Should Those Fighting the War With WhatsApp, First Look Within?
“We wrestle on Twitter. The battle is on Facebook. The war is on WhatsApp.” – Ankit Lal, a top strategist for the Aam Aadmi Party is famously quoted as saying. 
“We wrestle on Twitter. The battle is on Facebook. The war is on WhatsApp.” – Ankit Lal, a top strategist for the Aam Aadmi Party is famously quoted as saying. (Image: Erum Gour/The Quint)

Should Those Fighting the War With WhatsApp, First Look Within?

Under pressure from the Indian government to tackle fake news and rumours in India, WhatsApp has, over the last one month announced two solutions:

1. It has limited the number of forwards to no more than five people in one go.
2. Launched a 'forward' label to identify messages which are not original.

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While Union Minister for Electronics and IT Ravi Shankar Prasad has been appreciative of WhatsApp's responsiveness to his government's concerns, experts argue it isn't enough.

WhatsApp is used by 1.5 billion people globally. India, which is WhatsApp's largest market, has over 200 million users. Its messages are encrypted and cannot be read by even company executives. It's not a social media platform and allows for direct private messaging within private chat groups at the tap of a finger. It allows for anonymity, comes without judgement and the ease of reaching millions of people with a couple of taps on the smartphone. With false or inflammatory messaging in the mix for India's largely digitally illiterate population, the medium is ripe for abuse.

While WhatsApp can respond to the Modi government's warnings with stop-gap counter-measures, the only end-all solution to the spread of fake, potentially dangerous news, is to tackle it at the source.

And that would require some introspection from political parties.

And the Biggest News Factory Is ....

Just how important has WhatsApp become to election campaigns in India is evident from the BJP and the Congress' campaign for the Karnataka Assembly election that concluded in May this year. In fact, some foreign media dubbed it as 'India's WhatsApp-First Election'.

During the Karnataka elections, both the BJP and the Congress claimed to have created 20,000 WhatsApp groups with a reach of over 1.5 million followers within minutes. The BJP reportedly set up 23,000 WhatsApp groups with 80-100 members each with a diverse mix of software professionals, students, housewives and senior citizens.

"The groups were created five months before the election, in December 2017," according to Balaji Srinavasan's interview to Boom Live. The 27-year-old was heading the BJP's media cell in Bengaluru and was responsible for drawing up the campaign for 1.76 lakh Twitter and six lakh Facebook followers of 'BJP4Karnataka' accounts and admitted that while Facebook and Twitter are important mediums "WhatsApp was turning out to be a crucial element in reaching all age groups."

Led by Divya Spandana, the Congress party found some traction on Twitter, what with Siddaramaih emerging an unlikely social media champion. The party's efforts on WhatsApp, however, was no match for the headstart the BJP had during the Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat Assembly elections. The BJP's affiliates – the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) – are central to its WhatsApp outreach.

Among the usual critiques of the government and jokes about Opposition leaders, there were more insidious messages aimed at misleading the electorate.

Among them was also a "pre-poll survey conducted by BBC" that predicted 135 seats for the BJP, that was later debunked by the media organisation. A video of a mob lynching in Guatemala was passed off as a "Hindu woman being attacked by a Muslim mob". And abusive audio messages wrongly interpreted as threats between Hindu and Muslim groups over the candidacy of a Muslim candidate of the Congress party.

A WhatsApp screenshot of the fake BBC pre-poll survey that was circulated ahead of the Karnataka elections in May 2018. 
A WhatsApp screenshot of the fake BBC pre-poll survey that was circulated ahead of the Karnataka elections in May 2018. 

During flare-ups, immediate shut down of the internet is an effective solution for preventing the spread of false, misleading and dangerous propaganda. According to the ‘Clampdowns and Courage: South Asia Press Freedom Report 2017-2018’, there were at least 82 instances of internet shutdowns in India. In comparison, Pakistan had only 17.

But how viable is an internet shutdown in the run up to an election that is touted as the 'semi-final to the 2019 general election'? One can argue that not all election propaganda is dangerous. But when a political candidate is heard purportedly threatening a Hindu-Muslim clash, the line between election propaganda and overt instigation becomes even more blurred.

For now, one can expect WhatsApp to co-operate with the government that heads one of its largest regional market.

Given the existing and other anticipated restrictions, WhatsApp-savvy political parties like the BJP could be pushed into exploring other messaging applications that offer end to end encryptions, like Telegram, which would bring us back to square one. As for the Congress, the party will find itself further disadvantaged at a time when its already struggling to claim 'Battleground WhatsApp'.

But what does it say about us, as a country, when we'd rather blame a messaging app, which incidentally is also pretty neat, instead of holding the lynch mob responsible. Or for that matter, even the dispensation that permits the lynch mob its perceived moral right to unleash violence.

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