How WhatsApp Is Changing Indian Politics


JENCY JACOB, MANAGING EDITOR, BOOM FACTCHECK, RECALLS THE DAY Union Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman sharply attacked the opposition in the Lok Sabha for calling Prime Minister Narendra Modi a “chor” (thief) over the Rafale fighter aircraft deal. Jacob and his colleagues at their fact-checking firm joked that a “clipped video” of Sitharaman would soon go viral on social media, especially on WhatsApp, from where it would be widely shared on all other online platforms. The tweaked video made it appear that Modi’s ministerial colleague was calling him a thief, while all she did was refer to what rival party leaders have been saying about her boss. Selective clipping of footage to spread misinformation is becoming a trend, notes Jacob.

Similarly, when Congress President Rahul Gandhi said during a recent speech in the UAE that Mahatma Gandhi drew inspiration from various religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam, to forge ahead with his non-violent struggle against the British Empire, ‘clipped’ videos that said Gandhiji was influenced by Islam began to go viral. Memes, videos and texts that excluded religions other than ‘Islam’ appeared on WhatsApp chat groups in no time, insinuating that the Congress leader was appealing for Muslim votes by linking the Mahatma with Islam.

It isn’t WhatsApp alone where such questionable content is zealously shared, but its reach among the masses remains a key attraction for fake-news peddlers. Recently, an image of a teenager was randomly picked up by a news website to run an article that claimed Rahul Gandhi had fumbled in response to her tough questions in Dubai. The article continues to be shared on WhatsApp, though fact-checking website Alt-News found that the image was taken from a YouTube post from three years ago. The article that originally carried the misleading photo was trashed on all other social media sites, including Twitter, Facebook and other online platforms.

Without doubt, WhatsApp enjoys far greater influence than any other social media platform in India, which is the company’s biggest market.

Of its 1.5 billion users globally, 200 million are in this country, thanks to cheap handsets and accelerated use of data even by people below the poverty line; it is no exaggeration that more people in India have access to mobile phones than toilets.

But this is not the only reason why political parties have bet big on WhatsApp to connect with their voters. WhatsApp, as a matter of policy, does not track the source of a message, be it an inflammatory video capable of inciting riots or less harmless but deliberate distortion of facts. It is also a turf where review of the content is not instant, unlike Facebook or Twitter where fake news is now vetted, thanks to its greater visibility. Fact checkers can pick up content elsewhere easily, but any intervention to monitor WhatsApp groups is difficult. Besides, ascertaining the ‘virality’—the extent to which content is shared online—of a video or text on WhatsApp is hard, while that on Twitter and Facebook is easier.

To give the company its due, WhatsApp, which is an end-to- end encrypted social media platform owned by Facebook and is extremely useful for free interpersonal communication, has taken a raft of measures to fight the menace of fake news, including the sort that results in the lynching of people in India. Ever since the Government of India came under pressure for not doing enough to curb vigilante crime in various parts of India triggered by WhatsApp messages, and the Government pinned the blame on WhatsApp, the American company has put in place controls to make mass sharing of dangerous content through its communication app cumbersome; it has also put out appeals across TV, radio and print, asking people to help combat hoaxes. Besides setting up an Indian arm of the company and appointing a grievance officer, WhatsApp—which vows to work closely with civil society groups and the Government as well as political parties to create awareness of campaigns that distort the truth—has also set a limit on forwarding messages.

Its website claims that this move makes ‘WhatsApp one of the few technology companies to intentionally constrain sharing’. It goes on, ‘In India, that limit is currently just five chats at once. We have also removed the quick forward button next to media messages. This has had a significant impact on forwarding.’ Also, it tracks accounts that engage in ‘abnormal behavior’, in its words. The website states: ‘Previously WhatsApp provided a function to ‘Report Spam’. Now this function is called ‘Report’ to encourage users to inform us about a range of potential issues they encounter on WhatsApp.’ In the recently held election in Rajasthan, it tied up with fact checker Ekta Newsroom to fight misinformation that can influence voting behaviour.

WhatsApp India also told Open that shortly it would introduce a “bunch” of measures to rein in any kind of misuse of its app by political parties and others in the run-up to the General Election just months away. It didn’t, however, elaborate on the steps it plans to take at a time when political parties are vigorously using the app to woo voters at a hyper-local level.

PROOF OF WHY WHATSAPP IS HOT FOR POLITICAL PARTIES lies in the emphasis their honchos place on communication through this medium.

Whatever social media experts say about the usefulness and spread of other sites, in this coming election, politicians have put WhatsApp several notches above others in their social media priority list.

As early as the first week of September last year, Prime Minister Modi went into a huddle with a small band of BJP leaders to discuss his party’s WhatsApp campaign. People close to the matter say that the details of the campaign were presented by a senior official in the PMO. According to the plan, one person will be in charge of each booth across the country to streamline the party’s WhatsApp-based campaign, which would include creating groups and sharing videos, information, audio and so on.

The Modi Government’s various schemes, policy decisions, welfare measures and legislative efforts are likely to be part of this smartphone campaign. Its coverage would be national as well as hyper-local: as part of its strategy to strengthen booth management ahead of this year’s elections, the BJP has compiled a list of people in the hinterland who use smartphones in each booth. It was decided at that high-level meeting that the party’s central war room would coordinate the campaign.

Open had reported earlier (‘The Pitch Update’, July 9th, 2018) that in the backdrop of the enhanced priority that parties are according WhatsApp— thanks to the more focused targeting of groups it offers, besides the anonymity of the original source and perceptions of confidentiality among users—the Congress party, too, had plans to recruit 900,000 ‘cyber warriors’ from across the country to help with its booth-level campaigns.

Of this number, Divya Spandana, who has steered the Congress’ social media presence, had said as early as June last year that one-third had already been identified and cyber managers at assembly constituency levels had all been trained at national workshops to carry out the party’s campaign. “These trained assembly-level volunteers will now coach others on how to disseminate information through WhatsApp groups,” she had said then. This makes it clear that WhatsApp is the platform on which the 2019 battle will largely be fought.

Vikas Pandey, innovation editor at BBC, who had worked with the Ekta Newroom initiative to check hoaxes during the recent Rajasthan election, tells Open that while all-encompassing national news campaigns can be checked for accuracy because they are more visible, it is hyper-local misinformation that typically goes unnoticed by fact checkers and ends up influencing voting outcomes. In Rajasthan, where WhatsApp provided Ekta Newsroom with Comprova Business API, a bigger version of WhatsApp mostly used by large businesses, it was stringers that the organisation had hired from across the state who helped it bust misinformation.

That ranged from hoax videos of rival local candidates shown as saying ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ to photoshopped images of sadhus marching to Parliament being fired at, which is a gross distortion of the peaceful 1966 march demanding a ban on cow slaughter. There were also doctored images where the faces of top political leaders addressing crowds had been interchanged.

While national campaigns are often shared across other sites including Facebook and Twitter, hyper-local ones that often talk about caste and religious issues escape scrutiny. Which means unless fact checkers have representatives at local levels and are armed with Comprova Business API by WhatsApp, most campaigns in the countryside will influence voters even if they are fraudulent, considering the difficulty in reviewing such content and in multiple languages.

It is in this context that WhatsApp may fail in India where it showed success in countries like Mexico and Brazil during election time.

While the initiatives in Mexico and Brazil are similar to the pilot project in Rajasthan, Verificado 2018 was launched several months ahead of the Mexican election last July covering almost the entire country to check false news on WhatsApp. What Verificado did, like Ekta Newsroom, was to create a WhatsApp number that can store a large amount of data where individual users can send in content they think is false for fact checking. Similarly, the Comprova initiative in Brazil involved collaboration with many traditional media groups to check for factual accuracy in the run-up to the country’s elections last October. It hired locals to send in suspicious content. In Rajasthan, though, Vikas Pandey says, the public was hesitant to send in suspicious content over irrational fears of being held accountable for doing so. Therefore, he points out, it was the work of the stringers that helped the initiative debunk many lies and misinformation campaigns.

“In a country like India, where common men are not often conditioned to display individual activism and where they are unnecessarily worried about consequences, which is obvious from their behaviour at an accident spot where people wait for someone else to take the initiative to help a victim, getting them to report false news may not be as easy as it appears,” says a senior Delhi-based government official, emphasising that since WhatsApp is committed to keeping its features as they are, any effort to trace fake news may prove to be ineffective.

Perhaps the only way to monitor WhatsApp messages is by installing a cellphone spy app on to the ‘target’ phone. This would be a highly cumbersome measure. Though it is sometimes done individually to monitor a child’s online activity or an employee’s productivity, it would raise a host of objections over its ethics and people’s right to privacy if implemented on a large scale.

Again, there is the problem of surveillance that comes to the fore. Various groups, organisations and even governments and courts are against any move to monitor WhatsApp messages through a so-called mobilephone hub. In July last year, India’s Supreme Court asked the Government whether it wanted to tap citizens’ WhatsApp messages and create ‘a surveillance state’. This question by the court came in response to the Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s decision to set up a social media hub to monitor online data and while hearing a PIL filed by a Trinamool Congress legislator from West Bengal.

Worldwide, governments have argued that they want to invade the private lives of citizens through surveillance programmes to keep their countries safe from terrorism, misinformation campaigns and from underworld mobsters that could wreak havoc in a country. This argument is often questioned by crusaders of individual freedom who say that governments that are ruthlessly ambitious and populist could turn dictatorial and use data on their citizens for greedy purposes and thus pose a greater challenge to people’s safety than terrorists and mafia groups.

Ruling parties often contend that security comes with a price, but equally powerful is the assertion that most nefarious activities cannot be traced even with surveillance because many of them could be impulsive actions by individuals who have no previous criminal records. Besides, the feeling of being watched could have longer-term effects on the behaviour of people, who tend to censor themselves and abridge their own freedom of expression when they know they are under watch.

This ‘chilling effect’ has historically been observed in countries where there have been clampdowns on civil liberties, making citizens indifferent to the gravest of atrocities. To challenge claims made by the state, freedom evangelists often cite the words of Benjamin Franklin, who once said, “Those who give up liberty for safety deserve neither.” The abuse of individuals’ private data that falls into the hands of knave officials is often a stark reality. Yet, debates over the pros and cons of state surveillance continue to rock seminar rooms across the world. Fatalists argue that government surveillance will never go away, while advocates 0f liberty insist that whatever is left of privacy should be protected.

Clearly, the fundamental definition of privacy has changed over time, thanks to the march of technology. For his part, Chris Daniels, CEO, WhatsApp, has ruled out effecting any change in the features of its communication tool that will prove intrusive. He is keen on stepping up efforts to create new business divisions in India, including a digital payment platform.

Sangeeta Mahapatra, visiting fellow, Institute of Asian Studies, German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Hamburg, who closely watches social media trends and politics, says that WhatsApp is going to be the primary medium of political canvassing in this year’s General Election regardless of its cap on the number of forwards allowed in India. “If one reads Statista figures along with that of Hootsuite, one finds that around 97 per cent of smartphone owners in India use mobile apps, out of which 96 per cent use WhatsApp,” she points out, adding that India accounts for around 10 per cent of WhatsApp’s global users and the largest forwarders of messages on the app. Mahapatra adds, “These numbers tell an important tale about the usage pattern of WhatsApp in India. No wonder political parties are investing in the creation of WhatsApp groups for almost every booth. From the Karnataka state election onwards, WhatsApp messaging by parties like the BJP has become more efficient, marked by hyper-segmentation of voters to micro target them with personalised messages.”

SHE ADDS THAT IN THE RECENT STATE ELECTIONS, WhatsApp substituted roadshows in some rural areas because it can reach villages where other platforms cannot and is more cost-efficient. According to her, the value of WhatsApp lies in what is called its ‘ecosystem strategy’: that is, messages come from known contacts and are seen as credible. “Receivers of such messages will not fact check before forwarding it. Even if the forwards are limited to five, the scale and speed of forwards can increase and achieve the end goal of amplification and acceptance of a particular message.

Here the content and form of the message becomes important.

If an infographic or video is forwarded that has enough emotional and psychological appeal, especially during charged times, voters will be influenced,” says Mahapatra. Elaborating on her own research findings, she adds that more videos will be forwarded in the 2019 campaign as already 30 per cent of users use mobilephones for videos and internet speeds are set to increase sharply in India this year, bridging the urban-rural digital divide to a large extent.

She feels that videos and messages that have psychological impact can work both ways: “They might suddenly push people to vote or can lead to voter suppression.” She also cautions, “Political parties can buy bulk numbers for WhatsApp—in some parts of India for as less as 10 paise—and create large groups for targeted messaging campaigns. Hyper segmentation of voters can be done by creating constituency-wise heat maps of voters based on their information from electoral rolls, supplemented by data about their caste or religion by field agents of the party. After getting their telephone numbers and making their economic profile [through information from their electricity bills], specific messages can be sent to them.” So, yes, WhatsApp as well as local language messaging services like ShareChat and Helo will play a crucial role in influencing voters, she says.

There are other concerns gaining salience too. Mumbai-based cyber security specialist Ritesh Bhatia, who has closely followed various trends on WhatsApp groups, is worried about the growing incidence of cyber pornography through the app.He is also concerned about online impersonation; clever people can use the mobile numbers of their employees and even household helps who use feature phones to set up new WhatsApp groups, a crime that goes largely unreported. Bhatia says that political parties are devising new ruses to beat the new restrictions imposed by WhatsApp in India, a country where the political atmosphere appears far more vitiated now compared with the past several decades. Efforts to polarise people along religious lines are in full swing, too, with WhatsApp acquiring the epithet of being a ‘black box for fake news’ as its prized encryption technology turns into a weapon for hate mongers.

With key political parties battening down the hatches to tap the gains of a WhatsApp-oriented, high wattage, expensive campaign, it would take a leap of faith to expect fair play.

First published in Open magazine

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