New Delhi: The recent incidents of mob violence and lynchings reported across the country have thrown the spotlight on WhatsApp, the messaging platform used to spread rumours against the victims.

But how widespread is the use of WhatsApp in the country today? Or, how far can the messages circulating on WhatsApp be trusted?

Survey data collected over successive rounds of the Lokniti-CSDS Mood of the Nation (MOTN) survey shows that the reach of WhatsApp has increased rapidly over the past couple of years. While a majority seems to distrust the information received over WhatsApp, a sizeable section of users seem to have faith in what they encounter on the messaging app.

Lokniti is a research programme at the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).

The MOTN survey conducted by Lokniti in mid-2017 had found that 14% of respondents used WhatsApp on a daily basis. That proportion has jumped to 24% in just one year, the most recent MOTN survey data show.

The rise in use of WhatsApp was driven by deeper penetration of mobile internet and the falling costs of data. The proportion of respondents with access to mobile internet has jumped 10 percentage points to 31% over the past year, the Lokniti data show.

The rise in internet access and WhatsApp penetration has been higher in urban India than in rural India, but rural India is catching up fast.

One-fifth, or 20%, of rural respondents said they used the app daily as compared with 38% of urban respondents. But the growth in the share of active WhatsApp users has been sharper in rural India, doubling in a year’s time.

While the app is used more by the upper income class, with nearly half of them using it on a daily basis, it is gradually transcending class boundaries. Even among the lower middle class, almost one-fourth, or 24%, of respondents were active users of the application; this figure was merely 6% in the 2017 survey.

WhatsApp usage in India is being driven largely by the youth, the data show. Almost half of the respondents aged between 18 to 25 years said that they used WhatsApp daily. The figure was much lower among older citizens. For instance, less than one-tenth, or 7%, of respondents aged 56 or above said they were active users.

The rise in usage of WhatsApp has made it a key tool for communicating directly with voters.

In the past, parties and candidates used to do this through SMSes and recorded messages over the phone. For instance, in the National Election Study 2014, 20% of respondents said parties or candidates had contacted them through a phone call or an SMS during the campaign.

The use of WhatsApp to target voters will mean that the share of voters contacted on their phones is set to rise in the coming months and years.

In the 2017 MOTN survey, around one-sixth of WhatsApp users said they were members of a group started by a political leader or party. Even this figure might have increased over the past year. This question was, however, not repeated in the 2018 survey.

But the 2018 survey asked questions about trust in news received through various media, including over WhatsApp.

The data suggests that WhatsApp has much lower credibility compared with television news, which has lower credibility compared with the print media.

Yet, the data also show that WhatsApp is trusted by a sizeable section of respondents. Those spreading propaganda and rumours are likely to find a gullible audience among this section of WhatsApp users.

As cost of mobile data remains low and smartphones become cheaper, rural penetration of WhatsApp and other social media platforms would continue to increase.

It remains to be seen how the government and messaging platforms will counter the emerging challenges without compromising on privacy and liberty of citizens.

Sanjay Kumar is professor and currently director of CSDS and Pranav Gupta is a researcher with Lokniti-CSDS

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