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What’s wrong with WhatsApp?

WhatsApp is a powerful distributor of “fake news” and conspiracy theories, though it also is an excellent tool for facilitating genuinely conspiratorial behaviour. Don’t some conspiracies turn out to be true? We forward messages from one group to another. Limited to a group size of 100 until recently, due to Covid-19-related misinformation, it was later increased to 256. It may be small, but if 256 people forward a message to another 256 people, 65,536 will have received it. The chain may reach everyone in a matter of minutes. Can any other media match this?

 

There are millions of groups around the world who exchange text messages, data, images and videos.  Memes, a combination of image macros with a catchphrase are supposed to spread humour but have spread more derision and sarcasm. Some private groups even circulate disinformation as information to discredit public officials and public information, alienating people from democratic values. Is this an information weapon? This information is sometimes authentic, but most times either false, concocted or plain gibberish. Anything is peddled as gospel truth sometimes attributed to even credible names silently playing them for a sucker. A recent US reluctance to part with medical supplies to India and the turnaround a few days later, was quickly played out as the result of India’s macho policies.

 

How often have we seen group chats manufacture threats and injustices out of thin air? One participant starts speculating that they are being let down or targeted by some institution or rival group which could be a public service, business or cultural community. Then a second participant agrees. It now becomes risky for anyone else to defend the institution or group in question. Try as you may, a new enemy and a new resentment is born. Within no time, the warnings and denunciations coming from within the group take on a level of authenticity that cannot be matched by the entity that is now the object of derision. For all that matters, the originator of the news may have had a bad day in office. However, what of the damage done?

 

One particularly interesting theory that made the rounds was about the rollout of 5G, and its mobile phone masts as responsible for spreading the disease across several countries. People even set fire to 5G masts in some countries. 5G originated much before Covid-19. So, what of it? That fake news scandals and incendiary messaging have fuelled many bitter fights among political parties and even friends and relatives is a fact known to us. Even riots are routinely reported to rumours circulating on WhatsApp. If Facebook the owner of WhatsApp, is the initiator, WhatsApp is the perpetrator and vice versa. Can WhatsApp sow distrust in public institutions and processes? Can an inert technology actually engineer a complex political crisis? Is the social media really inhospitable today?

 

The reach of the social media platforms is enormous. As in April 2021, WhatsApp has over two billion active monthly users spread in 180 countries, of which over 340 million users are in India alone. Facebook has 2.8 billion monthly active users and Facebook Messenger has around 1.3 billion. YouTube has a potential advertising reach of 2.3 billion to Twitter’s reach of roughly 396 million. In India, YouTube users exceed 450 million, Facebook 410 million, Instagram 210 million, while Twitter has the least number of users, 15 million.

 

Into one year of pandemic, WhatsApp around the world had grown by 50%. Seen as something between email, Facebook and SMS, it is the prime conduit through which a deluge of news, memes and mass anxiety travels. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has sought ways of regulating WhatsApp content, though this has led to new controversies about government infringement on civil liberties. Not everything of WhatsApp is bad though. Several mutual aid groups come together to help those in need and vulnerable. Families and friends use it to stay connected and share their fears and concerns in real time.

 

Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are becoming increasingly theatrical. Every facet either impress audiences or deflect criticism. Is WhatsApp a sanctuary from a confusing and untrustworthy world? Do users speak more openly on it? Once the trust in groups grows, public institutions and officials are alienated. Users start developing a new common sense, that is founded on instinctive suspicion towards the world beyond the group, a genesis for brewing contempt to all things that somehow work.

 

WhatsApp groups exist without anyone outside the group knowing their existence, who the members are or what is being shared. End-to-end encryption makes them immune to surveillance from third parties. It is built to secure privacy. Political parties, the social media use by their IT cells were all coming alive in times of elections. Not anymore. They are now active in every situation. It doesn’t matter if the event is to project or protect the interests of the government or the opposition. What has been the role of media? Most of the times, questionable. They often belong to a WhatsApp group of “outriders”, co-ordinated by the political parties and their interests resulting in secretive coordination, real or imagined. These messages, images and videos However, have divided the society into a binary entity. Those who agree and those who do not. The polarisation is so intense, that even close-knit families are not immune, often setting off extreme reactions even between parents and siblings. Is our capacity to circulate misinformation and allegations becoming greater than the capacity to resolve them? Can a government owned WhatsApp-based information service with an automated chatbot be the answer to bring in some sanity? The flip side of course is it being used for its own propaganda. So how does one get verified information?

 

Internet has allowed us a litany of social pathologies and threats. Doxing, trolling, flaming, pile-ons and cancelling are all risks that go with socialising in a massive open architecture. Twitter, an “Open” platform is about much social activity aimed at a small and select community. What happens when this is exposed to a different community? It could then be either comical or shameful for people in other groups could be altruistic and uncritical. The trust and honesty and a propensity to let the guard down, by members within groups could eventually be the nemesis of WhatsApp like platforms.

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