For the past three months, Pankaj Shukla, the state coordinator for the IT and social media department of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), comes into the Ahmedabad office before 8 a.m. From there, he leads a team of around 100 local volunteers on the party’s regional WhatsApp strategy.

Shukla decides the topic of the content that will be circulated across more than 50,000 WhatsApp groups in the state throughout the day. On some days, those topics are related to the BJP’s campaigns or election manifesto; on other days, they are focused on combating the narratives being publicized by the opposition.

In the lead-up to Gujarat’s legislative assembly elections that started on December 1, Shukla and his team had been working overtime. Elections in the state are always critical, given that it is the home turf of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi.

WhatsApp has been central to Indian politics for several years. The 2019 general election in the country was called the “first WhatsApp election” in India. Now, interviews with the Gujarat social media heads of the three main political rivals — the BJP, the Indian National Congress, and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) — reveal that the instant messaging app owned by Meta is central to their strategies to communicate with voters and influence their choices. Each of these parties runs thousands of WhatsApp groups where they push their content. Experts fear a cycle of misinformation and breach of voters’ privacy in this practice.

“From state to central-level elections, propaganda messages and ideologies are frequently circulated with different [WhatsApp] groups due to these applications offering a quick and personal engagement with the Indian voter,” Ishaana Aiyanna, the India head of investigations at Logically, a British startup specializing in analyzing and fighting disinformation, told Rest of World. “Fake news is also perpetrated more easily [through WhatsApp] because of the targeted messaging in closed groups that act as echo chambers where there are no opposing views or debates that often serve to organically quell fake and false information.”

Prateek Waghre, policy director at the Internet Freedom Foundation, told Rest of World that since 2020, he has seen studies about political parties devoting many man-hours to creating and managing WhatsApp groups ahead of elections, and maintaining a constant supply of content, especially images and videos. “This can and does include false information, inaccurate framing, editorializing events, fear speech and even hate speech, and tends to disproportionately target minorities,” said Waghre. None of the parties interviewed for this piece responded to a request for comment on this subject.

With over 550 million users, India is WhatsApp’s largest market. It’s the country’s most popular smartphone app and is considered “a way of life” by some. Businesses rely on the app for sales — leading to rampant spamming.

“WhatsApp deeply cares about the online security of our users as well as about preserving election integrity,” a company spokesperson told Rest of World via email. “WhatsApp has advanced spam detection technology that works round the clock to spot and take action on accounts engaging in automated and bulk messaging, which includes banning such accounts for violating WhatsApp’s Terms of Service.” The company works with 10 fact-checking organizations “to help provide users the service of double-checking and verifying information through a WhatsApp bot to prevent the spread of misinformation,” the spokesperson said.

The BJP uses Whatsapp “extensively” because “every layperson uses it and it targets all age groups,” Shukla of BJP told Rest of World during a meeting at his office on November 15. “BJP has always foreseen the use of social media for elections. Even before the age of social media, the party used to send mass emails and SMS to woo the voters.”

Whatsapp

Currently, in Gujarat, over 10,000 BJP IT Cell volunteers and 50,000 “registered digital warriors” are involved in the creation and circulation of more than 50 new posts each day, targeting over 5 million voters through all social media platforms, including WhatsApp. The Congress has also gathered over 10,000 volunteers who push content through social media networks, Keyur Shah, chairman of the party’s social media department in Gujarat, told Rest of World. And AAP has more than 20,000 volunteers, said Ankita Gor, AAP’s vice president for the Kutch constituency of the lower house of Parliament, Lok Sabha, to Rest of World. Gor supervises social media campaigns for the party. 

Beyond groups, these campaigns also use WhatsApp’s broadcast feature to reach a wider audience. “We just add contacts to that list and send our content there. It’s called ‘Broadcast list,’” a BJP zonal leader told Rest of World, requesting anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. “It gets delivered separately, the concerned person is not even added to a group and our load too gets lessened.”

The process of disseminating messages is systematized: The head of the party’s social media team finalizes the daily topic; the content team then produces texts, visuals, and videos about it. This content is first circulated to zone-level leaders, who forward it to assigned volunteers, who eventually share it with voters via WhatsApp. The BJP also sends out GIFs to inform people about their policies.

The entire process has to be carried out in a timely manner to evenly scatter messaging throughout the day. In one day, Shukla’s team distributes content at least five times: around 9 a.m. with a “good morning” tag, and then at noon, 3 p.m., 6 p.m., and 9 p.m. They spend the remaining time surfing the internet for new messaging ideas. While Congress follows a similar schedule, the AAP doesn’t have a fixed routine, Gor said.

“We like to have some breathing time between the slots,” Shukla said. “People need to read, grasp, and share the content around before another slot of content is sent to them.”

“We control people’s feed,” Shah of Congress told Rest of World. “Unlike other parties, we don’t start working right ahead of elections. We are in [the] opposition, so one thing that we keep doing is control people’s feed by pushing content of Congress and failure of the ruling regime, months before the election.” Shah said that this time, they started election work eight months prior to the state going to polls.

“We control people’s feed.”

The use of Whatsapp as a vector for viral disinformation is well documented. In 2019, the platform imposed a limit on the number of times a message could be forwarded, following viral hoax messages that had resulted in over a dozen lynchings. In April 2020, Covid-19 misinformation became so severe that WhatsApp further clamped down on the forwarding feature. Currently, the limit is set at five for each user, including one group. More than five forwards for one message results in a label that says “forwarded many times.”

“Our limits have reduced the spread of ‘highly forwarded messages’ on WhatsApp by over 70%, therefore, actively constraining virality on the platform,” the WhatsApp spokesperson said. “WhatsApp has also introduced new group forwarding limits where messages that have the ‘forwarded label’ can now only be forwarded to one group at a time. We encourage users to block and report accounts they find suspicious or if they receive problematic messages from them.”

Congress is targeting individual communities in its messages, Shah said. That means creating groups and messages for people belonging to the Thakur community, and another one for Muslims.

Social media teams for Congress and AAP also described using WhatsApp to indirectly influence voters. Volunteers often create random WhatsApp groups without mentioning their party’s name and try to steer the conversation in their favor. “We made a group named ‘Political Discussion,’ which includes voters of all political parties and we wait for one person to drop something like a post or video, and then, our local volunteer [anonymously] counters that, which starts a discussion,” Gor of AAP said.

Waghre from the Internet Freedom Foundation said this was a “reasonably well-documented strategy” that page administrators around the world use. “Facebook eventually started displaying an audit log of name changes as well as the location of page admins in a bid to counter such tactics,” he told Rest of World.

Nitin Patel, a resident of Deesa in Gujarat, started receiving WhatsApp messages from AAP and Congress a few weeks ago when he was added, without his consent, to two WhatsApp groups.

“One group in which I was added had the name of AAP as its group name, but the other group was named just ‘political’ and people started posting random messages of their favored political parties,” Patel told Rest of World. “When I saw counter-narratives being put, I understood that it’s [run by supporters] of a political party because of the nature of [the] replies.”

Aiyanna believes that people getting added without their consent to these groups is a privacy breach. “Firstly, these groups are not joined voluntarily by [many] of the consumers,” she said. “Secondly, there is no telling how those with access to these numbers can then use them in the future, e.g., spam calls, profiling, etc.”