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The spread of digital disinformation

IT cells and their impact on public opinion

As of January 2023, the internet boasts a staggering 4.72 billion estimated social media accounts, with a 3% year-on-year growth of +137 million users and further expansion projected throughout the year. The average person now spends a substantial 6 hours and 58 minutes daily connected to online screens, underscoring the significant role the internet plays in our lives. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that governments worldwide have recognized its potential as a critical tool to advance their agendas, policies, and achievements. Through diverse digital channels, governments aim to reach a vast audience and change public perception, striving to build transparency, trust, and legitimacy while maintaining a powerful digital presence. However, this approach also raises concerns about bias, propaganda, and information manipulation, which can impact public perceptions in questionable ways.

One such phenomenon that has emerged is the presence of IT cells, organized groups typically affiliated with political parties, organizations, or interest groups. These Information Technology cells dedicate themselves to managing and amplifying their respective organizations' online presence, predominantly on social media platforms and other digital avenues. During contentious political events or national issues, IT cells deploy coordinated messaging in support of government policies and leaders, inundating social media platforms. Unfortunately, dissenting voices and critics may face orchestrated attacks from these IT cells, aimed at discrediting and silencing them.

While some IT cells may operate with genuine intentions, they have faced criticism for engaging in tactics that spread misinformation, disinformation, and targeted propaganda to sway public sentiment in favour of their affiliated organizations. In such instances, IT cells strategically amplify positive news and government achievements while downplaying or deflecting negative information. Social media influencers and online campaigns have become tools to project a positive image of the government and maintain public support.

One striking example of how governments can exploit IT cells for their gain was evident in the infamous Cambridge Analytica scandal. In 2018, revelations exposed how the political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, acquired personal data from millions of Facebook users without consent. The firm then weaponized this data to construct highly targeted and manipulative political campaigns, including during the 2016 United States presidential election and the Brexit referendum.

In India, the ruling BJP party has come under scrutiny for its orchestrated online campaigns through its social media cell. The cell allegedly intimidates individuals perceived as government critics and actively disseminates misogyny, Islamophobia, and animosity. According to Sadhavi Khosla, a BJP cyber-volunteer associated with the BJP IT Cell, the organization promotes divisive content and employs trolling tactics against users critical of the BJP. Journalists and Indian film actors have also found themselves targeted by these campaigns.

As technology continues to evolve, it is imperative to strike a balance between leveraging the internet for transparency and legitimacy while safeguarding against potential misuse that could erode trust in digital governance and public discourse. Monitoring and addressing the activities of IT cells can be a significant step towards ensuring responsible and ethical use of digital platforms in the political arena.

By Jaspreet Mann

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