nahi ho sakta?

Gaurav- Ho sakta hai.. magar yahan pe misinformation agar ek baar aa gayi to aap ek negative image bande ki nahi bana saktey..maan lijiye maine aaj aap ko bataya ki falane ne jakey aisa kaam kiya.. to pehla impression kya chala gaya: ‘arey isne to rape kar diya’. Ek aadmi par already blame game chal raha hai..to aap counter kaise marogey…aap apne aap ko clear karogey ya pehle counter marogey..samajh rahe ho aap, pehli baar aap clear karogey.. char din baad counter maar dunga mein…bhai pehle apne ko clear bhi to karogey phir 4 din baad counter maar do..

Reporter- Wo counter kya hoga main janna chah raha hoon, clear to aapne kar diya positive video bana ke..?

Gaurav- Ab jaise unhei pata hai is aadmi ki yahan pe ye chori pakdi gayi hai…

Reporter- Koi nahi pakdi gayi maan lo clear aadmi hai, dono aadmi clear hain.. maine yahi sawal kiya aapse misinformation ka

Gaurav- Misinformation par misinformation marenge.

Reporter- Wo kaise marogey, yahi sawal hai mera.?

Gaurav- Account banega.. misinformation dalogey.. aur band…

 [The conversation underscores the challenge of combating misinformation once it’s circulated and sheds light on the manipulative tactics employed in political discourse.]

Now, Gaurav suggested using fake accounts, categorized as white and black collar ones, for promotions, claiming all parties employ bots for campaigns, assuring they won’t violate Election Commission guidelines. He discussed the distinction between “white and black collar accounts” and their utilization in campaigns, highlighting the widespread use of bots in political strategies.He also explained bots’ temporary nature and assured they’d cease before elections, emphasizing the importance of strategic timing for maximizing impact while evading detection.

Gaurav- Accha ismein bhai sab do cheezein hoti hain, ek black collar ek white collar, aapko black collar chahiye ya white..?

Reporter- Dono karwa do, waise difference kya hai…?

Gaurav- Difference ye hota hai ki accounts hotey hain.. khultey hain band hotey hain, white collar ye hota hai ki aapke account se hi ho raha hai..

Reporter- Genuine hongey ?

Gaurav- Genuine honge..

Reporter- Black wale fake honge…?

Gaurav- Ji.

Reporter- To fake account se karwana theek hoga..?

Gaurav- Wo aap dekh lo log to karate hain, actually kya hota kuch time k liye account khulta hai phir band ho jata hai…Bots ho gaya..Bots kya hota hai ki promotion aapke us account se ho rahi hai reach badhaney k liye…

Reporter- Hoon..ok

Gaurav- Ki jaise ab mere pass subscribers hain…bahut saare to maine Bots kar diye …UP ke ander mein jo logon ko reach mil rahi hai..wo aapko ek acha impact mil raha hai uska..multiple jo hain na socities bani hui hain..Facebook k uper group bane hue hain..uspar hum log reach banatey hain..

Reporter- Ye ho ke fake account pakad mein na aaye..

Gaurav- Nahi hoga wo ek baar hokar band ho jata hai…

Reporter- Dekhiye aapko pata hoga Election commission ki guidelines hain…model code of conduct.. information leak nahi hona chahiye…

Gaurav- Wo cheez sir aapne dekhni hai, is mein ye sab cheez hoti hai, ye XXXX ji bhi kartey hain ye XXXX party bhi karti hai, ye sab kar rahe hain..

Reporter – Accha aap jitney candidates ki kar rahe ho.. wo fake tareeke se kar rahe hain..?

Gaurav- Kar rahe hain..kyunki unka to abhi start nahi hua hai, unka to May 24 ke baad hai..achar sanhita se pehle kar loge to acha hoga

Reporter- Achar sanhita ke baad bola tha, election announce honey se pehle…

Gaurav- Haan to achar sanhita se pehle pehle kar lo ?

Reporter- Ab to achar sanhita lagi hui hai…?

Gaurav- Lagi hui hain lekin account miltey hain na.. to usmein dikkat kya hai.. usey promote karo..usmein koi fake account nahi hai, mere hain 5 lakh subscribers.. wo mein unhein agar koi information de raha hoon to koi burai thodi hai usmein…

Reporter- Aap keh rahe ho na kuch time ke liye promotion band ho jaate hain..

Gaurav- Wo to isliye keh raha kabhi EC ne poocha ki aap ne kya kya promotion kiye, is wajah se log kya kartey hain usko band kar detey hain, jab election hai us time par kiya phir band kar diya..

Reporter- Accha Bot account k liye ye hai ki election tak wo operate rahenge phir ?

Gaurav- Band ho jayengey..haan ji.. Election se do din pehle sab band ho jata hai, 48 hrs pehle..but 48 ghante pehle sab print aur online band hota hai..commentaries band hoti hai, but whatsapp chalta hai…

 [The conversation underscores the intricate methods used in political promotion and the challenges of adhering to election regulations amidst evolving digital tactics.]

While addressing our concerns, Gaurav assured that our fake social media accounts wouldn’t attract the Election Commission’s attention even as he mentioned that candidates do send SMS messages even on voting day. He shared his company’s experience in promoting election candidates digitally, handling eight contenders for the 2024 general elections, including Delhi’s XXXX and XXXX from the XXXX party.

Gaurav- Kai baar to aisa bhi hota hai ki on the day of election bhi log SMS bhejtey hain…

Reporter- Ye dekh lijiyega ki fake account jo hai wo election commission k pakad mein na aaye..

Gaurav- Wo sab.. that is not a problem..

[Gaurav assured us that our fake accounts on social media would not attract the attention of the Election Commission of India. He also informed us that some candidates send SMS messages to their voters even on the day of voting.]

When asked about his past experience in promoting election candidates on digital platforms, Gaurav mentioned that his company had handled the digital promotion of numerous candidates in the past. Currently, he claimed, they are managing campaigns for eight candidates participating in the 2024 general elections.

Reporter- Aapko political experience hai..?

Gaurav-Hum logon ne kiya hai..

Reporter- Hume aise log chahiye jo election campaign kar chuke ho…parties k liye candidates k liye marketing kar chuke hain…

Gaurav- Delhi mein already XXXXXX ji hain… XXXX party se XXXXX ji hain, to in logon ka kaam kar chuke hain aur kar bhi rahe hain..XXXX ji, XXXX hain XXXX se, un ka already hum kar rahe hain.

Reporter- Ye log contest kar rahe hain.?

Gaurav- They are contesting elections..

Reporter- To unka kya kya dekh rahe hain aap…?

Gaurav- Sir unka sara social media handling, even though hamare pass team hai jo all round inhi k saath rehti hai.. wo hame clips bhejte hain aur hum phataphat unko upload karte hain, to jitni bhi rallies hai, sab cheezein hum log handle kar rahe hain..

Reporter- Filhal 2024 mein kitne candidates hain aapke pass.?

Gaurav- Abhi sir hamare pass 8 candidates hain..

Reporter- Sab Delhi k hain kis kis party k hain…?

Gaurav- Ek XXXX ho gaya, XXXX hai, ek XXX party bani hai, uske..8-10 log hain wo bhi others mein hain…

 [The conversation reveals how political marketers rely on past successes and ongoing engagements to navigate current campaigns effectively.]

When asked if he could arrange favorable tweets on X (formerly Twitter) for their candidates, Gaurav proposed engaging major Hindi news channels for such tasks. He cited a previous instance three years ago, where he facilitated positive tweets for a senior politician through a prominent Hindi news channel for Rs 5 lakh.

Reporter- Accha kuch aisa ho sakta hai ki koi inke favour mein tweet kar de..?

Gaurav- Sir wo to channel se karwana padega, news channel se..

Reporter- News channel se matlab..?

Gaurav- Jo bade bade news channel hain, XXXXX , XXXXX etc..agar hum inko bolte hain to aapko acha brand value mil jayegi..

Reporter- Lekin wo kyun tweet karengey ?

Gaurav- Wo isliye karengey kyunki unko pay kiya jayega…

Reporter- Ek tweet ka kitna hoga amount.?

Gaurav- Sir wo mujhe pooch kar pata chalega

Reporter- Aapne pehle bhi karaya hoga ?

Gaurav- Sir maine jo last kiya tha, XXXXX se karwaya tha, wo mere se already services letey hain SMS ki to unhoney ek person ke liye kiya tha.. to 5 lakh liya tha.

Reporter- XXXXX ne lagaya tha ?

Gaurav- 3 saal pehle XXXX  ke liya..

Reporter- XXXXX k liye 3 saal pehle

[Gaurav unveils the practice of manipulating social media narratives through paid endorsements, highlighting the intersection of media influence and political campaigns.]

Gaurav also agreed to engage Bollywood stars or influencers for tweeting in favor of their candidates for a fee, showcasing the trend of leveraging celebrity endorsements to bolster political campaigns in the digital age. He also discussedthe distinction between Bollywood stars and other celebrities for endorsements.

Reporter- Sir mein ye chahta hoon ke koi celebrity Bollywood ka inke favour mein tweet kar de?

Gaurav- Boliye kissey karwana hai, boliye sir..ye to influencer ka hi kaam hai..

Reporter- Aap hi bata do…lekin Bollywood star alag cheez ho gaya.. celebrity alag cheez,

Gaurav- Waise dono ek hi level ka hota hai..

Reporter- Bollywood star ki zyada mass appeal hai..

Gaurav- Aapko chahiye kis level ka wo matter karta hai…

Reporter- Aap kara dijiye XXXXX ka..

 [The conversation sheds light on the distinction between Bollywood stars and other celebrities for endorsements, revealing the practice of leveraging celebrity influence in political campaigns.]

Gaurav then introduced his influencer service, offering candidates like Sunny Arya alias Tehelka bhai and Elvish Yadav for constituency visits, each charging Rs 7 lakh. The reporter inquired about the impact of influencer meetings on election campaigns, shedding light on the use of social media influencers for political branding.

Gaurav- Baki hamara influencer ka bhi kaam hai..aapko agar influencer chahiye to mil jayenge..?

Reporter- Influencer ki agar hum koi meeting karwa dein election mein..ussey fayda hoga..?

Gaurav- Ji aapko branding chahiye…ab mein Elvish ko kahun tu jakar branding kar UP mein to kyun nahi karega..

Reporter- Elvish wo to phasa hua hai case mein..?

Gaurav- Phasa …ab to clear ho gaya .

Gaurav- Ab Tehelka bhai ka naam suna hoga aapne ?

Reporter- Tehelka bhai..haan.

Gaurav- Sunny arya..aap kahogey to mein arrange karwa dunga.

Reporter- Uske charges kya honge sir ?

Gaurav- Sir depend karta hai wo kya charge karega ?

Reporter- Maan lijiye Elvish hai.. Tehalka hai..?

Gaurav- Sir Elvish, Tehelka bhai to bade hain. 7-7 lakh rupiya lete hain..

[Our undercover reporter queried about the effectiveness of influencer meetings in elections, revealing the utilization of social media influencers for political branding strategies.]

Now, Gaurav detailed his financial plan, encompassing expenses for spreading misinformation, securing favorable tweets, using influencers, and viral videos for the Lok Sabha election, which, he claimed, would burn a Rs 10-lakh hole in our pockets. He emphasized the necessity of a substantial budget, of Rs 10 lakh at least, for effective social media outreach.

Gaurav- This is an MP election.. right?.. jiske liye hum baat kar rahe hain, is waqt jo MP ka budget lekar sab chal rahe hain wo 5-10 lakh rupees ka hai.

Reporter- Social media ka?

Gaurav- Sab kuch. SMS, whatsapp, voice ye maan kar chaliye kam se kam 10 lakh ka budget. Is ke neechey koi fayda hi nahi..reach hi nahi milegi.

Gaurav- Aapko hame na 10 lakh ka budget dena..usmein hum aapko categorize kar denge, ki itna whatsapp jayengey, itna SMS, itni voice jayengi, itna Facebook hoga, aur itna influencer lega..

Reporter- Aur ismein video viral karwana ho to, twitter pe trend karwana ho, retweets karwane ho ?

Gaurav- Ho jayega, sab ho jayega, broadcast karwana ho to alag lagega.

[Gaurav underscores the significant financial investment required for comprehensive social media campaigning in Lok Sabha election.]

In this election season, misinformation adopts a new facade, engaging with Indian voters in a manner that is subtle yet compelling, making it challenging to identify and regulate. It must be said that the 2019 elections were no stranger to hate speech and disinformation campaign, but the technology that enables this ecosystem has revolutionised at warp speed so much so that Artificial Intelligence (AI) threatens to disrupt the largest election season in history.

While the 2019 elections were dubbed ‘Social media elections,’ 2024 bears witness to the alarming rise of AI-driven elections. Rights agencies warn that the average Indian voter in 2024 faces the highest risk of electoral misinformation. Knowledge gaps persist in distinguishing reality from AI-generated content, exacerbating the challenge for social media companies struggling to contain fake news. Despite this, digital marketing companies are willing to propagate misinformation for profit.

Tehelka’s exposé uncovers yet another ‘M’—misinformation—out of the ‘4Ms,’ a daunting task for the Election Commission of India to combat to achieve the objective of free and fair elections. Tehelka has fulfilled its duty; now it’s the Election Commission of India’s turn to take action against such digital marketing agencies.