India and the curse of WhatsApp

WhatsApp is one of the most used messaging services globally with 1.5 billion active monthly users and 200 million in India alone. As smartphone usage and accessibility increases across the rural and middle class in India, the digital age holds a new beginning for the country.

In the localized context, WhatsApp is so much more than a platform for messaging. It has carved a position for itself as a key component in the daily lives of many. “Good morning” messages have become the routine for Indians as they start their day with photos of the sun, cups of tea, babies and flowers with inspirational quotes and messages written across them. An article published by the Wall Street Journal earlier this year highlighted how the Internet was filling up because of these “Good Morning” messages and causing glitches in phones halfway across the world.

The country is newly online and many of its residents have already developed unhealthy obsessions with the app and the convenience of the forward button coupled with the urge to share everything to as many people as possible. Unfortunately, this barrage of forwards is not restricted to the optimistic, cheerful greetings but also grim, gruesome messages that very often spread fake news. There almost seems to be a competition and this very rush for virality creates misinformation, often targeted at specific ethnic groups and religions. These play a big role in reinforcing certain stereotypes and mindsets of people. They start believing they have a moral obligation and responsibility to get the message across and prevent atrocities, unknowingly causing many more themselves. The social media platforms meant to connect people across the country and the world have been converted into weapons to hijack information.

Recently, the spread of hoaxes of child abduction led to mob killings, resulting in 21 deaths in parts of the country. Mob violence fueled by rumors and false beliefs is not a new to the country, however, the power of the internet as specifically the ease of forward messages exacerbates this problem. This caused the Indian government to press WhatsApp for changes after accusing the Facebook-owned company for playing a part in these events. The debacle caused the messaging service to reduce forward limits in India to 5, compared to 20 internationally and label messages when they have been forwarded. Local newspapers have also been sprouting precautionary information on how to spot fake news and not buy into it. Distinguishing the right information from the wrong has become increasingly difficult for many as WhatsApp forwards are often touted as the gospel truth. India certainly has become digital but what it needs to truly bring in a technological revolution is a sense of digital responsibility.