An Echo Chamber Called Whatsapp

An Echo Chamber Called Whatsapp

For more than a decade now, the term “Whatsapp University” has resonated around social platforms. The Meta-owned messaging service, which has its biggest customer base in India,  has seen political parties and their supporters consistently use the platform to spread their messages, ultimately leading to the creation of echo chambers. 

The power of Whatsapp as a group messaging service also drew the attention of movie makers across multiple languages in India. The most famous one was in the web series Pataal Lok where the protagonist gives a piece of worldly wisdom and says, “Actually, this is from the Puranas, but I read it over Whatsapp.” 

Mozilla wonders why Meta is missing Whatsapp?

However, as four billion people across 64 countries including India and the US face the people’s mandate this year, the not-for-profit Mozilla Foundation has raised a flag over Whatsapp’s potential to disseminate misinformation. In fact, they’ve questioned why Meta is committing to safety interventions on Facebook and Instagram but not Whatsapp. 

Just so readers are aware, Meta (the parent company of Facebook) had acquired Whatsapp for a whopping $19 billion back in 2014 and soon it became a means of two-way chat for those using smartphones in India. Today, it boasts of over 2 billion users worldwide and has become not just a platform for social chatter but also one for free global communication – that is if you discount the Internet charges. 

And so it was that in the 2014 general elections, one political party used its power to connect with the voters, the doubters and even the opponents. Now, ten years later, the platform continues to play host to information forwards – some genuine, some fraudulent and mostly dubious as the instigator is seldom known to the receiver. 

Now, Mozilla Foundation has echoed the fears that most of us had for several years and articulated it time and again. According to Odanga Madung, a senior researcher at Mozilla who specializes in elections and platform integrity, almost 90% of safety interventions pledged by Meta are focused on Facebook and Instagram. 

The right question, but is it too late for India?

However, Whatsapp has been the key medium of communication during elections, both in 2014 and with renewed vigour in 2019. As the country moves into election fever and candidates and party leaders begin slinging mud and grime at each other, it looks like the Lok Sabha elections of 2024 could become the mother of all social media battles. 

Five years ago, the Financial Times had carried an article titled “India: The Whatsapp Election”, where it noted that the country was the “latest test case of the capacity of the messaging app, whose millions of small groups of encrypted users are often beyond the purview of electoral authorities or independent fact-checkers, to potentially shape the election in the world’s largest democracy.”

So, when Madung of Mozilla asks “Why has Meta not publicly committed to a public road map of exactly how it’s going to protect elections within [Whatsapp]”, it appears like a late call, if anything. According to a new report published by Mozilla, its researchers found that while Facebook made 95 policy announcements related to elections since 2016, Whatsapp only made 14 of these. 

The report goes on to add that during this period Google and YouTube made 35 and 27 announcements each while X (formerly Twitter) and TikTok made 34 and 21 respectively. “From what we can tell from its public announcements, Meta’s election efforts seem to overwhelmingly prioritize Facebook,” says Madung in a chat with Engadget.

What’s Mozilla telling Meta now?

The foundation is asking Meta to make several changes on how Whatsapp functions during the elections. This includes adding disinformation labels to viral content (not the current lukewarm warning of “forwarded many times”), restricting broadcast and the Communities features and nudging people to “pause and reflect”. 

In fact, Mozilla has shared a pledge asking Whatsapp to slow the spread of misinformation and political disinformation, but there is hardly any likelihood that Meta or Whatsapp would do anything over the next four to six weeks which is when India’s seven-phase elections wind down and winners will be announced starting June

Little or no chance that Whatsapp will listen

Of course, Whatsapp itself believes that enough is being done to curtail misinformation. According to Engadget, a spokesperson claimed that they were the only company putting up constraints to sharing by introducing forwarding limits and labelling messages that got forwarded several times. 

The question though is would these measures be enough to curtail misinformation that first came to fore several years ago and resulted in mob violence and deaths. The foundation said it conducted research across India, Brazil and Liberia where they found political parties using Whatsapp’s broadcast feature to “micro-target” voters with propaganda and hate speech. 

What’s more, the end-to-end encryption of Whatsapp makes it impossible for researchers to monitor what’s circulating. Two Rutgers professors had found a way around this by getting themselves added to 500 Whatsapp groups which they converted into a research paper called “What Circulates on Partisan Whatsapp in India”.  

The paper noted that hate speeches did not feature prominently in the selected groups but raised a point that the sample size of 500 groups was way too small for a country as large as India. Though there’s nothing much that can change from now till end-May, what is favourable is that researchers are aware of the challenges and a few more people in general may recognize the pitfalls of Whatsapp University. 


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