Last July, my 80-year-old grandfather woke up in the middle of the night, unable to recognize any of the people in his small apartment in central Bengaluru — not my aunt, not my uncle, not even my grandmother, his wife of sixty years.
My mother and I were helpless in Queens. Covid-19 cases were on their first ascent in India; we couldn’t risk traveling from New York to be by his side. For solace, we turned to our family WhatsApp group, a jumble of aunts, uncles, and cousins spread across India, the Middle East, and the U.S. — most of whom I have only met once or twice as a child.
Each night, we would go to bed hopeful, but in the morning, the news would be the same. My grandfather still had no recollection of who he was surrounded by, where he was, or why he was there. Finally, on his sixth day in a stupor, my aunt decided to drive him to the hospital. The doctors were as confused as we were. He hadn’t had a stroke or a head injury. It was as if a thief had robbed him of his memory and left without a trace.
Eventually, a doctor suggested a Covid-19 test. When the results came out positive, the doctors concluded that my grandfather was suffering from an extreme version of “brain fog.” My uncle shared the news with my mother, who called me. Yes, it was Covid-19, but we were lucky that he had none of the other symptoms. He could still breathe.
My family WhatsApp group panicked. In the summer of 2020, most members lived in countries where Covid-19 was still something that happened to other people: migrant laborers, health professionals, and domestic workers who couldn’t afford to take time off. These were all sad stories, but they were many degrees away.
My uncle, who works as a dentist in Brunei, proposed a solution on the family chat. An Indian student had purportedly found a remedy to Covid-19 by mixing black pepper powder, honey, and ginger juice. If ingested for five days straight, the tonic would rid any person of the virus.
“PLEASE CIRCULATE,” the message demanded. WhatsApp tagged it as a viral message that had been “forwarded many times.” My uncle received many emojis of brown clapping hands in return.
I bit my tongue and didn’t respond. The virus was mysterious, and my family looked to WhatsApp for comfort. Western medicine seemed as if it had failed them.
My grandfather, the traditional head of the household, had seemed invincible. He was born in Mangalore shortly after India’s independence, and had moved from country to country, spending decades learning Arabic and working as a secretary in a hospital in Abu Dhabi. By sixty, he had perfected a New York accent and taken a job as a clerk for a small NGO in Queens. We knew death would come for him some day, but we didn’t think it would be like this –– not from the virus that hopped from person to person like a hitman.
But the forwards grew worse, morphing in tone. My family, mostly Hindu and upper-caste, gravitated towards content that confirmed their beliefs. The virus was spread by meat-eaters, one message said. Upper-caste vegetarian diets would never have led to this.
The messages mutated from pseudo-scientific to xenophobic and bigoted. An aunt who lives on the outskirts of Bengaluru forwarded a WhatsApp message listing a series of distances from Wuhan to Beijing, Milan, New York, and Iran, as if to claim that the virus had been an inside job. “All business areas of China are safe,” the message read. “Something is fishy.”
They were grasping at anything to explain my grandfather’s sudden case. The truth was far more mundane. My uncle left the house weekly to visit a dialysis center. My aunt, who works as a lawyer, had continued to meet with her clients. My grandfather interacted with both of them, unable to isolate in the cramped, city-center apartment. But it was far easier to drown in incendiary messages than to admit these things.
WhatsApp, with just over a reported half a billion users in the country, is India’s most popular messaging platform. During the pandemic, the app has become a stand-in for the country’s broken infrastructure. These days, as Covid-19 cases spread like wildfire, groups message day and night to organize extra oxygen tanks, connect people with ventilators, and source hospital beds. Others raise funds for the many Indians who can’t afford to make ends meet in quarantine. Businesses that shut their physical stores have turned to the platform to sell their goods and stay afloat.
But its ubiquity and myriad uses are also why misinformation on Whatsapp can be so potent. The messages I’ve been forwarded rarely link to reported articles. Few in India trust the news — misinformation easily masquerades as the truth. Though often touted as the world’s largest democracy, India recently ranked 142 out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index. That’s the worst India has ranked since the organization began indexing the country in 2013. The report cited factors like police violence against reporters, attacks by those in disagreement with reported work, and corruption. Just in 2020, six journalists in India were killed.
Misinformation is not a new problem for WhatsApp, which launched in India in 2010. Some trace the roots of misinformatio’s spread to the 2014 prime minister campaign, when Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) went up against the dynastic Congress party. The BJP, which is the political arm of fringe Hindu extremist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), used WhatsApp as a means to push messages that furthered their agenda.
“We should be capable of delivering any message we want to the public, whether sweet or sour, true or fake,” BJP president Amit Shah said to a crowd in 2018, endorsing fake news as a means to spread an ideology and to influence and convert believers.
While misinformation can seem like a harmless game online, it has devastating repercussions in India. And the problem is not new. One of the first recorded cases of WhatsApp-linked violence in India was in 2017, when a mob killed seven people after widespread rumors of strangers abducting children.
Since then, the problem has only grown, expanding with the pandemic. In April 2020, a series of messages went viral about a Muslim missionary group that had gathered in Delhi despite the lockdown. In response, a young Muslim man was beaten, and assaulted with threats that he would be doused with fuel and set on fire.
Although the doctors had diagnosed my grandfather with Covid-19, they didn’t have a cure for his memory loss. Days into his hospitalization, he remained confused, and pandemic numbers continued to increase. An uncle who lives in a small, coastal town in Karnataka sent a lengthy message to my family group quoting an article by “Joseph Hope, editor-in-chief of The New York Times.” Hope praised Modi’s strategic management of India, painting him as a mastermind who would steer the country into the 21st century.
Neither the article — nor its supposed author — exist, but WhatsApp only flagged that the message has been “forwarded many times.”
Facebook, WhatsApp’s parent company, has poured money into India. In 2020, it invested $5.7 billion for a 9.9% stake into Reliance Jio, the Indian internet company that spearheaded the plummeting data prices that helped much of the country get online. Compared with the size of this investment, its attempts at fixing misinformation seem paltry. Most attempts have been small-scale product changes: It’s impossible to share messages with multiple groups if they have been forwarded more than five times, and hovering over messages reveals a small magnifying glass to cross-reference them on search engines.
To be sure, misinformation is not entirely WhatsApp’s burden to bear. WhatsApp is just a platform, and these behaviors unfold in other places, like ShareChat and YouTube. And there are many villains in this game. A new, draconian rule in India could force WhatsApp to break its encryption and make messages traceable. If WhatsApp is forced to comply, the company might be required to hire Indian officials to make decisions on what messages should be removed.
Facebook has also granted research awards to study the nature of misinformation, and created WhatsApp accounts like one for the World Health Organization, where messaging brings up a list of auto-generated options for news, vaccine updates, and health topics.
And yet, false messages continue to thrive on the platform.
After his 11th day of confusion, my grandfather woke up and asked where he was. Then, he asked for my grandmother. After that, he wanted his phone. The doctors filed papers to send him home; they had no time to observe him. Case numbers were growing and the hospital was running out of beds. Memory loss was mild compared to what they were seeing.
Our family rejoiced. For a few days, things returned to normal. The WhatsApp group was celebratory, peppered with news of upcoming vaccines and local heroes helping their communities. My grandfather called my mother over WhatsApp and asked her to distribute sweets to everyone he knew in Queens. He would foot the bill. My mother and I laughed at the suggestion. It was a strangely flamboyant gesture for a man I otherwise knew to be stoic.
But my grandfather grew stranger by the day. Sometimes, his clarity would be punctuated with lapses in memory. Then, on a phone call, with conviction, he shared with me the plot against India. Modi had built a strong country, he explained, and Covid-19 death numbers had been fudged to make the country seem poor and weak.
I was surprised to hear him repeat this textbook talking point of Internet conspiracy theorists. Unlike many others around him, my grandfather had been browsing the internet for decades. His issue wasn’t news literacy. In the 2000s, over an AOL connection in Queens, my grandfather was reading a range of international publications and forming his own opinions. He was one of the first people I had known to purchase a cellphone. He kept up with the technology’s evolution, downloading apps when they became available, and teaching himself how to change language settings on his phone so he could read things in Kannada.
But this new person was unrecognizable. Like many other Indians, his main portal into the internet had become Facebook and WhatsApp. His viewpoints morphed into a hodgepodge of viral WhatsApp messages.
As I watched him change, I couldn’t help but accept the obvious conclusion: Facebook does not care to fix its misinformation problem. Instead, it only wants to keep people glued to the platform.
My grandfather’s cognitive abilities have now deteriorated, and the brief spell of clarity he returned to over the summer has passed. He often experiences “sundowning,” where he spirals into a deep confusion each evening. He’s off WhatsApp now, less focused on the material and the political, his brain set on some far-out horizon.
There is little space to mourn where he has gone. Cases of Covid-19 have again ascended, this time steeper and quicker than before. The intensity of each new story eclipses the last.
Just in the past month, my grandmother’s cousin’s body was found dead and cold in her home in Kundapura; a friend’s uncle was transported to the pyres by his daughter-in-law in the back of a rickshaw. Another friend lost her father, her husband, and her son in three days, leaving her with no one to earn money for the home.
After my uncle lost his childhood neighbor to the virus, he sent a message to the family group. The message had a tag that it had been forwarded multiple times, and claimed to have been written by a woman who had traveled several times over the past year, and hadn’t gotten the virus.
“One reason why I could prevent Corona is , I apply coconut oil in the nose 4 times a day,” the message read. I can’t imagine how many times that must have been forwarded.
My family turns to WhatsApp for answers, and WhatsApp continues to fail them.