Fake News on WhatsApp Targets Indian Americans Ahead of US Polls

According to a survey, about 72 percent of Indian-American registered voters plan to back Biden.

2 min read
Messages sent over WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook Inc, are confidential and are end-to-end encrypted.

US presidential candidate Joe Biden’s fake-news watchdog on messaging service WhatsApp has tracked and responded to dozens of concerning messages about the Democrat and his Indian American running mate Kamala Harris in the last three months, according to a report in Reuters.

Messages sent over WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook Inc, are confidential and are end-to-end encrypted. Third-party fact-checkers who monitor and flag misleading memes, claims and other content on Facebook cannot track the activity on WhatsApp.

This is where New Jersey tech entrepreneur Arun Bantval and his team comes in. Bantval chairs the Biden campaign’s five-member rapid response team focused on South Asian voters. 

His team joins some big WhatsApp groups and asks community leaders to report items that they find are misleading.

India American voters are a key demographic in the swing states of Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania and will play an important role in the upcoming elections, researchers say.

According to a September survey by Carnegie Endowment, about 72 percent of Indian American registered voters plan to back Biden. However, South Asian Biden supporters and nonpartisan activists are concerned that the misinformation spread on Whatsapp might impact the actual turnout.

“There’s just a lot of inaccurate information for an already confusing process,” Chavi Khanna Koneru, executive director of a nonpartisan group North Carolina Asian Americans Together told Reuters.

A campaign spokeswoman for President Donald Trump told Reuters that his social media staff were not focussing on WhatsApp.

“There’s more on the Democratic candidates, but there is fake news about the Republican side, too,” Kannan Srinivasan, an Orlando businessman told Reuters.

According to Bantval, he was unclear where the misinformation originated. The misrepresentations mainly targeted older Indian immigrants raising concerns about crime, wealth and religion, he added.

According to Koneru, the inaccuracies about voting procedures has gone up significantly as compared to the 2016 presidential elections.

Over 2 billion people use WhatsApp’s free app to chat with individuals and groups. While spotting fake news on other social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have become common practice, secret messaging apps such a WhatApp have been difficult to monitor.

The use of WhatsApp in US politics might be small but trends seen in Brazil, India and elsewhere has prompted the company to reassess their features.

WhatsApp has introduced limits on the forwarding of messages that had not come from close contact. While earlier a viral message could be shared to 250 groups at once, now one can only forward it to five contacts. It has also launched a feature allowing users to check the contents of viral messages.

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