India Tops the World... in Forwarding Messages! Umm, Why Though?
It’s official! India leads the world in forwarding messages on WhatsApp. But what makes us a forwards-crazy nation?
India tops the world... when it comes to forwarding messages on WhatsApp. The first half of the above sentence is a trigger for raucous celebrations, the second calls for quiet introspection.
When it comes to the internet, India has established itself as a world leader in two specific areas – for internet shutdowns, and now, for forwarding messages. We’re busy using our time online to circulate everything from “good morning” messages to inflammatory rumours.
The question then is: what makes us a country that excels in “fastest finger first”?
In exploring this question, it is useful to first locate our forwards along a spectrum – from harmless to harmful.
The messaging app, while announcing its five-forwards limit on 20 July, described India as a country “where people forward more messages, photos, and videos than any other country in the world”.
Having established the spectrum, let us explore the reasons behind India’s global domination of forwards.
1. It’s Free
Simply put, the indiscriminate forwarding of texts is enabled by the fact that both WhatsApp and the act of forwarding is free. Unlike traditional SMS, forwarding content (any amount of it) doesn’t affect the pocket.
For a country that is rapidly discovering the internet and its affordances – thanks to the proliferation of low-cost smartphones – over 200 million of India’s 500 million internet users have WhatsApp on their devices.
2. Ease of Sharing
WhatsApp had designed its app to make forwarding as seamless as possible – both, in the number of steps involved and the number of people it can reach.
Now, it is precisely this feature that WhatsApp has rolled back in an attempt to make it more cumbersome (but not impossible) to circulate content to large groups of people.
3. A Veritable News Platform
An important point is the fact that WhatsApp is as much source of news and current affairs as it is a private messaging service. Consider the trajectory of its parent company, Facebook. The social network giant started off as a platform to keep in touch with friends, but has evolved into a primary source of news for millions.
Given our argumentative nature, a ready-made forward-worthy text works as a convenient bramhastra to hurl at opponents, or feed an echo chamber.
4. Amplification in Echo Chambers
Forwards are often like a ball within a squash court. They get bounced around a lot, but never outside of a boxed domain within which they are relevant. Social media and private messaging apps, by nature, provide an enabling system for echo chambers because we tend to have like-minded people as contacts. Therefore, messages that reinforce our already existing beliefs are often widely circulated.
“Rather than convincing our minds to think outside the box, it’s easier to believe things that do not compel us to change our opinions or views. Therefore, even if not factually accurate, the messages that we do register are based on our existing attitudes,” says Smriti Joshi, a psychologist who works on emotionally-intelligent AI bots.
In the deluge of forwards that qualify in this category, a personal favourite has to be: “Did you know how India got its name? It stands for Independent Nation Declared In August”.
5. ‘Pride in Sharing Forward, or PISH’
WhatsApp users, who find a particular message to be beneficial or appealing, can send it forward to multiple people thanks to ease of sharing. ‘Pride in Sharing Forward (PISH)’ is how Joshi describes this behavioural pattern. It works on principles similar to ‘Fear of Missing Out’ (FOMO).
While a lot of content is factually accurate, there is also an unhealthy amount of spurious messages with questionable accuracy or outright misinformation. Such content includes medical advice or even warnings about natural calamities – like this forward that read: "radiowaves from a passing meteor will cause a power shut down for world at 3:00 am".
6. Easier to Forward than Compose
Users who aren’t comfortable with creating messages, using the keyboard, or articulating thoughts in writing, may find it easier to forward texts that they feel align well with their beliefs or opinions.
It is interesting that the composer of a forward-friendly message often creates it in a manner that mimics the tone of a personal one-on-one message. This makes a forwarded message seem like a personal text. On 10 July, WhatsApp rolled out a new feature to label forwards to help people identify forwarded messages.
7. If it’s in Electronic Font, it Must Be True
Sounds peculiar but there exists a tendency to believe in a text because it appears in printed form or in a specific font, as opposed to something that is hand-written. The psychological impact of typography and its effect on credulity has been well documented. Many messages that are obviously untrue or factually inaccurate get forwarded without verification because of its appearance in Helvetica or Georgian fonts.
A rather interesting case study in this category is the quote mistakenly attributed to Lord Macaulay. Despite being unequivocally disproven and junked, this image, whose text is in Helvetica, remains resilient, making more comebacks on WhatsApp than ShahidAfridi has made in cricket.
8. Created for Virality
This is where we enter slippery terrain – a category of messages that are meant to be shared widely. These messages (text or video) are easy to identify because they often end with a Call to Action – asking people to share the message with five/ten friends on WhatsApp. This kind of content was popular in e-mails till WhatsApp provided a more convenient and personalised channel for them to migrate to.
Given that political parties form thousands of WhatsApp groups in the run up to elections, it is easy for a message to go viral because of thousands of users sharing them.
In the case of lynchings, messages were composed for wide circulation within a targeted area.
9. Political Hijacking
Most WhatsApp users would have come across forwarded content that is directly political or referring to political figures and events. Parties across India’s political spectrum have realised the potential reach of WhatsApp as a platform to get their message across. Factcheck website BoomLive had reported that the BJP had 23,000 WhatsApp groups in Karnataka ahead of the elections.
They now understand that WhatsApp provides a direct connect with individuals and eliminates the need to depend on traditional media to get their message across to the people.
Within three days of WhatsApp admitting that Indians topped the charts when it came to WhatsApp forwards, the Delhi BJP unit announced that it had formed 1,800 WhatsApp groups (and counting) in the run up to the 2019 general elections.
10. State-Sponsored Content
State sponsored WhatsApp content has been observed to fall under two distinct categories – trolling and propaganda. Both categories serve a common purpose – to establish the government’s dominant narrative on a platform, that in today’s time, has great potential to influence large masses.
It is par for the course now that within hours of an incident or issue, forwards in support or against the subject will flood the messaging app.
Forwards afford faceless consensus building because WhatsApp’s privacy settings do not enable the tracing of a particular message back to its original composer. Be it journalists, politicians or comedians, many have been targets of organised trolling or defamation on the app through memes, texts and videos.
(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)
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