Instant messaging service WhatsApp will have to put more safeguards in place to avoid its misuse in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections,experts say. Some point to the experience in the recent elections in Brazil,where the Facebook-owned platform battled allegations on its use to influence the popular vote, with mass-WhatsApp messages pushing anti-leftist propaganda.
“There is no easy way to say this but the likelihood of a WhatsApp scandal in the run-up to the 2019 elections in India is imminent. I won’t be surprised if there is already something similar taking place in India. That’s because there is no way to control the message that is being shared on the platform. The only way to stop this is by revoking the end-to-end encryption which will impair the privacy WhatsApp users enjoy,” said lawyer Rahul Matthan, partner at the law firm Trilegal and author of Privacy 2.0, which traces the historic origin and current debates on privacy.
WhatsApp has over 200 million users in India, its largest market. The absence of a data protection law in India (one is in the works but is unlikely to be passed before the elections) only adds to this problem, although this transcends WhatsApp.
“The large scale sale of phone numbers, and subsequent bombardment of messages, without seeking consent is also a reminder that we urgently need rules to limit the use of personal data for political campaigns. Europe’s law, the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), for example, puts strict limits on direct marketing, including by political parties and campaigners. Yet India is approaching its own elections without any effective data protection rules in place,” said Amba Kak, public policy adviser at web browser Mozilla.
The election commission is aware of the challenge. In an interview to Hindustan Times, chief election commissioner OP Rawat said the biggest challenge for the ECI right now is posed by technology firms that have wherewithal to influence voters.
According to a survey conducted by the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) and reported by the HT earlier this week, 40% of rural users of the messaging platform were part of WhatsApp groups created by members or representatives of political parties. A third of the users spend between one hour and four hours on the app daily, the survey found. “This reflects the level of campaigning and penetration of political parties. Villages are always politically sensitive and also interested in politics,” the HT report said, quoting DEF’s Osama Manzar.
The survey noted that 63% of the respondents were not on the service in 2014. The share of active WhatsApp users in rural India has doubled since 2017, according to the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
A possible solution is to make sure voters are consistently informed about the issue of misinformation and fake news in India, added Matthan. “WhatsApp should continue to build a concerted marketing campaign against fake news to make voters aware, so that they exercise restraint while sending and sharing messages received from other users. The only trouble is if the message is received from a trusted ally, then one is likely to believe it. That’s why there is no absolute way to ensure shadow campaigns are not circulated on WhatsApp,” he explained.
The Facebook-owned platform has said in an earlier statements that it believes this is a challenge that requires government, civil society and technology companies to work together. “Our strategy has been twofold. First, to give people the controls and information they need to stay safe; and second, to work proactively to prevent misuse on WhatsApp,” WhatsApp said in the statement in July.
In July, WhatsApp launched a label to identify forwarded messages in a bid to combat fake news and the spread of misinformation globally, including India. It later set a limit to the use of forwarded messages to five chats in India. After that WhatsApp took out full-page advertisements in Indian newspapers offering “easy tips” to distinguish between fact and fiction as it battles rising pressure to curb the spread of misinformation in India after the lynching of at least 30 people in the country since May, with at least some being caused by rumours forwarded over phones.
Sunil Abraham, director at the think tank Centre for Internet and Society said WhatsApp could employ a network of fact checkers and explore “in application education”.
Local authorities in various parts of the country have resorted to Internet shutdowns to counter incidents of violence triggered by rumours on WhatsApp. Law firm Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), based in New Delhi, has tracked down 116 Internet shutdowns across India in 2018 alone. In 2017, India reported 79 shutdowns; in 2016, the number was 31 and in 2012 it was just three. The rise from three shutdowns in 2012 to more than 100 this year marks a 3,766% surge. “State and central government and local authorities might consider this a solution. But a shutdown is completely against freedom of speech and that’s our view,” said an SFLC spokesperson. WhatsApp users in rural India do not blindly trust messages they receive on the messaging service, according to the DEF survey.