Both the Congress and BJP acknowledge that WhatsApp is a significant part of their social media strategies, but will the crackdown throw a spanner in the works?

WhatsApp aims to curb abuse and disinformation ahead of 2019 elections but can it
news Fake news Monday, February 25, 2019 - 15:32

The virtual foot soldiers of political parties across the country are under attack from none other than the platform they’re using. With months to go for the Lok Sabha Elections, WhatsApp announced on February 6 that it was going to crackdown on political parties misusing the app, warning of a ban of its service. This comes on the back of rising concern that certain groups may attempt to send messages at scale and to spread fake news during the elections.

India is the messaging service’s biggest market with 200 million users, and is currently inextricably linked to how the country communicates. It’s widely used for organising and mobilising by political parties, citizen groups, law enforcement, and virtually everyone else. However, the Facebook-owned messaging service is clear – the app is not a broadcast platform. As part of its effort to crackdown on those abusing the app, WhatsApp revealed that it was banning close to 2 million suspicious accounts each month. “We have been preparing for this since the Karnataka vote last May. At that time, we saw how parties tried to reach people over WhatsApp and in some cases that involved attempting to use WhatsApp in a way that it was not intended to be used,” the company’s Head of Communications, Carl Woog, told reporters in New Delhi.

Political dependence on WhatsApp

And while WhatsApp aims to go after groups abusing the platform, many political sources TNM spoke to said that if the platform was really to crackdown on mass messaging, it would most certainly affect campaigning and whisper networks to a large extent. In the past, while crores were pumped into election paraphernalia such as posters and hoardings, parties have now channelled this money into training cadre on how to use WhatsApp efficiently and spread messages to a large population. From creating short videos, graphics and even personal stories that go viral, a lot of focus is on creating the right content to push their agendas.

With WhatsApp aiming to crackdown in a country where it has previously been blamed for the spread of fake news and mob lynchings, both the BJP and Congress claim that their dissemination is done organically, and hence they are not breaking the rules. Yet, the platform is a significant part of the social media strategies of political parties, and the massive scale at which they are currently communicating on WhatsApp may suggest otherwise.

Balaji Srinivas, the Karnataka convenor of the BJP's social media cell, says that their communication is organic, suggesting that the message gets passed down through their network of active party workers and not using automated tools to send out mass messages.

“Our entire communication is dependent on the network that we have. It happens organically, we don't need any technology to send out the WhatsApp broadcast or something like that. We have district in-charges, who will then tell Assembly in-charges, who then will send it to booth administrators, and they will tell workers,” he said.

This is echoed by the head of the IT Cell of Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee, AN Nataraj Gowda. “We follow those rules. We are not sending any fake messages or accusing somebody or tarnishing someone's image,” Nataraj said.

While the BJP may say that it’s merely capitalising on their network, they have taken to spreading information on WhatsApp on a massive scale, something they tested during the Gujarat and Karnataka Elections. In fact, it’s something the Congress hopes to emulate.

The BJP had claimed to have 42,000 WhatsApp groups to disseminate their information ahead of the Karnataka elections. Now, they are restructuring those very groups for the Parliamentary elections.

Balaji, who acknowledged that they are focused on WhatsApp, said, “Every Lok Sabha has an in-charge and co-in-charge and a team of 20 people. A Lok Sabha constituency will have a team of 20, and every Assembly constituency will have a team of 20 people. For example, Bangalore south will have 20, and then constituencies under Bangalore south will have 20 people each.” These teams of 20, in turn, handle WhatsApp groups for their specific areas.

Similarly, the Congress says that groups that were formed just before the Karnataka polls have been reactivated. According to Nataraj, there are 10 groups per Assembly constituency comprising volunteers and workers. “Ranging from 60 to 250 members, and we have about 45000-50000 people in those groups. Around 2500 WhatsApp groups are there. We have also started broadcast only groups,” he added. The party has now formed 28 Parliamentary groups, where they send localised content.

How would WhatsApp crackdown?

“While roughly 20% of these accounts are banned at the time of registration, over 70% of the spam accounts get banned without a recent user report,” Carl Woog said. Accounts which are flagged by users by taking advantage of an in-app "report" feature are reviewed by a team of human workers. When someone reports an account, the WhatsApp team can see the last few messages in the chat.

Matt Jones, the head of anti-spam engineering team at the company, told journalists that in order to catch accounts to ban them, they look at the actions of the user, and don’t decrypt any of the messages.

The Next Web reported that the messaging service bans users at three points. At registration, the service where it uses your basic information to decide — such as if a specific network attempts to register multiple accounts.

The next step is the typing indicator. “(The absence of) typing indicator is a giveaway. Those who use emulators forget to add that into their code. If an account has never sent a typing indicator, it can be labelled as an automated account,” Matt said, according to the Indian Express. It also reportedly checks if an account sends 100 messages in 10 seconds, and if this volume of messages is sent within 5 minutes of registering.

The third is to flag those who send spam content as suspicious. As WhatsApp has end-to-end encryption which makes it impossible for them to read messages, it may not be enough to block spam accounts in order to curb the spread of fake news. Wide-reaching organic networks that are in place for political parties may still be able to disseminate abusive or fake content, and the company may not be able to do much.

The company has been hoping to address misuse and disinformation, after it was reported to be abused during the elections in Brazil as well.

Rema Rajeshwari, the president District Police Chief of Mahbubnagar and the former Superintendent of Police of Jogulamba Gadwal district, has been widely credited with limiting killings that were fuelled due to messages being spread on WhatsApp. She said that it was a “welcome move by WhatsApp which has decided to ban those accounts which constantly engage in automated bot behaviour, as this will certainly address the issue of 'virality' - a major cause behind spreading misinformation and led to lynching incidents last year”. With regard to the spread of fake news, Rema believes that it is a problem of giving access to technology without educating them. “Digital literacy to teach them about 'self-regulation' must be taken up on a large scale,” she said.

For the messaging service, however, a mammoth task lies ahead, as elections near.

Show us some love! Support our journalism by becoming a TNM Member - Click here.