Skip to main content

WhatsApp misinformation: India "follows" Brazil, which elected extreme rightist

Jair Bolsonaro
By Our Representative
A Harvard University scholar has raised the alarm that "on the heels of a Brazilian electoral process that was marked by outrageous disinformation campaigns", India, where elections for the Lok Sabha are on, "may be witnessing the world’s next WhatsApp election."
Following the Brazilian elections last year, a far-right populist, Jair Bolsonaro, who has been called the Donald Trump of Brazil, won as president of Latin America's most populous country.
Quite like in Brazil, in India "disinformation", says Chinmayi Arun, a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University, "ranging from false reports of what politicians said, to manufactured photographs depicting an opposition leader meeting with a suicide bomber, is spreading rapidly through social media platforms such as WhatsApp — and regulators are struggling to cope."
"This month", says the scholar in the Global Opinion column of a top American daily, "WhatsApp announced that it was blocking numbers flagged by the Election Commission of India for spreading 'fake news' and objectionable content."
She adds, "Before this, it had announced the launch of a new fact-checking 'tip line' service in India. WhatsApp has also introduced features such as limits on forwarding in an effort to slow down the spread of misinformation."
However, according to the scholar, who is founder director of the Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University, Delhi, "These changes may all be too little, too late.Over the past year, India has seen cascades of rumours spread through WhatsApp with the same techniques used to great effect in Brazil: Public links allow people to join political WhatsApp groups."
Points out the scholar, "As rumors spread, they transition from political groups to general and personal groups and can even be picked up and amplified by the mass media. Research conducted after the Brazilian election found evidence that bots were used to forward misinformation from group to group." In India things are slightly different. Here, "human 'volunteers' forward the misinformation."
Warning that "there is also the potential for more targeting of information on WhatsApp than ever before", the scholar says, "To start with, WhatsApp permits any member of a group to harvest the phone numbers of all the other members of the group. Indian law requires mobile numbers to be registered and linked to government identification."
"This means", she insists, "that if the ruling party sends volunteers to join ideologically aligned groups and leverages its ties to the government to access the databases linking mobile numbers to individuals, it could theoretically identify individual members of WhatsApp groups. With access to this data, the ruling party can target misinformation campaigns — on social media and via text — to receptive audiences."
According to the scholar, "Even more worrying is the possibility that the government could have acquired access to lists of users’ phone contacts." Thus, "last year, WhatsApp was asked to share this data while under pressure from the Indian government over how it was used to promote lynchings in India."
"Though WhatsApp announced that it was unable to share the content of user communications with the Indian government, it made no mention of metadata", the scholar rues, adding, this is opposite to what it did in other countries, where "WhatsApp has shared such metadata with global governments."
Asserting that the "ruling party has already been criticized for collecting metadata from the phones of people who install the prime minister’s NaMo app", the scholar says, "If it somehow gained access to metadata from WhatsApp, one of the most popular social media apps in the country, it could map networks of voters who are in contact with each other."
Believes the scholar, "The potential for misuse of this data is obvious: A party would be able to target propaganda to affinity groups, giving it an unfair advantage", adding worryingly,"WhatsApp’s slate of recent announcements shows that it is now taking steps to tackle disinformation. But it is hard to gauge whether the company’s responses will change things for the better or the worse."
She adds, "The forwarding limit may slow down campaigns by groups with limited resources, but it would not slow down a political party with hundreds of volunteers willing to forward rumors as many times as necessary."
And while "WhatsApp’s effort toward blocking phone numbers flagged by the Indian Election Commission is also a good idea in theory", there is lack of "transparency and accountability in the process to ensure the commission’s reporting is neutral."

Comments

TRENDING

Mystery around Gujarat PSU 'transfer' of Rs 250 crore to Canadian firm Karnalyte

By AK Luke, IAS (Retd)*
While returning from a Board meeting of the Oil India Limited (OIL) in Ahmedabad some time in 2012, two officers of the Gujarat State Fertilizers and Chemicals Ltd (GSFC), Nanavaty and Patel,  saw me off at the airport. They said they were proceeding to Canada in connection with a project GSFC had entered into with a company there. As we were running late, I hastily wished them the best.

Savarkar in Ahmedabad 'declared' two-nation theory in 1937, Jinnah followed 3 years later

By Our Representative
One of the top freedom fighters whom BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi revere the most, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, was also a great supporter of the two nation theory for India, one for Hindus another for Muslims, claims a new expose on the man who is also known to be the original proponent of the concept of Hindutva.

Indians have made 119 nations their ‘karma bhumi’: US-based Hindu NGO tells Rupani

Counterview Desk
In a stinging letter to Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani, the US-based Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR), referring to the report citing his justification for the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) – that “while Muslims can choose any one of the 150 Islamic countries in the world (for residence), India is the only country for Hindus" – has said, he should remember, Hindus have made several countries, including USA, their home.

J&K continues to be haunted, as parts of India 'degenerate' into quasi-Kashmir situation

By Rajendran Narayanan*, Sandeep Pandey**
“Jab har saans mein bandook dikhe toh baccha kaise bekhauf rahe?” (How can a child be fearless when she sees a gun in every breath?) remarked Anwar, a gardener from Srinagar, when asked about the situation in Kashmir. On November 30, 2019, a walk through an iron gate in a quiet neighbourhood of Srinagar took us inside a public school. It was 11 am when typically every school is abuzz with activity. Not here though.

Tata Mundra's possible closure? Power ministry's 'pressure tactic' on consumer states

By Bharat Patel*
Tata power has announced to the Union Ministry of Power that Tata Power may be forced to stop operating  its imported coal-based Mundra Ultra-Mega Power Project (UMPP) after February, 2020. It is not only unfortunate but also criminal that irreversible damage has been caused to the fragile ecosystem of Mundra coast for a project that will have a running life of only seven years.

Savarkar 'criminally betrayed' Netaji and his INA by siding with the British rulers

By Shamsul Islam*
RSS-BJP rulers of India have been trying to show off as great fans of Netaji. But Indians must know what role ideological parents of today's RSS/BJP played against Netaji and Indian National Army (INA). The Hindu Mahasabha and RSS which always had prominent lawyers on their rolls made no attempt to defend the INA accused at Red Fort trials.

Population control? 10% Indian couples want to delay next pregnancy, but fail

Counterview Desk
Shireen Jejeebhoy, director at Aksha Centre for Equity and Wellbeing, previously senior associate at the Population Council, India, argues that the debate on the country's population was fuelled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day address to the nation, where he drew attention to “concern” about the challenges posed by this ‘exploding’ population growth, needs to centre around the promotion of rights and education, instead of the language of explosion and the threat of coercion that this term implies.

Savarkar 'opposed' Bhagat Singh's, Netaji's dream of India, supported British war efforts

By Shamsul Islam*
In a shocking development, the student wing of the RSS put the busts of martyrs Bhagat Singh and Subhash Chandra Bose with Savarkar's on one pedestal at the University of Delhi late in the night on August 20, 2019. Bhagat Singh sacrificed his life for a socialist-democratic-secular republic and Netaji raised Azad Hind Fauj (INA) consisting of people of all religions and regions for armed liberation of India.

Kerala governor turned History Congress into political arena, 'insulted' Prof Irfan Habib

Counterview Desk
In a signed statement, office bearers of the Aligarh Society of History and Archaeology (ASHA), Prof Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi (president), Prof Jabir Raza (vice-president), Prof Manvendra Kumar Pundhir (secretary) and Prof Farhat Hasan (joint secretary), have said that Kerala governor Arif Mohammad Khan had sought to insult veteran historian Prof Irfan Habib, 88, at the 80th session of the Indian History Congress, even as turning it into his “political arena”.