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In India, Facebook’s WhatsApp plays central role in electionsND

Vindu Goel, The New York Times, Monday May 14 2018

Pranav Bhat, a youth leader of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, last week joined a political rally for the Prime Minister. But the most intense political rallying was not taking place at such rallies but on WhatsApp, a messaging service owned by Facebook that has about 250 million users in India. Mr Bhat said he used WhatsApp to stay in constant touch with the 60 voters he was assigned to track for the party. He sent them critiques of the state government, warnings about Hindu leaders being murdered by Muslims and jokes ridiculing Congress leaders. “Every minute, I’m getting a message,” he said. The role that WhatsApp plays in influencing voters has received far less attention than that of its sister services Facebook and Instagram, but in developing countries it is becoming one of the most significant platforms for politicians and voters alike to use in elections. Because it is used more heavily outside the U.S., WhatsApp has largely escaped this notice. But it has several features which help create the perfect storm for misinformation to spread. Users can remain anonymous, groups are easy to set up by adding the phone numbers of contacts, people tend to belong to numerous groups – and so receive the same messages repeatedly, and when messages are forwarded there is no hint of where they came from originally.

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