Prejudice rather than digital illiteracy behind the spread of fake news on WhatsApp in India

Our analysis found patterns in the data suggesting that WhatsApp messages in India are strongly gendered, and work in tandem with prejudices.
- Associate Professor Dr Shakuntala Banaji
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Widespread prejudice against certain groups in India – such as Muslims and Dalits – drives the spread of rumours on WhatsApp which can trigger mob violence, a new study from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) has revealed.

The report, WhatsApp Vigilantes: An exploration of citizen reception and circulation of WhatsApp misinformation linked to mob violence in India, was published this month.

The report suggests it is the pervading sense of hatred and distrust towards discriminated groups – which is often openly exhibited in the public sphere and media – that fuels and legitimises the spread of disinformation about these groups on WhatsApp, triggering violence.

Indeed, in India the number of attacks on innocent civilians by vigilante mobs, who act on the basis of lies and rumours spread on messaging platforms, has grown exponentially in the past five years. Since 2014, there have been over a hundred cases of lynching against members of discriminated communities, with many based on false allegations of cow slaughter, cow trafficking or cattle theft.

The researchers note that for most WhatsApp users in India, civic trust follows ideological, family and communal ties, meaning many WhatsApp users are predisposed to believe and share disinformation about certain groups.

This is supported by the finding that the identity of a person who forwards a message to an individual or group is one of the most important factors in a user’s decision to forward on a piece of information/disinformation.  With high levels of trust in the message-forwarder, many users admit to forwarding messages without fully reading them or checking the authenticity of their content.

When building a typology of WhatsApp users, the researchers found it is technologically literate rural and urban upper and middle caste Hindu males who are more likely to share particular types of disinformation and hate speech. The fact that these users are digitally literate suggests that it is prejudice, rather than digital illiteracy, that is behind the spread of disinformation.

Commenting on the findings, study co-author Associate Professor Dr Shakuntala Banaji from the Department of Media and Communications at LSE said: “Our analysis found patterns in the data suggesting that WhatsApp messages in India are strongly gendered, and work in tandem with prejudices and stereotypes which circulate more widely in the public domain, in family and community conversations and in the mainstream broadcast news media.

“Because mainstream media has broadcast instances of hate-speech and prejudice in the speeches of ruling politicians without much questioning, WhatsApp, Facebook, TikTok or ShareChat messages which disparage women politicians or cast aspersion on particular communities and call for action against them, are less likely to be perceived as misinformation.”

While the researchers recognise much work needs to be done to tackle the underlying political and social causes of hate speech, discrimination and vigilantism, they argue it is imperative WhatsApp take more responsibility and have made a number of recommendations for the company:

  • It should not be possible to add users to groups without their permission as a default.
  • It should be much easier to report and take down disinformation and misinformation relating to issues which frequently spark lynching such as alleged cattle theft, or alleged child kidnapping.
  • A ‘beacon’ feature should be introduced where users in particular regions can be warned pre-emptively from within the app about disinformation that risks leading to violence.

Report authors Dr Shakuntala Banaji and Ram Bhat argue: “We strongly recommend that WhatsApp employs a politically literate, well-informed, human-rights aware, trained team to work with a range of non-government human rights, women’s rights, journalism and technology rights organisations on the ground in India to understand and challenge the connections between existing communal prejudice, misinformation, disinformation and WhatsApp enabled lynch mobs.”

This research was conducted after the research team were awarded one of 20 WhatsApp Misinformation and Social Science Awards to conduct research into the role played by WhatsApp usage in mob violence in India. 

For a copy of the report please click here.