Rising nationalist sentiment in India and the cheap cost of data is behind the widespread sharing of fake news in the world’s largest democracy, a major study by the BBC has found.

The research found that for some users the emotional need to bolster national identity meant the truth or otherwise of information being shared was less important.

The analysis also reveals that those networks on the right were far better organised than opponents on the left. 

The findings come from a large study focusing on India, Kenya, and Nigeria and look at the way people react to and spread fake news.

Those taking part in the “Beyond Fake News” study allowed the BBC to examine their phones over a seven-day period to see what content had been shared.

In all the countries, a general distrust of mainstream media was the impetus for people to look for alternative sources of information and to share what they found. People were also overly confident about their ability to spot when something was untrue.

Dr Santanu Chakrabarti, head of audience insight at the BBC World Service, told the Guardian that the research by his team demonstrated that the rise of the Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, had made many Indians feel as though they had a patriotic duty to forward information.

“They are effectively looking for validation of their belief systems,” he said. “On these platforms, then, validation of identity trumps verification of the fact.”

While Facebook has previously been the focus of concern over the spread of fake news, attention is now turning to WhatsApp, which is encrypted end-to-end and so impossible to track.

While the majority of users send WhatsApp messages one-to-one, there is increasing concern about the use of large WhatsApp groups being used to share information, including pictures and videos.

The popularity of sharing pictures, screenshots and messages with minimal text are increasingly overtaking links to websites. This is being driven by a price war that’s pushing down the cost of mobile phone data and giving 3G internet access to all socioeconomic groups.

Researchers found that Indian social media users have a tendency to believe information sent to them by people they know and trust, rather than basing their opinion on the original source of the information.

“It is not that people don’t know that there are more credible and less credible sources,” the researchers said. “Nor is it the case that they don’t care about consuming incorrect information. It’s that on the digital platforms, while contending with the flood of onrushing information, they simply cannot be bothered.”

Sourced from the BBC, The Guardian