Take, for instance, this past fortnight. First came the Pulwama terror attack. Twelve days later, with the Air Force’s ‘surgical strikes’ on Pakistan, triumph and vindication flooded a good part of India’s political WhatsApp groups, including those of grassroots right-wing organisations such as the Hindu Yuva Vahini.
With escalations on both sides, WhatsApp saw the whole gamut of sentiment, from nationalism to electioneering. “Nakshe se Pakistan ko mitana hai,” said a user in a BJP-leaning group, quickly followed by “Nakshe se nahin, toh Google Maps se toh zaroor mitana hai.”
Later, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s videos spread like wildfire, ironically, with a disclaimer not to share as it could affect the morale of the Indian armed forces. But hey, sharing is caring on WhatsApp, they say.
The Wing Commander’s return to India on Friday via the Wagah border was an event in itself on these platforms. He was welcomed with memes, poems, songs and every other form Indians could lay their hands on. In WhatsApp terms, the aim was simply “viral kara do” (make it viral).
And beyond the hectic past two weeks, a typical day would go something like this.
It’s an early start, around 4 am, with a “Jai Shri Ram” and other religious content, followed by textual and graphical ‘good morning’ messages, found on apps such as ShareChat and Helo. Then come infographics that detail and highlight the Bharatiya Janata Party’s achievements since it came to power in 2014. Next up are jokes and memes (mostly about the Opposition parties), pictures and WhatsApp stickers of Lord Ram and the Ram Temple. The flow is continuous, or, as a New Delhi-based political consultant terms it, “It’s like Hindutva on steroids.”
In the opposition, the Indian National Congress’ volunteer-led WhatsApp groups post pro-party, pro-leader messages and updates throughout the day.
While it may not be a contest for the realtime programming of the “saffron deep web,” so to speak, these groups are likely to shed this current state of dormancy and go into overdrive. The same holds true for the Nationalist Congress Party, or even the Samajwadi Party, which has quietly been building up a low-profile, yet highly effective, WhatsApp army.
Welcome to the weird world of public, political WhatsApp groups, possibly the only place where politics wittingly or unwittingly finds itself alongside pornography, “call girls’ private numbers,” countless multi-level marketing schemes, Russian porn bots and of course, invites to more WhatsApp groups. The content, however, is sharply focused around the three Ps — politics, pornography and Pakistan, not necessarily in that order. It’s the wild west of India’s WhatsApp geography.
The first P is the heavyweight — politics. It’s election year and “these groups have emerged to become social networks in their own rights. For a lot of members, this is their only source of information, along with content websites that appeal to their ideology,” says the political consultant quoted earlier, preferring anonymity due to the nature of his work.
Since October 2018, ET reviewed 80-100 such groups across political parties and ideologies, including the BJP, Congress, NCP, Shiv Sena, Aam Aadmi Party and Samajwadi Party. Most belong to Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Other locations included Delhi, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Karnataka.
As we get closer to the polls, these groups are likely to play an important role, underscoring WhatsApp’s growing significance as a tool for electioneering in India. While a lot of groups may not be directly affiliated to a party, they have become useful workarounds in the cat and mouse game between WhatsApp and political parties.
In November 2018, ET reported how WhatsApp had come down heavily on what it calls political spamming, whereby parties use new numbers to form groups and add unknown users. The report also stated how political parties are now using invite links as a form of “old-fashioned sign-ups.” Two months on, that loophole is gone. It’s now one invite link at a time.
But, as the consultant says, “Parties are now getting smarter. They’re automating the entire process, which is why you will see group names such as NaMo Mission 2019 (location) numbered 1-10. But what they’re losing out on is control. Which is where things have gone south.”
The Invite Link Conundrum
These groups, reviewed by ET, were mostly public groups, which means they are easy to find and join. While invite links have been popular with political social media cells for a year and a half, they have only come into the spotlight over the last six months after WhatsApp limited forwarding of chats to five users.
A simple Google search throws up websites that aggregate invite links of political parties. Officials from the ministry of electronics and information technology, on condition of anonymity, say it has taken up the matter with WhatsApp.
Sources also tell ET about off-the-shelf software and scripts that filter Google, Facebook and other platforms for publicly-available links to WhatsApp groups (http://chat.whatsapp.com links), put up for wider participation.
Similarly, dedicated apps in Google Play store enable users to join new groups being formed daily. Almost all of it happens with the invite link, which is nothing but a URL that allows a user to join the group, continuing till it reaches WhatsApp’s group limit of 257 members. WhatsApp sources say it has written to Google to take down several of these apps, which came to light during a TechCrunch investigation into child pornography in these groups.
And thence comes the second P.
Group admins have the option to revoke these links, which typically happens when there is a deluge of users with foreign numbers, sometimes changing their phone numbers within a few minutes of joining. These phone numbers, mostly based out of the US, Nigeria and Russia, very often post auto-generated links to hardcore pornographic videos.
WhatsApp’s policy is to prevent misuse of the invite link, especially if it involves illegal activity. It even prohibits their publication on websites or apps. However, the app maintains that at the end, it’s the user’s choice to join such groups.
Another consultant with a political party says, “These groups end up being largely unmanned, or the admin isn’t keeping too close a watch. And that’s a big gap. Anyone has the licence to do anything and get away with it. Tomorrow, if something happens offline, who can you hold accountable?” He adds that this is the problem with automated groups. “You are never in charge and there is a complete lack of affinity. People just join random groups. In some ways, it benefits parties because it attracts attention beyond a dedicated cadre, but it’s clearly not what you’d call best practice.”
“We only create groups close to the elections, with around a month to go,” says a third political consultant with one of the opposition parties. “What you might be noticing are some links that may have been around for a while, not necessarily active, but infiltrated by porn bots and others. We usually dispose of these groups used for elections immediately after that.”
Along with these invite links comes the final P, or the ‘Pakistan problem.’
Several of these groups, across party lines, often see a stream of Pakistani numbers (ISD code +92) joining up and simply squatting. A Truecaller search for these numbers shows up users in Rawalpindi or Karachi. But what are these Pakistani numbers doing in Indian political WhatsApp groups in the first place? “While it may not be a national security risk just yet, who knows what they’re doing?” says the consultant quoted first in the story. “Very often, content is posted in Indian languages, which may not be the easiest for Pakistan’s users to understand.
But with Google Translate, who knows who they’re relaying what to?” He also has a word of caution about “obscure groups around friendship and love and romance,” where Indians, Pakistanis and others mingle. Interestingly, most of the shared media in these relates to pornography.
The Porn Problem
On December 23, in a group named Jai BJP Sarkar, which also featured Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image as its group icon, a user posted an invite link to his WhatsApp group, which was titled ‘Jabardasti/Rape Sex Videos.’ While the user ensured Pakistani numbers were not allowed to join, he recommended sharing the link with three users, which would get a user automatically added to the group.
This is a common modus operandi among porn group promoters. Also, this user promised personal numbers of women to those joining the group.
Similarly, in an Indian group named Islam ka pol khol, a user with an Israeli number (prefix +20) sent a message, saying, “I want link of sex kids please (sic),” with the number provided below. In another group named Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, an Indian user provided a link to a child porn group named Chil.D Sex Video, with multiple joining links, including a bypass link, which usually redirects to a referral website related to pornography.
“Similar groups or content can be found on groups of other parties too. Since these groups are largely automated, they do not care about party affiliations,” says one of the consultants quoted earlier.
A recent statement by a WhatsApp spokesperson said, “While we cannot see messages people share, we can and do take action based on user reports, including banning accounts.” Nonetheless, pornography remains among WhatsApp’s largest use cases, especially for its group product.
“These groups should not be surprising. If anything, they’re now becoming increasingly public,” says the second consultant quoted. He says gory rape videos available for `50-100 on SD cards in the hinterland of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are slotted into smartphones and the content circulated heavily on WhatsApp.
ET could not verify if these messages are targeted, but a common explanation is that these groups have users who are highly engaged and open to sharing.
However, the trend may well be limited to groups where admin control is lax. “Most political groups, at least ones at the top (directly affiliated to political parties) are tightly monitored by admins, so they don’t allow a lot of these activities,” says a digital media professional working with a regional party. “A lot of this could also be a scam, which people fall prey to.”
In December 2018, ET wrote about several Chinese apps getting a grip on what is known as India 2, a rural or semi-urban demographic with new internet users whose primary engagement with their smartphone is centred around content.
This is also where some public groups are formed and invite links circulated.
Political parties are now looking at a tactical shift, especially in the last two months. They have now embarked on a strategy informally known as App+WhatsApp. In simple terms, it means that the content is created elsewhere, most often on platforms such as Indian social content app ShareChat, ByteDanceowned Chinese app Helo, or even TikTok, and is pushed into WhatsApp groups, owing the latter’s significant distribution potential. This also distributes attention away from apps such as Facebook.
“Political parties are now looking at different platforms. While Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter are key to overall strategy, at the grassroots level, leaders are being encouraged to try and post content on other platforms,” says the second political consultant quoted in the story.
Shareability is easy. On ShareChat, the product flow directly enables sharing of a post on WhatsApp. With TikTok, it is easy to download a short video and then upload it on WhatsApp, without login requirements.
Ditto for Helo. “A lot of these apps see the elections as a significant opportunity,” says the person quoted above. “Newer apps will come in. Attention will most likely to be distributed. WhatsApp may not become as significant from a content creation point of view; jokes are now converted into memes or two-minute videos with a basic voiceover. This is how it is likely to play out.”
In India, nothing brings out the big guns in force quite like a general election. Add to that the potency of the other aspects in circulation, and apps become the new frontier. For the uninitiated, there’s always a WhatsApp group.
Update: Post-publication of the story, WhatsApp has officially responded with this statement:
A WhatsApp spokesperson said, “WhatsApp cares deeply about the safety of our users. The vast majority of messages sent on WhatsApp are between two people or small groups. Given the nature of private messaging, we encourage users to report problematic messages so we can take action. In the run-up to the national election, we will continue to take steps to educate users about misinformation and curb abuse of WhatsApp.”
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