Vol. XLII No. 28 July 15, 2018

Lynch Mobs: What WhatsApp Will not Do and BJP Won’t Ask

Prabir Purkayastha

LAST week, we had written on the rise of lynch mobs, the spreading of hate and false rumours through social media, and the complicity of the government. This week I will look at a particular feature of the WhatsApp platform that helps in spreading hate, and why the BJP government is not asking them to change this feature.

At the heart of the problem with WhatsApp, which is now owned by Facebook, is the feature that anybody’s mobile number can be put in a WhatsApp group, even without the consent of the owner. Even if the mobile owner exits the group manually, he or she can be added back to the group. This “feature” of creating WhatsApp groups is unusual for creating e-groups today.  Today, the convention is, we ask people – when we want to add them to such groups – to give their consent. This is called the opt-in model, rather than the opt-out model, where people are added without their consent, and if they do not want to be in the group, then they have to leave the group. In this terminology, WhatApp follows an opt-out and not an opt-in model.

A number of new users may not be even aware of how to exit such groups. To make matters worse, even if you opt-out of such a group, the group admin can simply put you back. In an age, where mobile numbers and our personal data is available for selling, organised groups use such data to create mass mailing lists for their purpose. And not having an opt-in feature means that we are forced to listen to such propaganda, even without knowing who is sending these messages.

There is another consequence of such an opt-in feature for mass messaging groups. A number of cases have been reported, where a particular person has been trolled, and their mobile numbers repeatedly added to the group/groups, even when she or he wanted to leave such groups. This feature of WhatApp leads to targeted trolling and abusive behaviour, against which people have no redress.

A number of first time users may not even realise that WhatsApp messages are not authentic, and give it an authority that it does not possess. Nor do they realise that even videos and photos are subject to malicious manipulation.

I remember the naive belief that people earlier had in the printed word. It was instinctively elevated to “truth”; the sheer fact of it being printed gave it an aura of authority. Currently, videos and pictures that appear either on Facebook or WhatApp groups, acquire a similar authority, as people believe that if it is a picture or a video clip, it must be right. They will tell each other that this is what they have seen on WhatsApp. The image is acquiring a similar authority, as the printed word of an earlier era. That the images are either manipulated or taken out of context, is still to be learnt. By then, a lot of manipulation of public opinion, violence and riots would have taken place, as we know from our experience of Muzaffarnagar riots, and the recent lynchings.

We now know that a number of videos used in the recent child lifting scare, was either deliberate manipulation, or simply to create a sensation, or target marginalised groups. The Indian Express story, ‘Three videos that fuelled Dhule lynch mob were all manipulated’ (July 12, 2018), show the impact of such manipulated videos. People will remember the role of similar manipulated videos in the Muzaffarnagar riots; or the panic among the people of North-eastern origin residing in Bangalore.

I am not arguing that such lynchings or mob violence is due to social media. As I said last week in my column, I am arguing that such violence is the consequence of real world events and forces. And the deliberate failure of the law order machinery to act. It is compounded by the sickening spectacle of BJP ministers vying with each other to garland those, who are either being prosecuted, or already convicted of lynchings. 

Here, I am examining whether the social media platforms can change some features of their platform to minimise such rumours and misuse of their platforms. And why are they not doing this already? And why does the BJP government ask them to do so, instead of requesting them to change the colour of forwarded message?

The social media platforms such as WhatsApp can reduce the impact of such rumour mongering by simply changing their group messaging to be opt-in and not opt-out. The reason that WhastApp, essentially Facebook which owns WhatsApp, will not do so, is that this feature is intimately connected to its business model. Facebook’s business model is on spreading its reach to more and more people. The more mobile numbers it has, more its reach. It also acquires other user data such as user ID’s, profile pictures, etc. More the messaging platform spreads, the more it can sell this data to its real customers, those businesses who seek access to Facebook or WhatsApp users for their advertising. Or sell the mobile numbers with our demographic information to advertisers for targeted sms’s and telemarketing.

WhatsApp groups also provide a platform for business to directly reach out to potential customers. Nobody in his or her right mind would welcome becoming part of a group for targeted advertisements. But if they are not asked for their permission, it makes the task of advertisers simpler, and our lives more difficult.

The key issue here is that the virality of social media platforms is their core business model. That is why they are not interested in controlling fake news. They are well aware that fake news, being sensational, has higher virality than normal, run of the mill news. Therefore, lip service apart, they are never going to control fake and malicious news, unless the State and the people force them to do so.

So why is the BJP government, not asking WhatsApp to change this feature that joining such groups, should be a matter of choice, and not something that is forced on us? Common sense would dictate that this would be helpful for all of us, and reduce the misuse of such platforms. Why is the IT ministry continuously issuing statements on its discussions with Facebook, but conspicuously silent on this score?

The reason is that the BJP has as much of a stake in this feature, as Facebook has. Its entire electoral machinery is built around such WhatsApp groups. The core of its social media campaign, the hate and divisive propaganda that is tearing this country apart is being conducted by its IT Cell and its counterparts in every state through such WhatsApp groups. To this, they have added Cambridge Analytica kind of tools that carry out targeted messaging, some positive about the Modi government, mostly negative about minorities and their political opponents.

Yes, social media does not create lynch mobs; people do. And yes government’s complicity creates conditions for the impunity with which these lynch mobs operate. But this does not mean that the social media platforms have no role in controlling the menace of fake news. Not through direct censorship as some quarters are asking, but through simple changes in its features that give us more control over our social media feeds and how our data should be used.

Simply put, the same reason that Facebook will never control fake news, is the identical reason that BJP is not asking Facebook to carry out this simple change to its WhatsApp platform. Both have a vested interest in fake news, one for business, the other for political reasons.

It is time the people – in this country and elsewhere – raise the issue of how to control these tech monopolies, which are changing our social behaviour and modifying our political choices. This is a battle we need to fight and our challenge today.