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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."

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