Welcome to another WhatsApp election

Rajkamal Rao Raj Kamal Rao | Updated on February 12, 2019

The messaging service’s architecture lends itself perfectly to anyone who wants to skirt election laws. That’s already happening

Welcome to the Indian elections of 2019, where the the outcome will largely be decided on WhatsApp. TV, the print media, Facebook, Twitter and radio all pale in comparison to the power that the messaging app wields. Outside the purview of the Election Commission, the world’s biggest democracy will rely on a brilliant smartphone app to elect its next leader.

WhatsApp messages arguing for or against the PM bombard phones multiple times each day. Some clips are clearly professionally made indicating that political parties are behind their creation. Others are cleverly sliced to convey messages in language that the commoner can understand.

Some clips are blatantly false. One showed the Defence Minister posing with a young woman in pilot gear who was purportedly her daughter. There were subsequent messages which clarified that this association is fake but the impression that the Minister’s daughter too is so patriotic as to serve India had already been circulated to millions of phones. Corrections rarely register in the human brain, so the desired first impression had already been firmly planted.

Modern elections are about anonymity but this privilege is only extended to the voter at the time of casting a ballot. Until that point and every moment afterwards, each election is supposed to be a transparent exercise where all actions are subject to review and oversight: during campaigning, funds raised and spent; sources behind the funds; their relationships to political parties and the candidates; campaign messaging and advertisements — are all intended to be an open book for the public to scrutinise.

Because WhatsApp is the main medium of election propaganda this time, all the above rules of election governance have been completely thrown out of the window. WhatsApp was never created to be a tool to help influence elections but its architecture lends itself perfectly to anyone who wants to skirt election laws.

When WhatsApp was built, its founders wanted to exert no control over its users whatsoever. Part of the reasoning for this decentralised approach was that WhatsApp did not want to be held legally liable for the actions of its users.

The app is simply linked to a person’s mobile number. If a person has multiple mobile numbers, the person can have multiple WhatsApp accounts. Account set-up is not verified other than to verify if the number can receive a text message during first time set-up. WhatsApp does not require a user name or password to use its app.

Nebulous as ever

Afterwards, WhatsApp doesn’t ascertain the number’s validity. If the number is retired forever by the mobile phone company for some reason, the user can still continue to use WhatsApp (using WiFi or another SIM card). A user can move to a different country (even hostile to India) and can continue to use WhatsApp without the app ever knowing about it. In fact, WhatsApp doesn’t even have to run on a mobile phone. It can run just as well on a tablet or a PC long after the user no longer has access to the original mobile phone number.

Nor does WhatsApp know anything about the thousands of GBs of data which are digitally sent through its servers at warp speed every day. The company doesn’t operate a cloud service to store the billions of messages which are pushed through its platform. Messages and associated media reside on users’ phones — and if users so desire, they can choose to backup their content to an external cloud service not operated by WhatsApp, such as their Google Drive or iCloud accounts to which WhatsApp has no access.

WhatsApp’s design is, therefore, a nightmare to the watchful eyes of independent election monitors. There’s zero accountability because the origin of messages is often unknown or if a message’s content is accurate. Worse, messages wrongly attributed to someone can be pushed through by bad actors. In short, anything — yes, anything — goes on WhatsApp.

Twitter helped enable Brexit to come about and propel US President Donald Trump to victory. Now another Silicon valley firm has the power to influence another major election. Technology, it seems, has unintended consequences.

The writer is Managing Director,

Rao Advisors LLC, US

Published on February 10, 2019

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