· “Friends, hear, hear! Everything on Amazon is available on 99 percent discount. Just click on the link below.” [A link follows.]
· “FREE UNLIMITED GB Internet Data Pack For 128 Days… Free unlimited data and local calls for six months. Just click on the below link.” [A link follows.]
· “Prince George, Prince William’s son. The grandson of Princess Diana. See how they teach a,b,c,d. Not A for Apple…” [A video of a child reciting Bible verses follows.]
The above are just some of the many messages I received on WhatsApp in the past couple of days. Seems pretty innocuous, right? Except that no, they are not harmless. The first link takes you to a bogus ad-ridden site that requires you to provide your credit card details. The second link is an ad for a digital wallet company and requires full payment – nothing free. Finally, in the third example, the boy in the video is not Prince George of Cambridge of the British royalty. Instead, it is Tanner Hemness, son of TV news anchor Taylor Hemness. The video was originally posted by the boy’s father on Facebook in 2016. Yes, that’s right, three years ago, and the video is still doing the rounds albeit under a different identity.
These messages may be toxic but they are not venomous. Concise, direct and damning – but mostly fabulist. But, sample this. A slew of WhatsApp forwards have resulted in mob killings in India, turned people suffering from yellow fever away from vaccination in Brazil and helped spread misinformation in Indonesia.
Specifically in India, in July 2018, spurred by child abduction rumours spreading over WhatsApp, an engineer visiting a village in Karnataka was brutally attacked by an angry mob. Upon investigation, one of the first things the police did was delete over 20 WhatsApp groups, in which these messages were sent, and arrest the admin of a group. Since April 2018, at least 20 people have been attacked in various parts of the country by mobs influenced by pernicious postings on the messenger application.
The BBC reports, “Investigations into these incidents have shown that people often forwarded false messages or doctored videos to large groups, some with more than 100 participants. And violent mobs would gather quickly and attack strangers, leaving police little time to respond.”
When we laud technology saying the world is at our feet at the tap of a button on a screen, this is all that it really boils down – a swarm of angry, ignorant people unleashing their most violent sides.
WhatsApp is a breeding ground for messages that perpetrate violence and anarchy. It was bought by the now-infamous Facebook in 2014 for a whopping $22 million ($19 dollars earlier). When the social networking site made the acquisition, its founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, “More than 1 million people sign up for WhatsApp every day and it is on its way to connecting 1 billion people. More and more people rely on WhatsApp to communicate with all of their contacts every day.” At the time, WhatsApp had 450 million active users.
And, as was projected, with more than 779 million downloads by Android and iOS users, WhatsApp was the most downloaded mobile application in 2018. According to a report by the research firm App Annie, in several markets – including India, Indonesia, the U.K., Turkey, Switzerland, Spain, Singapore, Russia, Netherlands, Mexico, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Germany, Finland, and Brazil – WhatsApp outperformed its parent company’s marquee apps Facebook and Facebook Messenger. So, what is it that makes WhatsApp tick? What are the factors contributing to its massive success?
WhatsApp was first launched in India in mid 2010. The first year of use was free and then users had to renew the service for $1 or Rs. 55. The payment model did not hinder its popularity, and that was mainly because it was cost-efficient. Its simple, clean and clutter-free interface, which made it easy to use even for the uneducated members of the society, only increased its approval ratings. Along the way, it became a free service.
Then there was the provision to form groups of up to 250 members. Suddenly, old and present school and college mates, long-lost friends, office colleagues, cousins and families all had a common platform to interact. All the engaging things were happening on WhatsApp groups. Those not on WhatsApp were forced to come onboard.
The falling price of smartphones and internet boom caused in India by Jio and other network providers only helped WhatsApp’s cause. The one thing its user base really appreciated about WhatsApp was that they did not need a computer with internet connection or a 3g or 4g connection. It worked just as well in remote areas with 2g connections and did not consume much data.
But the real game-changer was end-to-end encryption, which promised users much-needed privacy. This is where the wonder that is WhatsApp begins to fall apart. End-to-end encryption allows users to send messages, be it incendiary, inflammatory or pornographic, without risking revealing their identity in case of a third-party inquiry. With this feature, the messenger application became a powerful vehicle for companies, political parties and mischief-mongers to further their agendas. From being a service devoted to transferring messages, WhatsApp was converted into a propagandist tool.
Hate incidents like the case of lynching mentioned above sows fear across the country. The world of WhatsApp forwards is dark, divisive and pessimistic, and it tends to position the senders as heroic victims of injustice, who must join forces with like-minded people to propagate what they think is the order of things. This is their version of journalism – WhatsApp journalism. And this covers everything from politics to lifestyle to entertainment to health.
An ordinary news consumer is not satisfied with what’s found in newspaper, news channel or online media. They want more than what the prime time or the broadsheet can offer – surreptitious videos, never-seen-before photos, unknown facts, and such. Mostly, mainstream media outlets would not publish such content keeping in mind their editorial stance in terms of language, nudity and profanity. When a consumer of news receives this exclusive content on WhatsApp, they not just value it more but also join the race to become the first ones to send the content to most number of people. They will not for one second stop to verify the truth factor of all that they receive.
But anyone who has eyes to see and brains to understand will infer this is anything but journalism; this is an attempt to twist the facts to not just trigger a reaction but also arm-twist the receiver of the message into becoming the sender.
In 2016, a video claiming to show the “incorruptible” body of Pope Saint John Paul II was posted to YouTube. The video was sensationally titled “Pope John Paul II body is found incorruptible!” Soon enough, it began to be circulated on social media. However, the video actually showed a waxwork representation of the body of Pope Saint John Paul II and not the body itself. His mortal remains were never displayed in public. His body rests under the Altar of St. Sebastian in St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, and is not viewable directly. Although there are several comments in YouTube correcting the title, the video continues to be distributed in social media. The act of social media-sharing in this case shows an expression of faith, but we cannot sideline the fact that ignorance is ultimately the superior force. Cases such as these show that even if our heart is in the right place, lack of knowledge or little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
People are more inclined to share such clandestine content because falsehood often works better and is more believable. It is for the same reason that political parties have large IT cells and huge social media teams working round-the-clock to churn out click-bait content. In a speech addressing the Bharatiya Janata Party’s social media volunteers in Kota, Rajasthan, in September 2018, party president Amit Shah famously said the party’s social media cell could make messages go viral, whether they are real or fake, sweet or sour.
“Messages go from bottom to top and top to bottom. He put a message in the group – that Akhilesh Yadav had slapped Mulayam Singh. No such thing had happened. Mulayam and Akhilesh were 600 km apart. But he put this message. And the social media team spread it. It spread everywhere. By 10 that day my phone started ringing, bhaisahab, did you know Akhilesh slapped Mulayam…. One should not do such things. We are capable of delivering any message we want to the public, whether sweet or sour, true of fake. We can do this work only because we have 32 lakh people in our WhatsApp groups. That is how we were able to make this viral,” Shah said, explaining their mode of operation.
These messages are sent to party workers and to those whose numbers they possess in their database, the receivers then send it further ahead. And so it goes.
Mostly unsuspecting in nature, people forward messages and videos on WhatsApp because a) it comes from a trusted source, that is their friend, family member or colleague, and b) they lack the critical acumen to question the integrity and veracity of the viral content.
The virtual world far prefers the outrageous, the new, the controversial to the normal routine of reason and verification. And so does the world of news. The onus then is on ordinary citizens to consider the consequences of their online activity.
I have noticed a lot of messages contain the disclaimer “forwarded as received.” By writing “forwarded as received,” the sender is freed of the responsibility of the sent material – which means the sender knows their text is not verified, could be potentially disturbing or could have far-reaching consequences. Yet, there is no stopping them. My question to all those who send messages with this disclaimer is: What is this irrepressible urge to send that message forward?
We are living in an always on, always connected world. We are creating records that never existed before. Our digital footprints are everywhere. But not so with WhatsApp, which is why it is comforting to know there’s at least one digital avenue that values our privacy and provides a safe space. WhatsApp was built on that premise. Before we all launch a tirade against it, we all must agree people should have the freedom to choose what they share. However, it is on people to check the veracity of what they share.
Free speech is more robust than ever. The growth of social media has amplified the voice of the average Indian and with the flourishing of WhatsApp we are practically drowning in spoken thought sent out via WhatsApp.
In India today, speech is everywhere. It is the thinking that has gone missing.
The phones have become smarter and outsmarted the chap owning and operating it.
At times, it is natural and understandable to be overwhelmed by the avalanche of forwards. Unlike falsehood, truth takes time to ripen. The more the forwards continue, the more the binary distinction between truth and falsehood begins to blur.
However, for better or for worse, the internet has a long memory. It is easy to pick and edit an advertisement meant for raising awareness about child kidnapping to make it look like an actual act of kidnapping. When a video showing kidnapping is received, as a parent, sibling or a concerned citizen, it is natural to feel disconcerted and share it widely so your near and dear ones are cautioned. Though the intentions are pure, it is always a wise choice to first look it up on the internet. You will surely come across the original source or a news website that analyzed and provided the truth behind the questionable post. There are also sites like Alt News and snopes.com where you can keep a tab on social media posts that have been proven as false.
One will truly never know the genesis of inflammatory messages on WhatsApp. Who is in the dock for proliferation of fake new and who sent the problematic message for the very first time are questions that won’t be answered any time soon because WhatsApp does not have the architecture or the provision to trace the origins of a particular text.
WhatsApp’s stance has been that since they cannot see or access the content being shared on its platform (because of end-to-end encryption), there’s hardly anything they can do about it. As a response to the mob killings in India, the messenger platform introduced the “forward label,” which would help the receiver determine if the sender composed the message or was forwarding it from another source, it is not without its own complications – the forward label would not work if the sender saves the post to their device and then supplies it further ahead.
To blame the technology is foolhardy. We must take it on ourselves to not peddle falsehoods in the name of WhatsApp forwards. We have sacrificed our privacy by logging onto random sites with our personal email ids and Facebook profiles, now we are on track to lose our sense of reason and rationale over WhatsApp forwards.
In the radical democracy of WhatsApp, and more broadly social media, every forward (or retweet) of false news has the effect of rebroadcasting false new messages. Controversy elevates message. False messages take over the discussion and obliterate a lot of other things that should be the point of discussion. We need a resistance that rises up and acts as a human barrier to say: No more falsehood in the name of WhatsApp messages.
Only a thin veneer separates the privacy that WhatsApp provides and the anarchy it has the potential to unleash – a veneer of human understanding.
With the 2019 general elections coming soon, we must stay extra vigilant to keep strategic falsehoods, truthful hyperboles, diversion and distortion at bay. Always remember WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, etc. are services. If you are not paying for it, you become the product.
(Published on 21st January 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 04)