With less than a month away for the first phase of 2019 General Elections, India’s notoriously favourite Facebook-owned messaging platform, Whatsapp, has turned out to be the most favoured platform for political propaganda. Reportedly, the platform supports over 87,000 groups which target millions of Whatsapp users with political messaging.
Users on WhatsApp
WhatsApp reported that over 20 crore Monthly Active Users (MAUs) are using the app in India. However, these are not recent data as the numbers go back to 2017 and it’s been two years since the company has shared the latest data with India.
Hong Kong-based Counterpoint Research said that India has nearly 43 crore smartphone users and NDTV reported that going by such a large number of smartphone users, 20 crores for Whatsapp does not seem to be the correct number. By the end of 2016, India had nearly 30 crore, active users.
Tarun Pathak, Associate Director at Counterpoint Research told IANS, “People across age-groups are using WhatsApp so it is safe to say that the Facebook-owned platform reaches over 30 crore Indians, almost to the size of Facebook users in the country or even bigger.”
Furthermore, cheap internet propelled by Reliance Jio has helped political parties to live stream rallies, press meets and TV debates to help reach their target audiences better. Abundant availability of data also means that smartphones and apps have reached the rural hinterlands of India, albeit not entirely.
Reaching 2.2 crore people
Social media expert Anoop Mishra said, “Over 87,000 groups aiming to influence the voters are currently active on WhatsApp.” These groups speak fake government statistics, promotes regional violence, fabricate political new, propaganda and patriotism and Hindu nationalism as well. A WhatsApp group can accommodate a maximum of 256 users so 87,000 groups can potentially target 2.2 crore people directly. The influence and reach for such propaganda gets even bigger after even one person starts to forward these messages to even five other people.
Recently, WhatsApp and other social media platforms in India agreed to adhere to the ‘Code of Ethics’. The Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and various social media organisations, at a meeting with the Election Commission on March 19 agreed to formulate a comprehensive a “Code of Ethics” for online platforms in light of the upcoming elections.
Over the last year, the messaging app had received flak over the uncontrollable surge in fake news which resulted in rampant mob lynchings in different parts of the country. Upon realising the importance of curbing fake news, WhatsApp has launched a series of initiatives to make people aware of the dangers of sharing false news on different platforms, however, the messaging app has seen little success.
It has also tied up with Nasscom Foundation to train nearly 1,00,000 Indians to spot false information. WhatsApp India head Abhijit Bose said, “We’re pleased that the recent changes we’ve made to limit viral content and educate users is having an impact. This work is never done — there is more that we can and will do.”
While social media platforms are trying to fight fake news to keep the elections free and fair, the onus of differentiating false news from a correct piece of information lies on the users. The Logical Indian urges the community members to read with a pinch of salt, a spoonful of doubt, and a flood of research.