The average American may have no idea what WhatsApp is, but it is one of the world’s leading messaging apps, with an estimated 1.5 billion users as of May 2018, according to Statista. WhatsApp was the top messaging app in 62 percent of the countries assessed by SimilarWeb in December 2017. In Zimbabwe, for example, WhatsApp usage constitutes around half of all internet traffic. Simply put, outside of America, WhatsApp is a big deal.
Why the rest of the world loves WhatsApp is clear. Most mobile phone users outside the United States and western Europe are prepaid customers and don’t have unlimited call and data plans. WhatsApp provides not just a free alternative to SMS, but it also uses less data on voice calls compared to rival apps.
But as we’ve seen with most digital communication platforms, their proliferation results in disruption that can be good or bad.
India Is WhatsApp’s Largest and Deadliest Market
With the spread of mobile phone service and SMS, India—and rural India in particular—has already experienced its first round of digital disruption. With its more robust chat, media, video, and voice capabilities, WhatsApp has taken that disruption to the next level.
The application is simple. It’s tied to your mobile phone number, not an email address. You can communicate with anyone across the world who has WhatsApp installed as long as you know their phone number or have it saved in your contacts. The app can be used on a low-cost Android phone or a high-end iPhone. You can text, quickly forward videos and images without any complicated uploading steps, and work your way up to audio and video calls.
WhatsApp has had tremendous positive effects in India and across the developing world and diaspora communities in the West. With its combination of low-bandwidth requirements and wide reach, it’s connected rural villagers with family members who’ve migrated to cities or the Persian Gulf and beyond for work. And it’s enabled farmers to communicate with customers and gain advice and information from government offices.
But WhatsApp has also empowered violent extremists in India, enabling the swift spread of fake news and mobilization of vigilante groups.
In June 2018, the Indian state of Tripura suspended Internet service after three people were lynched by mobs in separate attacks after fake news about child kidnappings went viral through WhatsApp. India has long had a problem with mass hysteria and vigilante violence. For example, over 2,000 women were killed in India from 2000 to 2012 due to false accusations of witchcraft. And inter-caste and inter-religious riots—usually with upper-caste Hindus targeting minority Dalits and Muslim—have been a regular occurrence throughout India for decades, metastasizing into full-blown pogroms every decade or so.
While India is hailed as the “world’s largest democracy,” its political system is replete with violent criminals who operate networks of thugs. Fake news is a deadly tool in their hands. Amit Shah, the president of India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is known for instigating Hindu violence against Muslims. Violence between Hindus and Muslims helps Shah’s BJP as it consolidates the Hindu vote across caste and regional lines.
It’s the Politics, Stupid
It would be a mistake to place the blame squarely on WhatsApp for India’s upsurge in mob violence. WhatsApp did not make India violent. It has merely given violent actors in India a new tool to use. Two decades ago, the extremist networks linked to the BJP would have used audio cassettes, printed newsletters, and VHS tapes to spread anti-Muslim hysteria. Now, their local bosses can instantly forward an extremist audio or video clip to a WhatsApp chat group with hundreds of members, who then forward it on to their own contacts.
While the impact of digital propaganda is faster and more difficult to control, Indian police officials have regularly intervened when it’s politically beneficial, arresting ordinary citizens on numerous occasions for mocking right-wing Hindu leaders on WhatsApp.
With the right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP in power at the center and in most of India’s states, it’s unrealistic to expect the arsonist to play the role of the fireman. Spreading anti-Muslim fake news has been an integral part of the digital strategy of the social media wing of the BJP.
“Almost 80 percent of the misinformation comes from right-wing groups and just spreads like wildfire.”
– Pankaj Jain, an Indian activist who monitors fake news on social media.
No End in Sight
It’s one thing for platforms like Facebook and Twitter to combat fake news and hate speech on open platforms. But it becomes a much tougher task when the communication is user-to-user or within restricted-access groups. In a country as large as India, the most decisive player might be the local police, who — after being alerted to fake news or incitement — can counter the disinformation and prevent an outbreak of violence. But police forces in India are not only beholden to local politicians. They also generally subscribe to the same majoritarian views as Hindu extremist leaders in areas of India prone to religious violence.
The ugly truth is that the problem of digital incitement in India is here to stay. And it’s here to stay because the problem is not WhatsApp — the problem is the politics of India’s surging Hindu extremist networks.