Skip to main content

Hindu right "successfully" mobilising virulent, vitriolic WhatsApp messaging: 2019 polls

Counterview Desk
A WhatsApp-sponsored report, written in partnership with Queen Mary University, published in a prominent open space e-journal, The Conversations, has raised the alarm that the 2019 elections India would be what it calls “WhatsApp elections”, with its huge spread through damaging “fake news”, Pointing out that fake news spread through the social media site “has led to serious violence in India”, it predicts, “There’s a danger this could also pose a threat to the democratic process.”
Authored by Philippa Williams, senior lecturer in human geography, Queen Mary University of London, and Lipika Kamra, assistant professor, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, OP Jindal Global University, and claiming that WhatsApp, despite the funding, has “no say” over its editorial content, the report says, the problem has aggravated with the BJP recruiting 900,000 “cell phone pramukhs” across India to disseminate "information" about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “successes”, and Congress is following up by launching appointment of “digital sathis” to counter the BJP.

Text of the WhatsApp-supported report:

India’s 2019 national elections are widely anticipated to be the “WhatsApp elections”. Against a backdrop of rapidly improving internet connectivity and rising smartphone use, the number of people using private messaging service WhatsApp has soared since its India launch in mid-2010 to more than 200m – more users than in any other democracy.
And now the country’s political parties are moving to capitalise on this mass communication channel. But given WhatsApp has already been used to misinform voters in other elections and spread damaging “fake news” that has led to serious violence in India, there’s a danger this could also pose a threat to the democratic process.
Keen to extend the power of social media mobilised in the 2014 election, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is trying to target smartphone-owning voters at the grass roots. More than 900,000 volunteer “cell phone pramukhs” are creating neighbourhood-based WhatsApp groups to disseminate information about the BJP’s development achievements and prime minister Narendra Modi’s campaign activities.
Meanwhile, the opposition Indian National Congress party is playing catch up with the launch of its “Digital Sathi” app and the appointment of their own volunteers to coordinate local digital campaigns.
But there’s good reason to think the widespread popularity of WhatsApp in India could have a damaging effect on the election. For one thing, the 2018 Brazilian elections and recent state-level elections in India exposed how WhatsApp is being used to rapidly share messages intended to misinform voters for political gain.
But India also has specific conditions related to the use of WhatsApp. While parties across India’s political spectrum – as well as globally – increasingly seek to gain from fake news by manipulating public opinion, the Hindu right has been far more successful at mobilising a common socio-political identity through media like WhatsApp. In particular, invitation-only groups have spread virulent and vitriolic messages that have played a role in cultivating a strong nationalist identity.
The recent conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir, which is likely to play an influential role in the election, has led to the spread of viral content that has stoked public tension, as well as a reported flood of misinformation.
In some cases, when more sinister forms of misinformation have gone viral, the impact on everyday social life in India has been lethal. The misuse of WhatsApp has been connected with at least 30 incidents of murder and lynching, for example following the circulation of children abduction rumours.
Anxious about the inadvertent dark side of its product, particularly within one of its biggest markets, WhatsApp has already launched its own public education campaign in India persuading its users to “spread joy not rumours”. 
It has also made simple alterations to its product design to encourage users to pause before forwarding messages and limited the number of people you can send a message to at once and the number of times you can forward it, which has since been rolled out globally. And it has banned more than 6m apparently automated and potentially harmful accounts in the past three months.
These steps are a starting point but may not be enough. For one thing, despite the forwarding limits, you can still send messages to 256 people at once and forward them five times – which means you can share something with 1,280 people in seconds.
Another challenge is that research suggests people care less about the validity of a message’s source and content, and more about the sender and its potential to entertain or reinforce a sense of identity. So, journalistic efforts to fact check reports circulating on WhatsApp will likely have a limited effect on media literacy and the detrimental impact of fake news.
Blaming each other
Part of the problem is that the question over who is at fault for the spread of misinformation is contentious and politically charged. Politicians have blamed WhatsApp and called on it to trace and stop the source of hostile messaging.
The company is resolute that it can’t access the encrypted messages sent via its app and, even if it could, sharing them with the government would be tantamount to state surveillance, a position supported by India’s Supreme Court. The firm has, in turn, blamed Indian political parties for “misusing” the app during election times.
Ultimately, the role of WhatsApp in Indian politics needs to be understood through the interaction of technology with wider social and cultural issues. WhatsApp is a tool that amplifies certain tendencies that already exist in Indian society.
For example, incidents of lynching might have much more to do with incitement to violence in a divided society than with an app that potentially facilitates the spread of rumours. Similarly, messages that promote hatred on religious, caste and gender lines rely on prevailing social cleavages.
We need a more well-rounded understanding of the emerging links between digital politics and the public sphere. How is (mis)information circulated by messaging apps related to more traditional forms of political campaigns, such as door to door canvassing, rallies and speeches? And how do these different spheres influence political participation and allegiance in different ways? 
This knowledge needs to be the starting point of any intervention to address WhatsApp’s role in misinformation during elections.

Comments

TRENDING

'Attack on free expression': ABVP 'insults' Udaipur professor for FB post

Counterview Desk   People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Rajasthan, condemning what it called "insult of Professor Himanshu Pandya" by students affiliated with with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarti Parishad (ABVP) in Udaipur, has said he was evicted from the class where he was teaching after raising "ugly slogans", forcing him to "leave the university".

A Hindu alternative to Valentine's Day? 'Shiv-Parvati was first love marriage in Universe'

By Rajiv Shah*   The other day, I was searching on Google a quote on Maha Shivratri which I wanted to send to someone, a confirmed Shiv Bhakt, quite close to me -- with an underlying message to act positively instead of being negative. On top of the search, I chanced upon an article in, imagine!, a Nashik Corporation site which offered me something very unusual. 

Moving towards sustainable development? Social, environmental implications of HCES data

By Dr Vandana Sehgal, Dr Amandeep Kaur*  Sustainable development, the high time agenda, encompasses economic, social, and environmental dimensions, aiming for a balance between all these aspects to ensure long-term well-being and prosperity for all. One of the crucial aspects of sustainable development is consumption patterns. Consumption patterns refer to the way individuals, households, and societies use resources and goods. Sustainable consumption patterns entail using resources efficiently, minimizing waste, and considering the environmental and social impacts of consumption choices.

Will numerically strong opposition in Lok Sabha strengthen democracy?

By Prem Singh*  After the first phase of the 18th Lok Sabha elections, which were conducted in seven phases, it was already indicated that a large part of the country's population had decided to contest the elections against the present government. A large number of unemployed youth and the already agitating farmers played a major role in this act of protest. 

Heatwave in Bundelkhand: 'Inadequate attention' on impact on birds, animals

By Bharat Dogra, Reena Yadav*  While the heat wave and its many-sided adverse impacts have been widely discussed in recent times, one important aspect of heat waves has not received adequate attention and this relates to the impact on birds and animals.

How Congress leaders' 'arrogance', BSP's politicking helped BJP alliance to return to power

By Divesh Ranjan, Sandeep Pandey*  There are celebrations in the opposition circles that Bhartiya Janata Party has not been able to reach the half way mark to form the government and will be dependent on coalition partners to run the next government. It is being expected that alliance partners will exert some influence on the BJP to check its unbridled way of functioning where it does not even consult its own legislators. 

NE India: Creating 'greater divisions', BJP claims to have overcome tyranny of distance

By Makepeace Sitlhou*  In March, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, said at an election rally in Arunachal Pradesh that previous governments had not cared for states that sent only two representatives to the country’s Parliament, as Arunachal and several others in the Indian Northeast do. Modi failed to see the irony of his claim given that he has not visited Manipur, which has only two representatives in parliament, since the outbreak of an armed ethnic conflict that has raged on for nearly a year. The toll from the violence stands at more than 200 lives lost, and many thousands displaced.