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Election 2024 | Armed With Fake News, RWAs Are 'Campaigning' For BJP on WhatsApp

Housing society WhatsApp groups have emerged as a useful tool for political messaging — and the BJP has an edge.

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(*Some names have been changed on request to protect identities of the subjects. The story also contains descriptions of hate speech.)

On 13 May, a rather peculiar controversy hit the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi. Its Rajya Sabha MP, Swati Maliwal, accused Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal's aide, Bibhav Kumar, of assaulting her at the CM's residence.

What followed was a series of allegations and counter allegations with both Maliwal and Kumar registering police complaints against each other as several parts of India voted in phase four of the ongoing Lok Sabha elections.

This story, however, is not about what was unfolding in Delhi. It's about a housing society WhatsApp group — 1,400 km away — in Mumbai's Mulund where Delhi politics, especially this episode, was being hotly discussed.

"On 18 May, I saw a message in our society's WhatsApp group. It had a collage of images of journalists, lawyers, and civil society members, mostly critical of the government. The accompanying message questioned the silence of these journalists on the Swati Maliwal issue," Raman*, a member of this WhatsApp group told The Quint.

Despite being used to receiving a barrage of politically coloured forwards on this group, this particular message piqued Raman's interest. "This collage had an image of Vinod Dua," he said.

Dua, a veteran journalist and Padma Shri recipient, died in December 2021. "I pointed it out on the group. But to no avail, neither the admin nor the person who shared that message bothered to delete it," Raman added.
Housing society WhatsApp groups have emerged as a useful tool for political messaging — and the BJP has an edge.

A message shared on a housing society group in Mumbai's Mulund.

The message, along with images of journalists, lawyers, and civil society members, had an accompanying text which read, "All the ba****d journalists are silent on the Swati Maliwal episode. Had this happened at PM Modi's house, they would've been dancing with joy."

This, Raman said, was one of the least problematic messages circulated on his housing society group. "There is rampant disinformation being shared almost daily. And since the elections started, Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal are the prime targets. It's almost like they never check what they forward," he said.

Several messages shared on this group, seen by The Quint, amount to hate speech and disinformation. For instance, earlier in May, video of a woman criticising Rahul Gandhi was shared as CPI(M) leader Subhashini Ali criticising the Congress MP. In the video, the woman can be heard saying, "If we want to take this forward, we must not even think about Rahul Gandhi. He doesn't know anything about politics or the country. The world is going through a crisis. It's not just England, but the entire world is facing problems. If we want to save our country, we'll have push Narendra Modi ahead."

Needless to say, the woman in the video is not the CPI(M) leader, and the quote was misattributed to her. Moreover, the Congress and CPI(M) are contesting the 2024 Lok Sabha election as part of the joint Opposition alliance.

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In several cities in India, the RWA (Resident Welfare Association) and AOA (Apartment Owners Association) are non-governmental organisations which represent the interests of the residents of a specific urban or suburban locality. They are registered under the Co-operative Societies Act, which require groups to have a minimum of fifteen members from a given area, or under the Apartment Owners Act of the state, or under the Societies Registration Act, which requires a minimum of ten members.

These RWAs and AOAs run WhatsApp groups to keep residents of a particular locality clued in to the daily happening in the housing society. In several cases, the number of members in these WhatsApp groups run into hundreds, and sometimes even more — making these groups a useful platform for bulk political messaging.

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An (Un)Even Playing Field?

Earlier this year, when Sonal (prefers to use only first name), a resident of Gurugram in Haryana, approached their local councillor for some work, contact details including phone numbers were exchanged.

"The next day, I found myself added to a host of housing society groups in my area. The person who added me was the councillor's brother who happens to be member of our RWA," Sonal told The Quint.

"Not only was I added to these groups against my consent, I wake up to a buffet of hate-filled messages and fake news everyday," they added.

One message that was recently shared on Sonal's RWA group had a man repeated an oft-debunked claim that former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that Muslims have the first right to our countries resources.

"He (Manmohan Singh) said that the first right on our country's resources is that of the Muslims. Have you heard or not? Have you heard Rahul Gandhi say that Hindus and 'Bhagwa Aatankwad' are a danger to India? He coined this fake term. These people are anti-Hindu. They want to wipe Hindus off this country and turn this into a Muslim country. A person whose grandfather was a Muslim and his mother is a Christian will teach us what Hindutva is? We don't him..." the person in the video can be heard saying.

You can read fact checks debunking the claims concerning Manmohan Singh's statement and Rahul Gandhi's grandfather being a Muslim here and here.

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On 19 May, one day before Mumbai went to polls in the fifth phase of the elections, admins of the housing society group of Hindi film actor Mohd. Zeeshan Ayyub, circulated a message.

The message appealed to the hundreds of members in this group, to press the bow and arrow button on the EVM machine if they wished to vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the elections.

"In that group, only the group admins can post a message. My issue is, that one day before the election — during the mandated 48-hour silence period — the admins are openly telling people who to vote for and how. And even if they're doing this, why am I, also a member of that group, not allowed to tell people which button they can press if they want to vote for the Congress or any other party?" Ayyub questioned as he spoke to The Quint.

In Mumbai, Shiv Sena (Eknath Shinde faction) which has the bow and arrow symbol, is contesting the elections as part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, while the party's Uddhav Thackeray faction is part of the Opposition INDIA bloc.

Housing society WhatsApp groups have emerged as a useful tool for political messaging — and the BJP has an edge.

On 19 May, one day before Mumbai went to polls in the fifth phase of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, Zeeshan Ayyub tweeted about political messaging on his society's WhatsApp group.

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The 'Apolitical' RWAs

President of the RWA in Delhi's Jangpura, Dr Kapil Kakar, told The Quint that any kind of political messaging in banned on their WhatsApp group. "We are an apolitical RWA. So, we don't allow any kind of political messages. If there are any messages in support of any particular party, as admins we quickly delete those," he said.

However, more recently, a message requesting people to attend an 'interactive session' with BJP New Delhi candidate Bansuri Swaraj, was shared on the group.

Housing society WhatsApp groups have emerged as a useful tool for political messaging — and the BJP has an edge.

An exchange between two residents of Jangpura over an outreach programme by BJP New Delhi candidate, Bansuri Swaraj.

"The BJP approached us for an outreach program for Bansuri Swaraj. As an RWA, we do not support any party. We only supports the interests of the residents. In Jangpura, we've had a long-standing demand of a Club. We told the BJP that the program can happens if Swaraj promises us a Club post election. They never got back. This particular temple visit and interaction was not organised by us. A resident only shared an invite on the group," Kakar clarified.

When asked if they plan to host the Opposition candidate, he said that unlike the BJP, the Opposition did not reach out to them.

Srinivas Kodali, an independent researcher working on data and governance, said that the use of RWAs to mobilise voters might not be such a bad thing, after all.

"The voter turnout in urban areas, including in this election, has always been slightly lower than the rural areas. If RWA groups are being used to mobilise voters, it's not a bad strategy. Having said that, there can be instances where the residents of a society do not want the RWA groups to be politicised, or if advertisements of one party are being allowed, then advertisements or messages in support of all parties should be allowed on these groups. But that is upto the group moderators to decide," Kodali told The Quint.

He added, "If people don't like what is being shared on these groups, they should leave these groups. Moderation of content or policing of WhatsApp groups can be a really really bad idea. We've seen it with other platforms. While moderation started for the purpose of checking the spread of disinformation and hate speech, it was eventually used for censorship."

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'Want to Exit This Group, But...'

Raman, Sonal, and Ayyub have all toyed with the idea of exiting their RWA groups. "I can't leave this group, even if I want to," Ayyub said. "All important information related to the society such as repair and maintenance issues or any community programs, is broadcast through this group," he said.

In Sonal's case they fear that leaving the group or registering a protest over the kind of content being shared might mean picking a bone with the councillor.

"It's just not worth it. I have muted the group and rarely see what is happening."

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  AAP   BJP   Rahul Gandhi 

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