It is all-pervasive. It is growing at a rate of knots. It’s an indomitable force. Wonder what I am talking about? It’s WhatsApp.

The online messaging app has become so popular that it doesn’t need any kind of publicity. No advertising, no PR events, and no conferences. WhatsApp is installed on every smartphone these days. Gone are the days when people used to purchase message cards. I remember buying a new Airtel message card every second day as a 16-year-old back in 2010. Calling somebody was quite exhausting. Dropping a message was way too easy. Back then, nobody had predicted that the world of messaging would soon undergo a major transformation.

A farmer in southeast Punjab talks on his cellphone. (Photo: CIAT/Flickr)

Nine years down the line, WhatsApp is the undisputed king of the online messaging market. As far as the numbers are concerned, India is WhatsApp’s biggest market. In 2018, India was home to more than 200 million WhatsApp users (no prizes for guessing). Everybody is using WhatsApp – from a rickshaw puller to the CEO of a multi-billion MNC. Messages become viral within minutes.

Fresh and new memes are churned out every minute. Even our dear Prime Minister hasn’t remained untouched by a never-ending avalanche of memes.

There’s another thing that’s getting viral these days, but it’s not as cool as memes. Fake news seems to have found a perfect pairing alongside WhatsApp. No matter how fake or idiotic the story might sound, there would be people who will read it, believe it, and then share it. Every single time people get a link to a story on WhatsApp, they share it within seconds. Of late, WhatsApp has become a major avalanche in triggering an avalanche of fake news, giving rise to the term Ravish Kumar coined ‘WhatsApp Universities.’

 

According to a report published by the BBC, around 40% of the total messages sent and received on WhatsApp dealt with scams pertaining to conspiracies and technology. There were stories related to nationalism, such as culture and ‘common man’ stories. The researchers from the BBC interviewed as many as 80 people across three different countries, i.e. Nigeria, Kenya, and India.

Friends discuss their lives over their phones. (Photo: Garry Knight/Flickr)

The interviews were conducted over a period of seven days. Researchers analyzed the respondents’ ways of media consumption and the use of Facebook and WhatsApp for information sharing. They realized that respondents across all three countries did not make much effort to explore the original source of the information that was being shared.

Research conducted by the BBC has thrown light on the fact that more than 70% of the Indian population has not been able to differentiate between fake news and real news. To top it all, these results showcase the need to improve digital literacy among Indians.

Of late, several incidents of lynchings came to light owing to the dissemination of fake news over social media and messaging platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp. The number of times a message can be forwarded on WhatsApp has now been limited to five (in one go). Well, never in my life have I seen the common man enjoying so much power. And that got me thinking.

Why Do People Forward Messages?

It goes without saying that people love to forward messages. Indians, in particular, love pressing the forward button the moment they receive a piece of information on WhatsApp. There are quite a few reasons behind this reckless forwarding spree.

Forwarding Is Easier Than Composing

In an age governed by the internet, nobody likes to compose an original piece of content. Everybody’s busy in copying and pasting the work done by others feat human nature and procrastination. Nobody wants to go through the long and tedious process of creating new content because one has to spend a good amount of time as well as energy to do that.

Nobody is ready to put in the hard yards. In such a ‘helpless’ situation, there’s nothing easier than getting to forward a “pakaa-pakaaya” (already in form) message.

Literally, Free Of Cost

Now, there’s nothing like it. Forwarding a message doesn’t cost you anything, maybe that’s why it’s so popular. If online messaging companies start charging people for forwarding messages, the number would certainly come down significantly. Messages are being forwarded recklessly because no one charges people for doing so, and no one cares.

Moreover, there’s nobody governing the outflow of messages. The credibility of the news sources is also not being checked. In such a situation, a person can forward whatever they want to, as anyway the person forwarding has nothing to lose.

We Love To Argue

Ah, all of us just love arguing, don’t we? Arguing happens to be a preferred pastime for many. Forget constructive arguments and discussions, there are some who keep on arguing just for the sake of killing time. Today, we just forward a message and wait for the person to reply with an emoji. As soon as the reply is received, begins a never-ending saga of arguments, most of which are redundant.

Drawing The Curtains

We are in dire need of constructive arguments, and not fake news. Having a communication channel as powerful as WhatsApp is undoubtedly a blessing, but it is not being used to the best of it’s potential. In fact, it is being misused to spread and share fake news.

Understand the responsibility that comes with disseminating information. All you have to do is check the credibility of the story you are planning to share before pressing the forward button.

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