Fake News Spread on Social Media to Indian Americans Plays Stealth Role in U.S. Election

OAKLAND (Reuters) -
Opening a drop box to collect ballots outside the King County Elections headquarters in Renton, Washington, Monday. (Reuters/Lindsey Wasson)

New Jersey tech entrepreneur Arun Bantval is presidential candidate Joe Biden’s top fake-news watchdog on messaging service WhatsApp about the Democrat and his Indian American running mate Kamala Harris.

Messages on WhatsApp, owned by Facebook Inc, are confidential and cannot be seen by moderators who police misleading memes, claims and other content on the social media giant’s flagship platform.

Bantval, 56, who chairs the Biden campaign’s five-member rapid response team focused on South Asian voters, has tracked dozens of concerning messages of unknown origin and crafted about 50 rebuttal graphics and texts over the last three months.

His team and similar ones at nonpartisan groups are trying to fill WhatsApp’s moderation void by joining big WhatsApp groups and asking community leaders to report items.

South Asian voters, mostly Indian Americans, will be pivotal in the Nov. 3 contest in swing states such as Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania where results will be close and predict the national outcome, researchers and nonpartisan voting advocacy groups say.

About 72% of Indian American registered voters plan to back Biden, according to a September survey by Carnegie Endowment. But South Asian Biden supporters and nonpartisan activists worry that misinformation on WhatsApp will affect turnout and support.

“There’s just a lot of inaccurate information for an already confusing process,” said Chavi Khanna Koneru, executive director of nonpartisan group North Carolina Asian Americans Together. “And this year is different for everybody because we’re relying on virtual connections more than ever.”

WhatsApp said its role in U.S. politics is small. But political misinformation on WhatsApp in Brazil, India and elsewhere prompted the service beginning in 2018 to limit recipients when forwarding messages.