Out of all the social media apps, WhatsApp is the one we can’t imagine our life without. In less than a decade since its launch, it has managed to gain a lion’s share of the market, having no real competitor in the industry.
India is the biggest market for the Facebook-owned company, with 400 million Indians forming part of its user base. User-reported WhatsApp statistics indicate that 82% of Indian internet users use the app, putting it behind only Facebook and YouTube.
Indians use the messaging app for various other things apart from texting. It has become a medium to share news, pictures, videos, stories amongst others. It has successfully served the purpose of connecting people from different walks of life spread over geographical locations, offering an easy medium to communicate.
However, for all its perks, WhatsApp in India is facing its own set of problems, the biggest of them being the platform’s use to spread rumours and fake news. Fake news is a type of propaganda that consists of deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional news media or online social media. In this case, WhatsApp is used to spread misinformation and rumours on politician’s quotes, government achievements, history, communal hatred etc.
A new qualitative study put out by researchers at the London School of Economics (LSE) enlists the epidemic of fake WhatsApp news in the country.
Who spreads Fake News?
The study charts out the profile of users most prone to spreading fake news in the country. While it was earlier believed that fake news was mostly spread by IT cells, media companies or uneducated internet users looking to make a quick buck, the research found results to the contrary. It is mostly spread by users who are prejudiced and ideologically motivated, rather than ignorant or digitally illiterate.
Several reasons motivate people to press that forward icon and send it to each and every group that they’re part of.
First is the “WhatsApp Reporter”. These are users who are obsessed with posting and forwarding messages first. These people want to be the first ones sharing breaking news, new information or unseen pictures, doing so in the hope of gaining social capital and acquiring a reputation for being very knowledgeable and informed.
The second type of users is older users who choose to believe messages forwarded by known and trusted individuals, to the belief that it is a civic duty to pass along information about (even unverified) suspicious activities, and the need to be seen as a local “expert” by sharing local information.
Another interesting finding of the study was that the serial fake news spreader even has a communal angle to it. What the researchers found is that if a WhatsApp user is male, technologically-literate Hindu, then regardless of whether they’re “upper or middle caste”, young or middle-aged, or rural or urban, they are more likely to share misinformation and hate speech.
This is especially harmful in today’s times when religious intolerance mob lynching’s and communal tensions are at its peak.
How WhatsApp Spreads Fake News
It is not like WhatsApp hasn’t tried to curb the fake news epidemic it has helped create. Limits on the number of times a WhatsApp message can be forwarded, airing national ads educating users and spreading awareness, new labels that identify to users when they have received a forwarded message, all initiatives have only managed to slow down the pace of fake news.
However, there are several ways via which the restrictions put forth can be successfully bypassed. WhatsApp clones and software tools that cost as little as Rs 1000 are helping Indian digital marketers and political activists bypass anti-spam restrictions set up by the world’s most popular messaging app.
Not only this, mainly digital marketing companies are offering mass forwarding services under the banner of “voice and messaging services” to anyone who needs them.
Why Fake News Via WhatsApp Is Deadly
Fake News through WhatsApp has been used to spread communal tension, misinformation and incorrect reporting of several events. The rapid spread of information has also led to many Indians being lynched over rumours of being child kidnappers.
The study brought to light how this data when spread over a large scale can actually kill. It found out that fake news in India widely revolved on incorrect information and content that aimed at developing distrust, hatred, contempt and suspicion towards Pakistanis, Muslims, Dalits and critical or dissenting citizens amongst a section of rural and urban upper and middle-caste Hindu men and women.
They found that such violence is more likely to be directed towards women, especially those from marginalised communities. These could include unsolicited sexts, sex tapes, rape videos and blackmailing.
The problem of fake news has become so serious, that in July 2018, the Narendra Modi government specifically took aim at WhatsApp’s role in the issue and asked it to curb the spread of hate speech and identify users who were responsible for spreading rumours.
How To Check For Fake News?
While you can’t control the messages that you receive, you can surely make sure to fact check them and not be part of the chain that is responsible for spreading fake news in the country. You can simply do using the company’s 'Checkpoint Tipline', where people can check the authenticity of information that they have received.
All you have to do is submit the message, picture or video that you have received to the Checkpoint Tipline on WhatsApp (+91-9643-000-888).
Once you’ve done this, the verification centre will provide you with information on the status of your message. The response will indicate if the information is classified as true, false, misleading, disputed or out of scope and include any other related information that is available.
So the next time you receive a mass forward you may think is fake, don’t just blindly forward it. Fact check it, educate the sender and make sure you’re not doing anything that spreads fake news!