How much time does an Indian user spend on WhatsApp daily — there were 250 million monthly active users in 2017 — and how likely are they to believe whatever messages they see, especially in an election season or in an atmosphere where misinformation has led to violence?
Almost half of Indians say they never believe the information they receive on WhatsApp but 22 per cent say they never verify information coming in from WhatsApp. Two-thirds believe that viral messages on WhatsApp can lead to incidents of unrest. But six out of ten also believe that WhatsApp can be used as a positive messaging channel.
The double-edged sword understanding comes from a survey by technology-centred NGO Digital Empowerment Foundation exclusively accessed by the Indian Express. Over the past year, the group interviewed roughly 3,000 people from Tier II and Tier III cities in 11 Indian states about their WhatsApp usage and awareness. Half of the respondents were students while a little less than a third were policemen.
The states in the survey included six that were due for Assembly elections while DEF conducted the study and another five states had seen a high number of misinformation-related violence, according to the organisation.
While almost half of the respondents — 46 per cent — believed people using technology and the technology platforms were to blame for misinformation, disinformation, and fake news, another 39 per cent said that the blame was on the people using the technology. Only 14 per cent blamed the technology platforms themselves.
While 66 per cent found that viral messages could lead to incidents of unrest, another 20 per cent said maybe this could be the case while 13 per cent said no.
Out of the 3,000-odd people, only 13 per cent said they read forwarded information and further forward it. Half of them only read the information, 17 per cent ignore it, and 21 per cent read it and reply. More than 40 per cent said they believe WhatsApp’s new feature that limits forwards to five chats has restricted the messages they send or receive, while 36 per cent believed it did not.
When it comes to trust in the news, respondents said they believe videos the most at 42 per cent. Another 40 per cent believed text while only 15 per cent believed images. Sixty per cent said WhatsApp is being used as a positive messaging channel, 14 per cent said it is not and 25 per cent said maybe.
Most used WhatsApp for personal and social interactions (44 per cent), another 29 per cent used it for business, and under 1 per cent used it for political discussion.
About 30 per cent of surveyed said they receive useful information sometimes, while 22 per cent said never and 18 per cent said always.
On a typical day, most of the respondents (46 per cent) spend roughly up to one hour a day on WhatsApp, and a third said between one and two hours a day. Most people (53 per cent) were a part of one to five WhatsApp groups. These groups were friends and family for a third of the surveyed and were political for only 0.4 per cent of them and were news-related for 1.18 per cent of them.
When asked about surveillance, the respondents for the most part (46 per cent) believed their messages were not free from surveillance. About a fourth did believe WhatsApp messages were free from surveillance and another fourth said maybe. Almost two-thirds did not know what “encrypted messages” were.