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

Amit Shah 'wrong': Lack of transparency characterized bank frauds, NPAs, jobs data

Counterview Desk
India's senior RTI activists Nikhil Dey, Anjali Bhardwaj, Venktesh Nayak, Rakesh Reddy Dubbudu, Dr. Shaikh Ghulam Rasool, Pankti Jog and Pradip Pradhan, who are attached with the National Campaign for Peoples' Right to Information (NCPRI), have said that Union home minister Amit Shah's claim that the Government of India is committed to transparency stands in sharp contrast to its actual actions.

Untold story of Jammu: Business 'down', students fear lynching, teachers can't speak

By Rajiv Shah
A just-released report, seeking to debunk the view that people in Jammu, the second biggest city of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) after Srinagar, people had gone “out celebrating” abrogation of Article 370 which took away the state’s special status, has reported what it calls “abominably high levels of fear” across all sections in the town.

132 Gujarat citizens, including IIM-A faculty, others declare solidarity with Kashmiris

Counterview Desk
A week after it was floated, 132 activists, academics, students, artists and other concerned citizens of Gujarat, backed by 118 living in different parts of India and the world, have signed a "solidarity letter" supporting the people of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), who, it claims, have been silenced and held captive in their own land. The signatories include faculty members and scholars of the prestigious Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad (IIM-A).

Success of 'political' Hinduism: Kashmiris being depicted as antagonists of rest of India

By Anand K Sahay*
There are times in history when facts call attention to themselves; they assert their independence in all its amplitude and are in no need of the crutch of interpretation. Such a moment is visible in Kashmir now. Merely by being on the table, the facts there taunt the regime’s proclamations.

Kashmiris in a civil disobedience mode, are going against 'diktat' to open shops

Counterview Desk
A team of concerned citizens, including Ludhiana-based psychiatrist and writer Anirudh Kala, Mumbai-based activist and public health professional Brinelle Dsouza, Delhi-based journalist and writer Revati Laul, and social activist Shabnam Hashmi, travelled to Kashmir and Jammu to understand the impact of the abrogation of Article 370 and the subsequent security clampdown and communication blockade on the lives of the people of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).

Gujarat's incomplete canals: Narmada dam filled up, yet benefits 'won't reach' farmers

By Our Representative
Even as the Gujarat government is making all out efforts to fill up the Sardar Sarovar dam on Narmada river up to the full reservoir level (FRL), a senior farmer rights leader has said the huge reservoir, as of today, remains a “mirage for the farmers of Gujarat”.
In a statement, Sagar Rabari of the Khedut Ekta Manch (KEM), has said that though the dam’s reservoir is being filled up, the canal network remains complete. Quoting latest government figures, he says, meanwhile, the command area of the dam has been reduced from 18,45,000 hectares (ha) to 17,92,000 ha.
“According to the website of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd, which was last updated on Friday, while the main canal, of 458 km long, has been completed, 144 km of ranch canals out of the proposed length of 2731 km remain incomplete.
Then, as against the targeted 4,569 km distributaries, 4,347 km have been constructed, suggesting work for 222 km is still pending. And of the 15,670 km of minor canal…

Ceramic worker dies: 20,000 workers in Thangadh, Gujarat, 'risk' deadly silicosis

By Our Representative
Even as the country was busy preparing for the Janmashtami festival on Saturday, Hareshbhai, a 46-year-old ceramic worker from suffering from the fatal lung disease silicosis, passed away. He worked in a ceramic unit in Thangadh in Surendranagar district of Gujarat from 2000 to 2016.
Hareshbhai was diagnosed with the disease by the GCS Medical College, Naroda Road, Ahmedabad in 2014. He was found to be suffering from progressive massive fibrosis. He is left behind by his wife Rekha sister and two sons Deepak (18) and Umesh (12),
The death of Hareshbhai, says Jagdish Patel of the health rights group Peoples Training and Research Centre (PTRC), suggests that silicosis, an occupational disease, can be prevented but not cured, and the Factory Act has sufficient provisions to prevent this.
According to Patel, the pottery industry in the industrial town of Thangadh has evolved for a long time and locals as well as migrant workers are employed here. There are abou…