Rural Indians don’t trust messages on WhatsApp blindly: Survey
Only 8% of the respondents marked 10 as their trust score on a scale of 1-10, where 1 stands for complete distrust and 10 for complete trust, in information received on WhatsApp, found a survey.
WhatsApp users in rural India do not blindly trust messages they receive on the messaging service, according to a limited survey across 14 states, a finding that must provide some cheer to law enforcement officials and policymakers trying to combat fake news and rumours, and to the messaging service itself.
Only 8% of the respondents marked 10 as their trust score on a scale of 1-10, where 1 stands for complete distrust and 10 for complete trust, in information received on WhatsApp, found a survey conducted by Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), a New Delhi-based non-profit organisation that seeks to find solutions to bridge the digital divide.
To be sure, the Digital Empowerment Foundation survey titled “What’s up Rural India?” recorded responses from only 1018 rural users in 14 states including districts like Bettiah in Bihar, Barabanki in Uttar Pradesh, Chamba, Narendra Nagar and Pratapnagar in Uttarakhand, Betul and Guna in Madhya Pradesh, Musiri in Tamil Nadu, Memboobnagar, Vikarabad and Warangal in Telangana and Alwar and Barmer in Rajasthan among others, and only a larger survey can authoritatively weigh in on the trust people have in the messaging service.
Since May, at least 30 people have been lynched by mobs with rumours on the messaging platform being responsible for some of the incidents. Fake videos and rumours of child-lifting circulated via WhatsApp have triggered lynchings in at least eight states. The Indian government wrote to WhatsApp about the incidents and the platform, owned by Facebook Inc made some changes, including a clear labelling of forwarded messages as well as limiting the number of forwards to tackle the spread of rumours and Fake News.
WhatsApp has over 200 million users in India, its largest market, and India’s chief election commissioner OP Rawat said in a recent interview with Hindustan Times that attempts to influence poll outcomes using technology was the biggest challenge before his organization, which is responsible for the conduct of polls in India.
According to the DEF survey, almost 70% of the respondents rated their trust score between 1-5. “This composition of trust is unlike what I’d imagined. Users in rural India have exercised restraint in believing the information they get from WhatsApp. They still prefer to check with peers and local communities about what is right and wrong,” said Osama Manzar, founder and director at DEF.
It is heartening to know people in rural India are sceptical about messages shared on WhatsApp, said Sunil Abraham co-founder at think-tank Centre for Internet and Society. “It’s a societal learning curve. Most of these users have been exposed to WhatsApp over the last one year. Previous incidents where trust has been misused is perhaps a reason for their apprehension. Their scepticism will grow in the light of all the disappointments that have happened. Ask them this question in 2019 and the numbers are likely to rise further,” added Abraham. Statistics in terms of overall usage of WhatsApp shows that about 66% rural users interviewed in the survey spend 1-4 hours on the messaging app daily, 46% receive between 11-60 messages in a day, 38% are active on upto five WhatsApp groups with a majority being in groups with friends, followed by work colleagues, and family. Experts said the usage of WhatsApp in rural India is surprisingly high. The high usage can be attributed to the rise of smartphone penetration in these areas.
A majority of 88% users also knew what a WhatsApp forward is and 45% said they receive between 6-20 forwarded messages in a day. In July, WhatsApp launched a label to identify forwarded messages in a bid to combat fake news and the spread of misinformation globally, including India. It later set a limit to the use of forwarded messages to 5 chats in India.
In response to an email query, WhatsApp said it has made product changes that make it clear when users have received forwarded messages and also provided greater controls for group administrators to help reduce the spread of unwanted messages in private chats.
“WhatsApp is a private messaging service for communicating with friends and family... We are working together with a number organisations to step up our education efforts so that people know how to spot fake news and hoaxes circulating online. It is heartening to note that these efforts are making a difference and keeping our users safe,” said a WhatsApp spokesperson.
Among other findings, about 40% of respondents said they were part of WhatsApp groups created by members or representatives of political parties.
“This reflects the level of campaigning and penetration of political parties. Villages are always politically sensitive and also interested in politics,” said Manzar.
Interestingly, the survey noted that 63% of the respondents were not on the service in 2014. WhatsApp will play a key role in the campaigns for 2019 as this will be the first election with a host of rural India users actively part of the service.
Data shows that the share of active WhatsApp users in rural India has doubled since 2017, according to a survey done by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. Abraham added this means political parties have a “direct channel” of communication with a “huge percentage of the voter base”.