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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

WhatsApp, the Indian Elections, and More

An Event at Santa Clara University

Irina Raicu

A slew of recent articles have highlighted the role that WhatsApp and other social media platforms are playing in a number of upcoming elections—in particular in India. The BBC, for example, addressed the issue in “WhatsApp: The “black hole” of fake news in India’s elections.” Earlier this month, a piece in The Atlantic argued that “Misinformation Is Endangering India’s Elections,” and focused its coverage primarily on WhatsApp (though mentioning Facebook, as well). The New York Times ran an article titled “In India Elections, False Posts and Hate Speech Flummox Facebook.

The challenge of curbing the spread of misinformation, and of content moderation in general, takes on a whole new level of complexity when the content is encrypted (as it is on WhatsApp). But encryption serves the common good, as well—securing people’s ability to communicate privately. Companies, legislators, and users are therefore faced with tough choices in the context of an ethical dilemma.

On the evening of April 15, the ethics center will host a panel discussion titled “WhatsAppPolitics, Ethics, and Elections: India and Beyond.” The event will feature four outstanding speakers: Komal Lahiri, WhatsApp director of Customer Operations and Localization; Rohit Chopra, Associate Professor of Communication at Santa Clara University; H.R. Venkatesh, Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University; and Thomas Hansen, Ambani Professor of South Asian Studies at Stanford University.

The event is free and open to the public: if you would like to attend, please click here (and scroll down) to register.

Encryption, of course, is not the only relevant issue. The panel will also address freedom of expression issues within the context of private messaging; hypocrisy on the part of political parties that are themselves participating in the spread of misinformation; and the question of what kind of stand social media platforms should take. WhatsApp, for example, has already implemented some changes to its service; critics, however, “point out that new rules on the platform won't affect the huge number of group chats that already exist—giving the party of Prime Minister Modi an advantage.”

In anticipation of the Indian elections, we hope that this event will highlight the ways in which the scale, speed, and changing rules of content distribution through social media platforms are impacting democracies around the world.

Photo by Esther Vargas, cropped, used under a Creative Commons license.

Apr 8, 2019

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