WhatsApp: A new weapon of mass destruction of facts
People are unknowingly sharing texts that are creating deep fissures in our society
"It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and a psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle. They are mere words, and words can be molded until they clothe ideas and disguise." These are the words of Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany.
A chilling repetition of history is underway.
If a lie is repeated over and over again, it becomes a fact. It is implanted in our collective belief system, waiting to be reinforced by another lie. Such has been the power of WhatsApp during the 2019 Indian elections.
While all eyes have been on Facebook's role in influencing elections, WhatsApp has been quietly growing its stranglehold on public opinion without much scrutiny. This is mainly because end-to-end encrypted messages are shared in a closed group environment, a more intimate setting where we can exchange our own views with friends and family members. But not quite.
In this private setting, our uncles, aunties, friends, cousins are unknowingly sharing smear campaigns, fake messages and hate messages that are creating deep fissures in our society. So how did they get their hands on these divisive messages? More than a million volunteers are busy injecting toxic messages into the WhatsApp social network bloodstream. The speed at which these messages spread is a function of the highly engaged 200 million WhatsApp users in India.
WhatsApp is the new weapon of mass destruction of facts, reason, restraint and decency. It is like a blaring loudspeaker so common in India during festivities, amplifying politically motivated hate messages. In the trusting backdrop of WhatsApp, an unprecedented stream of political messages is steamrolling public opinion and wiping out sobriety and decency.
The messages are precise, targeted and embellished with compelling stories, facts and figures as a disguise of authenticity as Goebbels asserted during the Nazi era. The content is manufactured by political parties through the well-oiled machinery of their IT cell. However, in the unfettered space of WhatsApp networks, the lines between official and unofficial content get blurred.
In their desperation to secure a decisive victory, Indian political parties have recruited an army of volunteers to craft public opinion. They have a multitiered IT organisation with national, state, and lower order tiers going right down to a polling booth.
The content is forwarded in a top down manner, which finally ends up in the hands of volunteers at the grassroot level. There are plenty of volunteers given that the unemployment rate is at an all-time high. They disseminate the content to their neighborhood community through WhatsApp groups carefully curated along caste and religious lines. The content then finds its way into personal groups such as those of my friends and relatives. This is how my own social network consisting of educated professionals is not always a source of inspiration but often a toxic vehicle of fake news and fake history.
A WhatsApp group can hold up to 256 members. Earlier, misinformation spread about child abduction through WhatsApp led a village to lynch a tribal group. This was one among a dozen mob lynching acts in India prompting WhatsApp to put constraints like forwarding a single message to only 5 chats at once. But that does not stop the unemployed-youth-turned-volunteers from simply forwarding the messages to groups.
Are we feeding our own biases with the WhatsApp content or is the content re-modelling our belief system? I would argue that it is a bit of both. A lack of deep understanding of history and paucity of time to verify facts is ensuring that our judgement quickly gets clouded by the virulent content. The brute force of the posts as we are repeatedly pounded by the same viewpoint but disguised in different facts and stories makes it difficult for the most discerning among us to not get swayed. Even if you are not paying attention, these messages are flashing before you, slowly gnawing at your ability to reason.
But more importantly the digital India dream has turned sour. Millions of those who have recently started to use the Internet are getting educated about our history, society and constitution through unverified fake content. This is the free for all WhatsApp university where bizarre opinions get the stamp of respectability by faking sources like Unesco or famous writers. It is regrettable that while the legions of young Internet users know how to deftly use WhatsApp, they do not understand the moral implications of their actions. Their conscience is not unsettled when their posts lead to mob violence or mislead an entire constituency. While the Election Commission has tried to rein in the use of WhatsApp as a propaganda machine, we the educated lot have not done enough to stem the spread of hatred, misinformation and half-truths. It is our collective failure.
India is in the thick of election fever. In this no-holds-barred election campaigning, the perpetrators of falsehoods are 'WhatsApping' from all sides of the political battlefront. The only victim is truth.
Shalini Verma CEO of PIVOT technologies