Ahead of the polls opening for the Lok Sabha general elections today in India, political ads and fake news on social messengers, especially WhatsApp, have been a major topic of debate. BJP party officials have even dubbed the event the “WhatsApp elections”. The party has set up hundreds of thousands of WhatsApp groups across the country and are using targeted messaging to reach certain demographics, according to the National Herald. India’s lax data protection laws are helping, making it easy to obtain mobile phone numbers.
The messaging service is also the tool of choice for the spread of fake news about the elections, which is targeting voters through similar avenues. According to Time, false information is also not absent from political chat groups set up by several major parties.
WhatsApp has already limited its forwarding capacity to five recipients at a time, following a violent incident in July 2018 that was connected to fake news on its network. The limitation has since been rolled out globally. The service also invested in a public awareness campaign about fake news, teaching people to block contacts and exit groups.
According to a survey by the Digital Empowerment Foundation the message has gotten across to a majority of Indians. Around 80 percent of respondents from rural areas said they didn’t believe the bulk of messages they receive. 40 percent said they were a member in a WhatsApp group set up by a political party. Almost 40 percent said they received more than 10 forwarded messages a day.