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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

WhatsApp Politics, Ethics, and Elections: India and Beyond

WhatsApp Politics Event

WhatsApp Politics Event

David E. DeCosse

What is the ethical significance of one “forward” of a message on WhatsApp in the context of 900 million people voting in the current election in India?

This isn’t a trick question. In fact, you could say that it was one of the key questions to come out of an April 15 public event hosted by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and called “WhatsApp Politics, Ethics, and Elections: India and Beyond.” The talk was also highlighted in a recent post from Irina Raicu, director of the Internet Ethics Program also at the Ethics Center.

The event featured Komal Lahiri, WhatsApp director of Customer Operations and Localization and Grievance Officer for India; Thomas Hansen, Ambani Professor of South Asian Studies at Stanford University; H.R. Venkatesh, John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford; and Santa Clara University Associate Professor of Communication, Rohit Chopra, an Ethics Center Scholar and author of the recent The Virtual Hindu Rashtra: Saffron Nationalism and New Media.

The underlying theme of the event was the ethics of contemporary political communication in light of technologies like WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter. What are citizens owed in order to make informed choices in democratic decision-making? What rights and duties do citizens, the press, civil society, and government have to share truthful information within the political community?

In the United States, we know how Facebook and Twitter were used in the 2016 election to manipulate information. These apps are deployed to similar distorting ends in India. But the main tool in India of political communication – and even of communication more generally – is WhatsApp, the message-sharing service based in Palo Alto and owned by Facebook. The free app is easy to use on cellphones owned by rich and poor alike in India. Moreover, the app allows for easy sharing to large groups and is encrypted (no government or political opponent can see what you are saying). In addition to India, WhatsApp is also the primary means of political communication in Brazil, Turkey, and elsewhere.

In India, both top political parties – the Bharatiya Janata Party (or BJP) and Congress – have undertaken massive efforts to use WhatsApp to deliver true and false information in the hope of winning the election, said H. R. Venkatesh, a longtime Indian journalist now on a John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford. He added that fact-checking groups have almost no chance in the face of the sprawling overflow of false information purveyed by the political parties. Hansen, who has written widely on the history of the BJP’s Hindu nationalism, noted that even before the advent of such tech-induced misinformation, the Indian population anyhow widely viewed the cacophony of messages coming their way with skepticism.

To combat the spread of false information, Lahiri said that WhatsApp made a technical change to prohibit a user from sharing a message more than five times (though reports indicate widespread use of devices to get around the WhatsApp restriction).

Ethics never exists in a vacuum. In a recent piece in The Washington Post, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, argued that we won’t get our tech ethics right until we address the powerful political forces today that rely on tricks with new technologies to seize power.

But ethics also cannot surrender its claims in the face of such power-seeking contexts. So ethics can turn to criticism about the use of new technologies, including, as Chopra noted at the event, the ethical components of forwarding in the context of the Indian election. Is the forwarded message true? How does one know? Who is responsible for its veracity and for the consequences of forwarding?  (Read more from Rohit Chopra on the ethics of forwarding within social media.)

WhatsApp and other social media have helped create a dazzling new world of communication. But in the Indian election and beyond, ethics faces the challenge of preventing such dazzle from becoming dystopian.

Apr 29, 2019

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