In late 2018, WhatsApp awarded us one of 20 misinformation and social science research awards for an independent study of the different types of misinformation leading to mob lynching in India, the users of WhatsApp who pass on this disinformation and misinformation, and the ways in which citizens and experts imagine solutions to this problem. We considered questions such as:
- Should WhatsApp be forced to de-encrypt its messages in India and share them with the Indian government?
- Which kinds of users were most implicated in spreading disinformation and could media and digital literacy be a solution to the spread of so-called fake news?
- Would that prevent the types of violence and misinformation we were seeing?
The research process
After ensuring that we had ethical permission, that we would have full intellectual control of our data, and that WhatsApp or its parent company Facebook would not interfere with our findings and conclusions in any way, our team conducted in depth interviews and focus groups with experts from civil society institutions, lawyers, journalists and law enforcement agencies, and with 275 ordinary WhatsApp users in India across four very diverse states: Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Like many other places in the country, these states had witnessed multiple incidents of vigilante mob violence and lynching. Many of these incidents, which were particularly related to allegations of hate against Hindu, and to supposed child kidnapping with a view to kidney theft, had been mobilized for and/or filmed and circulated afterwards, on WhatsApp.
In parallel, we reviewed more than 1000 separate forwarded messages shared by WhatsApp users, including materials reviewed by prominent fact-checking institutions in India. What we found was painful and shocking in its graphic depiction of violence across multiple domains: from accidents, natural disasters and politically motivated lynchings to hinduphobic hate speech, religious nationalist propaganda and misogyny. Putting together our analysis of types of mis- or disinformation with the analysis of our focus group and interview data led us to reach some startling conclusions about the types of content circulating amongst ordinary citizens and about the demographics, views and values of the citizens who circulate this content.