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    Views: In India’s Election, the Player with Too Much Power Isn’t a Candidate — It’s an App

    By Divij Joshi

    India is in the middle of hosting the world’s largest-ever democratic election. Nearly 1 billion Indians are eligible to visit the polls and cast ballots to elect more than 500 members of the Lok Sabha. All the while, dozens of political parties will jostle for power. 

    Amid this historic election and a crowded political landscape, there’s one entity with outsized power. And it’s not an Indian political party or voting bloc — in fact, it’s not even Indian. It’s an American technology platform. 

    WhatsApp has entrenched itself deep into Indian society; it’s almost impossible to imagine online life and the Indian media ecosystem without it. About 400 million Indians use WhatsApp regularly — significantly more than in any other country on Earth. 

    WhatsApp has tremendous influence over what Indians read, watch, and share, and yet Meta — the American owner of WhatsApp — routinely shirks the responsibilities that come with such an influence. Political actors regularly exploit WhatsApp to disseminate election disinformation and personalized propaganda, spread conspiracy theories, and harass minorities. 

    However, the real problem with WhatsApp isn’t a specific deepfake or viral message. Rather, it is its three broad and systemic failures. One, WhatsApp’s resistance to admit what it really is: a public social media platform, not a messaging app. Two, WhatsApp’s failure to be sufficiently open to outside scrutiny. And three, WhatsApp’s neglect of features that promote fair elections. 

    There are solutions to these systemic problems in the form of features, policies, and principles. But can the Indian public make them a reality before the biggest election in history? 

    How WhatsApp presents itself, and what it actually is, are at odds — a tension with major consequences for Indian democracy. WhatsApp markets itself as a closed messaging app — Meta’s take on SMS. In reality, Whatsapp functions as a public social media platform and a centerpiece of the Indian information ecosystem. WhatsApp has introduced several public broadcasting features in recent years, like groups for over 1,000 people, stories, channels, and communities. Indeed, in the 2019 Indian elections, political parties enrolled voters in WhatsApp groups which then mixed routine campaign messaging with disinformation, like fake polling. Before the Election Commission clamped down on the use of the WhatsApp Business API for political communications last month, it was being used for mass broadcasts from the Ministry of IT to Indian voters. Right now, WhatsApp’s policies and ways of operating don’t match its reality, they match its projection — something that must change. 

    In addition to misrepresenting itself, WhatsApp also has a dangerous penchant for opacity, and the two traits are related. By positioning itself as a mere messaging app, WhatsApp has largely avoided the scrutiny that other Meta platforms — like Facebook and Instagram — receive from watchdogs. Meanwhile, political parties themselves acknowledge the essential role that WhatsApp plays in their propaganda pipeline. According to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, for example, the 2019 General Elections featured some 900,000 “WhatsApp pramukhs.” They created specialized WhatsApp groups based on caste and religion; generated propaganda; and strategically shared it. But because the platform has failed to make data and processes transparent to researchers and policymakers, it’s nearly impossible to better understand this phenomenon. Watchdogs can’t scrutinize WhatsApp the same way they do Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms. 

    The intersection of elections and technology is complicated, but there are common sense best practices, like strict political advertising rules. Unfortunately, these are best practices WhatsApp neglects. In recent research, the nonprofit Mozilla revealed multiple platforms’ unequal strategies when it comes to election-related policies. The research reviewed over 200 platform policies across 27 countries — and found that the lion’s share of these interventions were exclusively in the U.S. or Europe. The interventions in the U.S. and Europe focus mainly on political advertising, while policies across the Global Majority have been aimed at content moderation strategies — which are known for general ineffectiveness in India and poor working conditions around the world. 

    WhatsApp’s problems in India are significant, but they’re not intractable. There are steps the platform can take — if compelled by the public and lawmakers — to reduce its negative impact on Indian democracy. Earlier this month, Mozilla proposed three specific feature updates the platform should pursue, including adding disinformation labels to content and temporarily reducing the platform’s broadcast capabilities, which are actions that can be taken without undermining the strong privacy and encryption features that WhatsApp provides. These technical fixes can then be coupled with larger actions: The Indian government should consider rules akin to the EU’s Digital Services Act, which requires large platforms to provide data to independent researchers, and also protects those researchers from legal action. All this requires Indian policymakers and agencies like the Election Commission of India to see through WhatsApp’s posturing and treat it as what it really is: no mere messaging app, but a fundamental part of Indian media and communications infrastructure. 

    WhatsApp regularly pays lip service to its Indian users — all 400 million of us. If it intends to keep the trust of its users, the platform also needs to commit to free and fair elections — in India and everywhere around the world. 

    Divij Joshi is a lawyer and researcher studying the intersection of technology, society, and public policy. He is a Doctoral Researcher at University College London and a former Mozilla Fellow. 

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    The post Views: In India’s Election, the Player with Too Much Power Isn’t a Candidate — It’s an App appeared first on MEDIANAMA.

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