Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, political parties have tapped into the widespread popularity of WhatsApp to share messages and (mis)information for political gain. The parties have invested money into creating hundreds of thousands of WhatsApp group chats to spread political messages and memes.
Experts say more than 900,000 volunteer ‘cell phone pramukhs’ are creating neighborhood-based WhatsApp groups to disseminate information about the ruling party Bharatiya Janata Party’s achievements. On the other hand, the opposition, Indian National Congress, has launched its ‘Digital Sathi’ apps and have put in place volunteers to coordinate their local digital campaigns.
Related Article:Abhijit Bose hired as WhatsApp India Head
However, WhatsApp has also been targeted for disseminating fake news and misinformation. Communication on WhatsApp is fully encrypted, thus impossible to track. This makes it difficult for journalists and researchers to accurately judge the scale of the problem and understand how information is spread. And this is the reason why this can have damaging effect on the upcoming election. The 2018 Brazilian elections and the recent state-level Indian elections are examples of how WhatsApp is being rapidly used to share messages ‘intended’ to misinform voters for political gain. Moreover, the recent Pakistan and India conflict which spiked following the Pulwama terror attack led to the spread of viral content and a flood of information and hatred. This stoked public emotions building up high tension. Years 2017 and 2018 witnessed at least 30 WhatsApp connected incidents of lynching and murder. Following this, WhatsApp reduced the number of contacts or groups a user could forward a message to from 100 down to five in India and 20 globally. After implementing the new rules, WhatsApp saw a 25 per cent reduction of forwarded messages being shared. According to BBC researchers, Indians tend to ‘read and believe’ information forwarded to them by individuals they know or trust, rather than discerning between news stories based on original source of the information.
Related Article:WhatsApp marks 1.5 billion MAUs
TIME magazine, in its recent report, highlights that WhatsApp group chats frequently contain and disseminate false information and hateful rhetoric, much of which comes from forwarded messages. While politicians have blamed WhatsApp to track and stop the source of hostile messaging, the company has blamed politicians and their political parties for ‘misusing’ the app during election times.