For many who trade jokes and daily greetings, WhatsApp’s potential as a political tool may not be fully apparent. In reality, it is quite a lot. So much so, WhatsApp is the platform of choice for political parties.
Bala Murali Krishna
For many months it seemed likely that the Indian government would succeed in pressuring WhatsApp to act more strongly than it previously has into fighting fake news, probably before this year’s Lok Sabha elections. Among other things, it forced the American company to set up a local office, appoint an operating head in the country to address complaints and reduced to five the number of forwards for messages.
For the most part, WhatsApp acquiesced, given India is its largest market, with over 200 million users, and given its bid to launch a lucrative payments platform is still pending regulatory approval.
WhatsApp was careful not to dismiss out of hand a call to break end-to-end encryption — a technology that ensures nobody except the sender and recipient or group members can read a message’s contents. It merely called the proposals too broad, or “not possible” before the elections, or — as WhatsApp communications chief Carl Woog said last week during a visit to the Indian capital — that such changes “would require us to re-architect WhatsApp, leading to a different product, one that would not be fundamentally private.”
However, the Facebook-owned messaging platform also pushed back strongly, perhaps publicly for the first time. WhatsApp is a private messaging platform, not a broadcast platform, Woog pointed out, chastising the country’s political parties for abusing the platform, and evidently spreading fake news.
It was not a particularly profound statement — Indians after all have used the platform in more creative ways than WhatsApp ever imagined. Woog’s was a clever pushback against growing critics who accuse the company of doing too little to fight fake news. What he did was turn the guns on likely the platform’s worst abusers. With his sharp comment, Woog may also have ensured that people who live in glass houses cannot cast the first stone and consequently, paused the fight against fake news until at least the Lok Sabha polls.
For many who trade jokes and daily greetings, WhatsApp’s potential as a political tool may not be fully apparent. After all, what could one achieve on platform that restricts groups to 256 and forwards to just five?
In reality, it is quite a lot. So much so, WhatsApp is the platform of choice for political parties. The 2017 assembly poll in Uttar Pradesh might have been the first to be truly fought, and probably won, on social media skills. It will surprise nobody if the Lok Sabha polls this year is won or lost on WhatsApp smarts.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha poll, India had 48 million users on WhatsApp and mobile data cost Rs 300 per GB, as a message widely forwarded on the platform proclaims. Five years later, WhatsApp has over 200 million users and mobile data costs Rs 5 per GB, with the numbers fairly accurate for a platform notorious for fake news.
The five-fold jump in user base alone suggests WhatsApp is four times more important than it was in the last Lok Sabha elections. In reality, its importance is likely of a much higher order, considering that the messaging platform was hardly developed in 2014. Today, political parties have mined large amounts of data to build localised WhatsApp groups based on location, socioeconomic status, age, religion and, reportedly, caste too.
Evidence suggests the BJP is further ahead of other political parties in the way it has gamed WhatsApp for political ends. That claim might be anecdotal, but also comes from Shivam Shankar Singh, a young man armed with an economics degree from University of Michigan who built data tools for the party’s several electoral campaigns.
The Congress also has a large social media team with significant smarts. It may not exactly be taking the moral high ground in terms of exploiting the messaging system. In fact, Soma Basu, a fellow at the Reuters Institute at Oxford University, believes both parties are equally responsible for “fake messages and misinformation” on WhatsApp.
In short, it’s in nobody’s interest to change WhatsApp until at least the Lok Sabha elections and there is insufficient time for the two key proposals to come to fruition. One would require WhatsApp and others to proactively detect and delete within 24 hours any content impacting the “sovereignty and integrity of India” or even “decency or morality,” while another could bring WhatsApp on par with SMS in terms of regulation.
However, could WhatsApp itself rock the boat with its ongoing fight against fake news?
Last year, it fought the scourge in Brazil but achieved limited, if any, success in the South American country’s general elections. It continues to rely on artificial intelligence, combined with machine learning, to fight abuses on the platform.
Worldwide, it removes two million accounts each month for abuse — less than a per cent of its user base of 1.5 billion. WhatsApp does not reveal the number of accounts it removes in India, likely because it is unremarkable. It might be fair to assume its machines may not be a match for creative Indian minds on the platform until at least the elections are over.
Bala Murali Krishna works for a New York-based startup. Views are personalFor more Opinion pieces, click here.