With Lok Sabha Elections Approaching, WhatsApp Is Still Haunted By Its Past Failings

WhatsApp is one of the most prominent and famous messaging platforms in the Indian subcontinent. With over 200 million users in the country, it is one of the biggest social platforms. That is why its position is very important for communication due to its domination through the network effect in India.

However, the platform has recently come into focus with the upcoming elections, which highlights all of their past run-ins with the Indian government. In this article, we will take a look into WhatsApp’s complicated relationship with Indian regulators and its role in the biggest democracy of the world.

Past Misdemeanors Attract A Wary Eye

The platform has long been the medium for spreading any kind of information to a larger audience. Most Indians are aware of the pitfalls of family groups and the constant ‘Good Morning’ messages from ‘well-wishers’. Users are also accustomed to WhatsApp forwards heralding the doom of something or the other. However, this came to be the downfall of the platform’s reputation.

India is a fairly Internet-new country, as the masses were exposed to it on a large scale due to the rise of mobile computing and Jio. This has led to a general increase in susceptibility to misinformation spread on the Internet. A study by the BBC says that 72% of Indians have difficulties in distinguishing real information from that which is made up, with 83% concerned about fake news.

Due to the presence of viral forwards and a general lack of verification measures among the population, videos and forwarded messages regarding child abductions led to a lynching movement across the country. Over 2017-18, at least 45 casualties were observed, with no official records available due to the nature of the act. Proceeding this, the government also took a much more stringent attitude towards regulating the platform, calling for multiple changes to it.

Turning Over A New Leaf To Gain Regulator Confidence

However, WhatsApp managed to offset some public backlash due to a well-constructed campaign consisting of print, video and television advertisements. The campaign, which was referred to as “Share Joy, Not Rumours”, saw WhatsApp urging the users to check before they forward a message blindly.

Post the renewed focus of the Indian government on WhatsApp, the platform instituted a variety of features to curb the spread of misinformation. This included reducing the maximum number of forwards to 5, along with the aforementioned campaign. Further, the platform also instituted a variety. They further stated that they will add a label to messages that have been forwarded, as opposed to those composed by the user.

More recently, the platform also introduced various machine learning algorithms to curb the spread of messages. This was used to lock down on users who used the platform to send and receive child pornography. The app’s ML algorithms functions in 3 stages, which are at registration, during messaging and in response to negative feedback, such as user reports and blocks. However, the government seemed to have more in store for WhatsApp, not letting up on the pressure of regulation on the platform.

WhatsApp Is Stuck Between A Rock And A Hard Place

After the lynchings took place, the Indian government looked to find a way to gain traceability of messages on the platform. While this was a method to ensure that unlawful and “explosive” messages are not forwarded to large numbers of people, it was not possible to implement it. One of WhatsApp’s biggest draws is the fact that the application has end-to-end encryption, which means that no third party can read the messages that two individuals send to each other.

What the government was asking would not have been possible without breaking the encryption, creating a new product altogether. This led to a stalemate between the two, with WhatsApp continuing to move forward in terms of making the platform safer from misinformation.

Carl Woog, the Head Of Communications at WhatsApp, said in a statement in February, “Fighting automation and bulk messaging is one of the biggest challenges that we are facing in India, and the typing pattern is one of the key indicators that help us detect organic messages.” This led to the beginning of the ban waves, during which the app banned 6 million accounts in just 3 months. Through all of this, WhatsApp continued to maintain that it was a platform for private messaging between individuals and small groups.

This left the platform in a difficult situation, with the user’s privacy on one side and regulation on the other. Even after this, the government itself was not done handing out difficult situations for WhatsApp, with the upcoming election set to be conducted with the platform as its battleground. Both ruling parties have decided to take the offensive onto WhatsApp, creating multiple groups based on caste and sociological divides.

These groups are used by the parties as their personal megaphone, something WhatsApp has continually forbidden them from doing. An account by a former BJP data analyst also showed how BJP acquired publically available data to do this, especially for their election efforts in Karnataka.

The government is taking a two-faced approach to WhatsApp, and one can only hope that the world’s largest democracy is not undercut by misinformation on social media.

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