State of the Nation | Put the WhatsApp genie back in the bottle

Political parties must set the example by disbanding groups they’ve formed on the social messaging platform. That would not only check vile political campaigns but also send a larger public message

If the WhatsApp menace which is spreading death across the country is to be checked, then our two main political parties must lead by example. They must not merely condemn the mob lynching of innocents falsely identified on social media as child kidnappers, but both the BJP and the Congress must declare that they will henceforth refrain from employing the messaging platform in future elections. This would be a significant step because political parties are to some degree responsible for popularising WhatsApp by formally using it as an anonymous medium to spread vile falsehoods about their opponents and heap unwarranted praise on themselves and trumpet their so-called achievements.

That WhatsApp has emerged as a medium of choice for political campaigns in the last two to three years is an endorsement of its reach and effectiveness. But it also underlines the fact that it is the most potent rumour mongering and propaganda dispensing machine in human history. What works in favour of WhatsApp is that it not only involves zero costs but also provides anonymity — the messages are so encrypted that even officials of the messaging platform cannot monitor or trace them to their source.

Among political parties, it was the BJP which set the WhatsApp trend. The Congress and some other parties jumped on the bandwagon later. In the 2017 Uttar Pradesh (UP) assembly elections, the Saffron party sprung the WhatsApp surprise on its rivals by reportedly setting up 9,000 WhatsApp groups with about 150 members in each group. In the Karnataka elections earlier this year, by its own admission the BJP raised the bar to 23,000 WhatsApp groups.

In the high-profile upcoming election to the Madhya Pradesh Assembly, the party has already enlisted 60,000 “cyber warriors” while the Congress has countered with 4,000 soldiers to wage the war. Five thousand more, it claims, will be recruited, trained and deployed before the polls — scheduled for November this year. With the IT cells of both parties claiming that WhatsApp will be their chief weapon, you know where the cyber battle will be fought.

Red carpet for rumour mongers
When political parties turn to WhatsApp as their main propaganda vehicle, then various other collaterals kick in. For one, it popularises the messaging network even in the remotest of villages since groups are set up across districts. Secondly, it spreads the subtle message that there is nothing wrong with spreading falsehood since political parties are openly indulging in it. And when such propaganda is disseminated by the party in power at the Centre, like the BJP, it gives a green signal to rumour mongers and mischief makers.

No one has so far been held accountable for spreading vile and divisive propaganda. This has reinforced the `WhatsApp is above the law’ belief, which has perhaps provoked anti-social elements to spread rumours of child kidnappers in the neighbourhood

In conventional politics, a claim, a promise or a charge levelled against a rival is usually delivered from a public platform or through the media. Since this is in the public eye, it can be countered and exposed. So, should Rahul Gandhi fire a below the belt salvo against Narendra Modi or vice versa, the guilty leader gets exposed and comes to the notice of the authorities, including the Election Commission. Not so on WhatsApp. Here, the allegation or claim made on a leader’s behalf is not only covert but his or her party can refute ownership of a message and no one will be the wiser. It is this anonymity that has been used, rather misused by politicians.

For example, in UP, promises about black money recovered from the rich by the PM during demonetisation going into the bank accounts of the poor was spread through WhatsApp groups and this false promise helped the BJP in the 2017 assembly election. In Karnataka, blatant communal propaganda saw a spike in the election held earlier this year. The BJP is said to have performed remarkably well in the coastal districts of the state thanks to this campaign.

Even when elections are not on the horizon, WhatsApp groups set up by political parties, particularly the BJP, are not dormant. Thus, hate campaigns against minorities and Dalits, videos invoking nationalistic and Hindu pride and the rubbishing of liberals and secular-minded citizens as anti-national or urban Naxals continue unabated. It is now beyond doubt that broad themes like cow protection, Love-Jihad and the demonisation of Opposition leaders, including the Nehru-Gandhi family, have all been popularised courtesy WhatsApp.

Unfortunately, no one has so far been held accountable for spreading vile and divisive propaganda. This has reinforced the `WhatsApp is above the law’ belief, which has perhaps provoked anti-social elements to spread rumours of child kidnappers in the neighbourhood. The resultant mob lynching has led to at least 30 deaths of innocents across the country.

Will the leader rein them in?
In this context it is heartening to note that the IT and Law Minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, has written to the WhatsApp management urging action against misinformation being circulated on its platform. But the big question is whether the messaging network can do anything about it. By all accounts, any message shared multiple times cannot be tracked to its original sender since WhatsApp deletes all messages from its server once these reach the receiver. So, it would essentially require the re-configuration of the social media platform for culprits to be identified in the future. If that is done, then WhatsApp would lose its USP — the privacy that it promises to its subscribers.

Ravi Shankar Prasad’s cabinet colleague, I&B Minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, recently stated on TV that WhatsApp “cannot be regulated, but we can definitely get educated”. Perhaps, his ministry can launch an awareness programme without losing more time. And what better way to kickstart such a campaign than by the BJP pledging to disband the WhatsApp groups it has set up. That would force other political parties, like the Congress. to follow suit and in turn would persuade ordinary citizens to rethink on the credence to be attached to alerts and alarms they receive on their smartphones.

Will our politicians agree to put the WhatsApp genie back in the bottle? In all likelihood, no. They will not since it will take the sting out of most political campaigns, which are currently based on blatantly misleading the electorate. Remember, India, with 200 million subscribers, is the largest WhatsApp market in the world and represents an audience that politicians would love to exploit.

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