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Hue and cry over fake messages an epiphany

With a spate of incidents involving lynching of innocent people because of certain “fake and motivated” messages being circulated on WhatsApp, the Indian government finally issued a statement asking the Facebook-owned messaging service to take steps to stop the circulation of false texts and provocative content. The government that is worried today about the fake news is one of the prime users of WhatsApp to propagate its agenda. In just within a year, India will go to its next general elections. Last time round in 2014, there was much excitement in the lead up to the elections due to the expected dominance of the Bharatiya Janata Party over the Congress. For the first time, the major political parties used social media as a tool to attract voters, spending between 2-5 per cent of their electioneering budgets in this sphere.

This spend will be vastly increased as the younger voters join the electoral rolls. Observers have noted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a clever user of social media, has already reached out to this new electoral bank. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, these very individuals will be exercising their voting rights for the first time in a Parliamentary election. While the traditional rallies and loudspeakers, posters and banners will still be at play, it is expected that social media will play a large part to woo the voters and also to turn them away from the opposing party.

Though more than half of India’s population still do not have any access to the internet, India is considered to be among the top five countries in terms of the growth of the Internet users. It is estimated that India has 462 million active internet users, of which 153 million are active social media users. The active social media users are growing at about 23 per cent per year, with WhatsApp being the platform experiencing the strongest growth, followed by YouTube and Facebook.

But if we look at the larger picture, the social media and the WhatsApp have proven to be a curse. India’s WhatsApp habit has a dark side too. A rumour about salt shortage resulted in panicked rushes to the markets in several Indian states that turned fatal. When fake news has violent consequences, journalists have a duty to set the record straight as quickly as possible. But the details of these rumours — who was behind them and why — are particularly murky and likely to remain that way. That’s due to one seemingly trivial detail in all such cases, the misinformation made its way to readers via the messaging service WhatsApp.

Closed messaging apps like WhatsApp and Viber continue to grow in popularity worldwide. And as the popularity of Facebook and Twitter as news sources shows signs of stagnating or declining around the world, messaging platforms are increasingly becoming a means through which users learn about the wider world. A 2017 YouGov survey of over 70,000 people in 36 countries found that 23 per cent of the respondents “find, share, or discuss” news using at least one messaging service. The WhatsApp is almost as common a source of news as the Facebook. Fewer than one in four people in India have a smartphone, but in a country of more than 1.3 billion, that’s about 300 million around 200 million of them are on WhatsApp – texting, voice messaging and video-calling each other – making India the messaging service’s biggest market. Misinformation, disinformation, rumours and false messages can go viral. In at least two cases, fake messages spread on WhatsApp have led to mobs lynching innocent people.

The growth of WhatsApp has coincided with a wave of political and socio-religious activism in India. Political parties and the ruling party BJP in particular, have been adept at using the messenger as a powerful campaigning tool. Many religious and civic groups that share the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda are also very active WhatsAppers. We are looking at millions of people in rural India being constantly radicalised through WhatsApp. They may not be ideologically driven, but they have been ideologically usurped.

As the party has focused its efforts on regulating cow slaughter and beef eating across the country, dedicated groups have sprung up on WhatsApp, tracking and targeting those they suspect of harming animals considered sacred by the Hindus.

In September 2015, in a village just outside of New Delhi, the local cow protection group got an alert of a man, Mohammed Akhlaq, who had supposedly killed a cow and stored its meat in his house. That information is yet to be verified, but it triggered a deadly domino effect. While tensions between different groups have always existed in India, WhatsApp amplifies it on a scale that didn’t really exist before.

Indian authorities are on the back foot when it comes to even begin to deal with the challenges posed by the misuse of WhatsApp. Technologically, and even in terms of regulation, law enforcement officials are struggling to catch up.

WhatsApp itself says keeping a check on the spread of misinformation is “complex”. The messaging service has end-to-end encryption; it has become the primary medium to spread rumours, because people know that they will have a large amount of legal immunity, even if they are pushing out news which might lead to disastrous consequences like people being killed.

Most of these apps restrict users to one-on-one chats with contacts in their phones or to private group chats with no more than 500 friends of friends. While a conversation with hundreds of participants certainly doesn’t feel too private, these group chats are still closed in the sense that everyone in them must be invited by an existing member, and there’s no way to know whether a group exists unless you’re a part of it. Furthermore, with a few exceptions, there are no trending lists or social feeds providing input from outside a user’s network. Some mobile messaging companies have recognised the potential for their apps to deliver creative or editorial content. In short, barring a few exceptions, all activity on these platforms that exists outside one’s immediate network is completely invisible. These apps also have features that complicate matters for anyone looking to spread false information.


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Dr Vaidehi Taman
Dr Vaidehi an Accredited Journalist from Maharashtra is bestowed with Honourary Doctorate in Journalism, Investigative Journalist, Editor, Ethical Hacker, Philanthropist, and Author. She is Editor-in-Chief of Newsmakers Broadcasting and Communications Pvt. Ltd. for 11 years, which features an English daily tabloid – Afternoon Voice, a Marathi web portal – Mumbai Manoos, monthly magazines like Hackers5, Beyond The News (international) and Maritime Bridges. She is also an EC Council Certified Ethical Hacker, Certified Security Analyst and is also a Licensed Penetration Tester which caters to her freelance jobs.

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