It is time the people – in this country and elsewhere – raise the issue of how to control these tech monopolies, which are changing our social behaviour and modifying our political choices.
Last week, we had written on the rise of lynch mobs, the spreading of hate and false rumours through social media, and the complicity of the government. This week, I will look at a particular feature of the WhatsApp platform that helps in spreading hate, and why the BJP government is not asking them to change this feature.
At the heart of the problem with WhatApp, which is now owned by Facebook, is the feature that anybody’s mobile number can be put in a WhatApp group, even without the consent of the owner. Even if the mobile owner exits the group manually, he or she can be added back to the group. This “feature” of creating WhatsApp groups is unusual for creating e-groups today. Today, the convention is, we ask people —when we want to add them to such groups —to give their consent. This is called the opt-in model, as compared to the opt-out model where people are added without their consent, and if they do not want to be in the group, then they have to leave it themselves. As per this terminology, WhatApp follows an opt-out, and not an opt-in model.
A number of new users may not even be aware of how to exit such groups. To make matters worse, even if you opt-out of a group, the group Admin can simply put you back. In an age where mobile numbers and our personal data are available for selling, organised groups use such data to create mass mailing lists for their purpose. And not having an opt-in feature means that we are forced to listen to such propaganda, even without being aware of who is sending these messages.
There is another consequence of this opt-in feature for mass messaging groups. A number of cases have been reported where a particular person has been trolled, and their mobile numbers repeatedly added to the group/groups, even when she or he wanted to leave. This feature of WhatApp leads to targeted trolling and abusive behaviour, against which people have no redress.
A number of first time users may not even realise that WhatsApp messages are not authentic, and give them an authority that they do not possess. Nor do they realise that even videos and photos can be subject to malicious manipulations.
I remember the naive belief that people earlier had in the printed word. It was instinctively elevated to “truth”; the sheer fact of it being printed gave it an aura of authority. These days, videos and pictures that appear either on Facebook or WhatApp groups acquire a similar authority; people believe that a picture or a video clip must always be an authentic portrayal of the truth. They tell each other that this is what they have seen on WhatApp. The image is acquiring a similar authority, as the printed word of an earlier era. That the images are either manipulated or taken out of context, is still to be learnt. By then, a lot of manipulation of public opinion, violence and riots would have taken place. As we know from our experience of Muzzaffarnagar riots, and the recent lynchings.
We now know that a number of videos used in the recent child lifting scare, were either deliberate manipulations, or simply used to create a sensation, or target marginalised groups. The Indian Express story, Three videos that fuelled Dhule Lynch mob were all manipulated (July 12, 2018), shows the impact of such manipulated videos. People will remember the role of similar manipulations in the Muzzaffarnagar riots; or in spreading the panic among the people of North-eastern origin residing in Bangalore.
I am not arguing that lynchings or mob violence occur due to social media. As I said last week in my column, I am arguing that such violence is the consequence of real world events and forces, and the deliberate failure of the law order machinery to act. It is compounded by the sickening spectacle of BJP ministers vying with each other to garland those who are either being prosecuted, or are already convicted of lynchings.
Here, I am examining whether social media platforms can change some features of their platform to minimise such rumours and misuse of their platforms. And why are they not doing this already? And why does the BJP government not ask them to do so, instead of requesting them to change the colour of forwarded message?
The social media platforms such as WhatApp can reduce the impact of rumour mongering, by simply changing their group messaging into an opt-in, and not an opt-out feature. The reason that WhatApp, essentially Facebook, which owns WhatApp, will not do so, is that this feature is intimately connected to its business model. Facebook’s business model works on spreading its reach to more and more people. The more mobile numbers it has, the more its reach will be. It also acquires other user data such as user IDs, profile pictures, etc. More the messaging platform spreads, the more it can sell this data, to its real customers —the businesses who seek access to Facebook or WhatsApp users for their advertising, or sell the mobile numbers with our demographic information to advertisers for targeted SMS messages and tele-marketing.
WhatsApp groups also provide a platform for businesses to directly reach out to potential customers. Nobody in his or her right mind would welcome becoming part of a group for targeted advertisements. But if they are not asked for their permission, it makes the task of advertisers simpler, and our lives more difficult.
The key issue here is that the virality of social media platforms is their core business model. That is why they are not interested in controlling the spread of fake news. They are well aware that fake news, being sensational, has higher virality than normal, run of the mill news. Therefore, lip service apart, they are never going to control fake and malicious news, unless the state and the people force them to so.
So why is the BJP government not asking WhatApp to change this feature, making sure that joining groups should be a matter of choice, and not something that is forced on us? Common sense would dictate that this would be helpful for all of us, and reduce the misuse of such platforms. Why is the IT Ministry continuously issuing statements on its discussions with Facebook, but is conspicuously silent on this score?
The reason is that BJP has as much of a stake in this feature as Facebook has. Its entire electoral machinery is built around these WhatsApp groups. The core of its social media campaign, the hate and divisive propaganda that is tearing this country apart, is being conducted by its IT Cell and its counterparts in every state through these WhatApp groups. To this, they have added Cambridge Analytica kind of tools that carry out targeted messaging, some positives about the Modi government, but mostly negative rumours about minorities and their political opponents.
Yes, social media does not create lynch mobs; people do. And yes, government’s complicity creates conditions for the impunity with which these lynch mobs operate. But this does not mean that the social media platforms have no role to play in controlling the menace of fake news. Not through direct censorship as some quarters are asking, but through simple changes in its features that give us more control over our own social media feeds, and how our data should be used.
Simply put, the reason that Facebook will never control fake news, is the same as the reason behind BJP not asking Facebook to carry out this simple change to its WhatsApp platform. Both have a vested interest in fake news, one for business, the other for political reasons.
It is time the people – in this country and elsewhere – raise the issue of how to control these tech monopolies, which are changing our social behaviour and modifying our political choices. This is our challenge, and battle we need to fight today.