One messaging app is affecting voter opinions in India more than other media put together

Students gesture as they take part in the 'Young India Adhikar March' protest rally in New Delhi marching against Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government over a range of issues including lack of jobs, investment in the education sector and autonomy of universitiesBCCL

  • WhatsApp will play a crucial role in the Indian general election 2019.
  • Aside from misinformation, the primary concern is that WhatsApp groups will be used to exploit personal for political gain.
  • Users in rural India, in particular, have increased since the last general election in 2014.
As the world’s largest democratic exercise kicks off in India, the influence of social media on general election in 2019 may be even bigger than it was in 2014.

WhatsApp, in particular, is a concern considering that India is its largest market with over 200 million monthly active users and 52% of smartphone users reported using it as a news source in one week.


Not only does that usage outrank Snapchat and Facebook Messenger, but it’s also much higher compared to other countries around the world as per the India Digital News Report by Reuters. Officials from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have even dubbed the upcoming elections as the ‘WhatsApp Elections’.

The issue with ‘fake news’ on WhatsApp

In a country where people generally don’t trust the news anyway, the increase in the circulation of fake news has 57% of Indians are concerned about what is real and what is fake on the internet.

Even their reasons for being concerned range from facts being manipulated to suit a particular agenda to unwittingly being duped by satire content.


Not only is the spread of misinformation a concern, there’s also the burgeoning issue of personal data being exploited for political ends — an issue that has only gotten more grave after the Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal took place in 2018 where data was used to influence the outcome of the 2016 US Presidential election.

Last year, BBC Research found that nationalism was the driving force behind a lot of the fake news in India. Rather than verify facts, content sharers assert that they’re only bringing the ‘right version’ of the story into the light.

BJP reportedly assigned some 900,000 people to the specific task of localised WhatsApp campaigning. Amit Shah, the party president, apparently asked state units to compile a list of voters who have smartphones for every polling station.

Congress, the opposing party, is focusing on Facebook to uploading their campaign content but even for them, distribution is dependant on WhatsApp.

Rural India

More than half of the Indian population resides in rural India, And, since 2014, the usage of WhatsApp by rural India has boomed in particular alongside more and more people coming online. The Digital Empowerment Foundation found that nearly half of the respondents report that almost everyone in their village is a WhatsApp user.



The issue is not that more people are online but that increased usage of WhatsApp has made it a tempting platform to disseminate misinformation, even though most rural users believe that other platforms are more trustworthy as a news source.



That being said not many question the sender of forwarded messages and one fourth of users even pass along forwards after reading them.


Even so, the majority of the rural population doesn’t trust information received via WhatsApp too easily.


Despite WhatsApp putting in a 5 message restriction on forwards and running a number of awareness campaigns around fake news, the issue remains that due their end-to-end encryption of messages it’s difficult to find out where a message may have originated.

A lot of the time, the information isn’t even shard by official political party accounts, but unofficial groups that have an indirect political affiliation.

They also recently introduced their own tipline called Checkpoint that can let users know if a particular piece of news is true, false, misleading or disputed. Technically, it’s a research project to ‘study the phenomenon of misinformation’ so not everyone will get a response.

All in all, despite all the new rules, experts believe that they will have a negligible effect on the group chats that already exist on the platform where propaganda of all colours flourish, often, at the expense of facts.

See also:
Social networking sites may have more to answer for ahead of the elections in India

Finally, WhatsApp will demand ‘consent’ before adding people to random groups

Here’s what’s up with Kimbho, the Indian messaging app that wants to take on WhatsApp
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