All it takes is $15 to override WhatApp’s spam restrictions and influence Indian elections

A security message is seen on a Whatsapp screenReuters

  • Clone apps and automated delivery softwares are by-passing WhatsApp's anti-spam restrictions in India.
  • A report by Reuters finds that these tools are used by members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress to send out bulk messages.
  • Even though WhatsApp can ban any user caught using these 'unofficial' apps, they're being used avidly.
WhatsApp has gone to great lengths to limit the amount of spam on its messaging platform — from elaborate public services announcements across radio and newspaper to limiting forwarded messages to five at a time.

But, all the work is being undone by clone apps and software tools that cost less than $15 (₹1,000).

An investigation by Reuters has found that they aren't just casual apps that play pranks but can be a weapon in the hands of digital marketers and political activists.

These 'workaround' tools aren't just a casual threat but can potentially undermine the integrity of the ongoing Indian general election.

Members from two leading political parties in India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress, were found using clone apps to send messages in bulk. Some were even found using automated delivery tools so that they wouldn't manually use the app round-the-clock.

To add icing to the cake, a few digital marketing firms were found reaching out to political workers. All these volunteers had to do was, log into a website and mass-forward WhatsApp messages to anonymous numbers.

WhatsApp has issued cease and desist notices to these companies in order to put a stop to the ongoing activities. The company spokeperson told IANS, "We have been stepping up our ability to identify and ban accounts engaged in abuse, including bulk or automated messages. We ban approximately two million accounts for such abuse and have sent cease and desist letters to companies claiming to offer such services".

Whatever WhatsApp does, there's a workaround

WhatsApp's anti-spam measures were introduced, in part, to reduce the amount of manipulation created by misinformation and fake news — a threat identified by the Election Commission of India. But, the new workaround undercuts that directive.

According to the report, one digital marketer was sending out as many as 100,000 WhatsApp messages a day on behalf of two politicians from the BJP. He said, "Whatever WhatsApp does, there's a workaround."

The company dismisses these apps as 'unofficial' and users can potentially be banned if caught using them — but that will only happen with WhatsApp deems their messaging activity to be 'unusual'.

Vague parameters aside, it's not a very effective deterrent since users who get banned just go on and sign in with a new SIM card according to one of the Congress members who spoke to Reuters.

Digital enthusiasts and black hat coders are moving faster than regulations can ever keep up. It's not just WhatsApp that has to deal with this problem. Other social networking platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok too have to find ways to stall the avalanche of misinformation that floods their users.

See also:
This is how attackers were able to spread spyware through WhatsApp with just a phone call

WhatsApp plans to limit what made the app a hit in the first place

Facebook will now compete with Amazon as WhatsApp is set to offer online shopping
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