LSE to research WhatsApp's role in mob violence in India

Whatsapp 747 560
WhatsApp CC0- Pixabay

Researchers at the Department of Media and Communication have been awarded a grant to conduct research into the role played by WhatsApp usage in mob violence in India.

The research proposal, which has received £34,480 funding from WhatsApp, will contribute to WhatsApp’s capability to prevent the spread of fake news, and help inform India's political and civic debate.

In India, levels of violence against innocent civilians by vigilante mobs has grown significantly since 2014. This violence has often been sparked by a direct lie, a rumour, a chain of propaganda or misinformation, spread via online or mobile phone social media applications. The use of WhatsApp and other messaging applications to spread hate speech and misogynist, communal or racist propaganda is a pressing issue. 

The study aims to provide ways of reducing violence and hate speech, while retaining the most positive aspects of messaging apps.

Examples of the research questions the study will address include: what are the typical features of WhatsApp messages in India that lead to violence and the formation of lynch mobs? What ideas and events do individuals and groups cite when discussing their own role in the spread of disinformation, misinformation and propaganda, through WhatsApp and other online sources in India?

The research leader, Dr. Shakunatala Banaji, Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Media and Communication, says: "The project aims to understand the role of mainstream media in political priming and setting up stereotypes that can endanger citizens, and which then get accepted and passed on via WhatsApp, through a form of ‘motivated processing.”

Dr. Banaji and her collaborators in India will interview stakeholders who work for WhatsApp. They will also interview stakeholders who work in other tech and mobile phone companies in India, and in regulation of the telecommunications sector, as well as in law and policing connected to the recent ‘WhatsApp lynchings’.

Focus groups will be conducted with WhatsApp users in four geographically different states across India to establish patterns and overlaps in terms of when messages are passed on, when they are deleted and when they raise concern or alarm.

A large number of visual and written WhatsApp messages will be categorised and linked to different domains of personal and public information, as well as propaganda, disinformation, misinformation, stereotyping, hate speech, and ‘fake news’. The research is expected to be published by June 2019.

Dr. Banaji added: "Ultimately, the project offers a typology that will be helpful to regulators, technology companies, civic campaigners, those interested in media literacy and political education – especially directed at those who wish to eliminate political and ethnic violence and build vibrant, accountable, democratic and communicative processes and structures."