Beyond toxic rumours and sexist jokes: What’s up inside India’s WhatsApp groups?
What happens inside India’s WhatsApp groups--apart from members posting interminable jokes and pictures of sunsets?india Updated: Sep 23, 2017 09:23 IST
What’s the worst thing you can do on a WhatsApp group-- send good morning quotes/forward marriage jokes/make up convenient facts?
“In my school group, there is a friend who cannot be bothered to write ‘happy birthday’. She copies and pastes the last sent message, spelling mistakes and smileys included, which looks quite weird when read,” said Riti Khanna, a beauty care professional based in Delhi.
“The worst are ‘sales moms’. We had one in our mom group who started dealing in China-sourced baby products—toys, blankets, bottles. She would send 100 photos of one product one after the other. When I objected to it on the group, she called me a dictator,” said Amrita Gupta, a banker based in Mumbai.
“There are people in my alumni group who, when they don’t agree with what I am saying in an argument, get personal. For example, when I expressed my doubts about demonetization on the group, one of them said I must have hoarded black money,” said Aman Malik, a product designer based in Gurgaon.
It’s hard to find today someone who isn’t tired of WhatsApp groups, but it’s harder to find someone who is not a member of one. WhatsApp is to middle-class Indians what Snapchat is to American teenagers: a social network that really, truly gets them. While they account for most of the backlash against the messaging platform, deadly rumours aren’t the only thing that circulates through India’s WhatsApp network of 200 million users, the world’s largest market for the app. Extremely open (free to download, easy to use) and entirely closed (end-to-end encrypted), Facebook’s instant messaging app is central to the making of community and consensus in India today. The Family Group isn’t WhatsApp’s only offering to Indian society. The platform has created whole new virtual communities -- school mom group, condo group—as well as animated old associations like alumni and party members.
How is a WhatApp group different from one formed over email or Facebook? It’s urgent and intimate—urgent because it exists on the Smartphone and intimate because it’s held together not by common interest but core connections, as members of a wfamily, office, building, or alumni. WhatsApp provides not only a channel of communication but also a template for it. There are no limits: you can post as many updates in a day as you like on as many topics as you like, making it totally normal to go from talking about maids to talking about Modi. The conversations bare the soul of modern India: likes and dislikes, pride and prejudice, fear and loathing.
So, what are Indians currently talking about over WhatsApp?
Sandip Kumar, a Delhi-based lawyer, is a part of an alumni group from a prestigious law school. “Everyone is placed high in their careers. Members are added selectively; there is even a waiting list for entry. It’s meant for networking within legal and public policy community. But people are constantly posting about current affairs, often without checking their facts,” he said. In August, the outgoing vice president, Hamid Ansari, ruffled feathers by saying that Muslims felt insecure and uneasy in today’s India. Within seconds, smartphones across India were buzzing with WhatsApp alerts. “A college senior on our group said Hamid Ansari was a cousin of Mukhtar Ansari, the gangster-politician from eastern Uttar Pradesh. I pointed out that it was not true. He got aggressive and said he knows best because he is from the same area. I sent him a link to an article stating his family background; he sent me a link to postcard news affirming his relations with the criminal. I said ‘this is bullshit’, but he still didn’t back down.”
Few of the group’s 254 members are Muslims, said Kumar. “They just go quiet when something like this happens.” As do women when male members of the group post jokes about the glass ceiling and participants from Dalit and tribal communities every time someone brings up merit. “I usually stay quiet when a man posts a sexist joke,” said Amrita Gupta who is a member of an alumni group from her business school. “Earlier I used to call the men out.
Once, when one of them posted a sexist joke, I said ‘is that what you think of your wife?’ The jokes might stop for a month or two, but always come back. I am a feminist and a vocal, outspoken one, but I have given up within the group. I don’t have the time or the bandwidth. In India, it’s really difficult to change a man’s mindset.”
As in real life, minority groups don’t always stand for each other in a WhatsApp group. “At the time of the debate over whether security forces should use pellet guns on protesters in Kashmir, a woman posted on the alumni group that all Kashmiris should be killed,” said Kumar. “I asked her, ‘are you calling for a genocide?’”
Last month, after years of checking facts on his many WhatsApp groups—school, college, family—Aman Malik quit them all. “People were pushing content without verifying facts or caring about the agenda behind them. I became notorious for posting links to articles by credible journalists.” But after failing to convince fellow members on his B school alumni group—“economically top 2 percent of the country”—that Urdu is an Indian as Hindi, he gave up. “It was pointless and a waste of time. Everything was polarized—people are either for or against something.”
“The idea is to create a community of peers. Structurally, WhatsApp groups work on a sense of likeness, a unifying basis. They are made up of People Like Us. A WhatsApp group is a cohort; the idea is to find comfort in sameness. That’s why it’s natural to exclude or silence others,” says Santosh Desai, social commentator and a reluctant member of an “elite” condo group. “The process of consensus building is embedded in the way a group is created and conversations are conducted. Jokes gain currency through successive rounds of validation. No matter what the make of a group, a lot of their energy comes from attacking the liberal opinion. The moment a liberal point of view is posted on a group, you can sense the breathing becoming shallow.”
The politics of India’s WhatsApp conversations isn’t hard to guess—it’s pro-Hindus, pro-BJP and pro-Narendra Modi. Neither is the worldview reflected in the updates circulating through the network, whether on terrorist attacks in Europe or Donald Trump’s proposed ban on immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. However, no public opinion is above personal interest. So, Trump is only a hero on NRI family groups until he turns his attention to H-1B visas; and Modi a visionary on business groups until his decision threatens to affect profit margins. Member of a WhatsApp group made up of factory owners operating in one industrial zone, Delhi-based Amarjit Singh says conversation on his group has lately revolved around frustrations with the implementation of the Goods and Service Tax (GST). Stung by the blow, even the most passionate of the prime minister’s supporters on the group are reacting to GDP figures from UPA years with a thumbs-up and “Achche Din” jokes with tears-of-joy.
Politics isn’t, however, the only thing that unites and divides members of a WhatsApp group. Solidarities can as easily make or break over a subject like breastfeeding, as Amrita Gupta realized after forming a WhatsApp group with fellow expecting mothers in her prenatal classes in south Mumbai. “Certain mothers on mom groups get so judgmental. After our deliveries, when a mother mentioned she was feeding her child formula, another said, ‘you are giving your child poison.’ Arguments also broke out over whether to keep your dogs away from your newborns. I mean don’t expect me to take a stand on it.”
Her own disillusionment with the group began over class. “Most of these women were filthy rich—builders’ wives, Bollywood wives. They had separate staff—nanny, cook, driver—for every child. And then there were ‘Burberry Moms’-- women who dress their children in designer wear from head to toe. There are two classes of Burberry Moms—Class One shops from America and Class Two shops from Dubai. After a certain point, they branched out from the main group and made a separate group. So did the working mothers including myself. While they were focused on organizing themed play dates, our main concern was balancing work and babies.”
Gupta continued as the admin of the original group until she was forced to mediate a fight between “a Sales Mom and a Burberry Mom. It happened at a play date where the first said to second over a parenting decision, ‘what kind of mom are you!’ Then all hell broke loose on the group. Sides were taken. Both these women were calling me to present their version. Finally, I left the group and made one of them the admin. I created a new group with sane members of the last group.”
Does anything good ever come out of a WhatsApp group? Plenty, it turns out.
3 AM SUPPORT
Gupta is not the only one to balance out the daily insanities of Indian WhatsApp network with a “sane” group. “I am in sane group with like-minded people—journalists, lawyers, policy professionals—where we only share links to articles and commentary, “said Sandip Kumar, “but we have a rule that no one posts their opinions on anything. If two people must debate what they think about the subject of an article, they do that in a one-on-one WhatsApp conversation.”
If not for WhasApp groups, passionate users argue, how would school moms have exchanged “page-by-page homework”, housing societies organized “sufi nights” and factory owners discovered Manmohan Singh’s economic wisdom.
For all the eye rolling her many family WhatsApp groups (“father’s family, mother’s family, older siblings”) cause Riti Khanna, she thinks they allow the extended family to remain connected across cities and time zones. It’s also the only place where women crisscrossing bloodlines could have a corner to themselves. “We have a ladies-only group with sisters and sisters-in-law where we discuss girly things: from husband bashing to blouse designs to the recent AIB video about vagina being a woman’s best friend.”
A WhatsApp group is what Khanna turns to when she needs emotional support at 3 a.m. “I am also in a group of women bloggers. We discuss everything under the sun—married lives, relatives, frustrations with children.” Sometimes, lying awake worried that she has been harsh on her children, she sends a message to the group. “I ask ‘anyone there? I need to chat’. And one by one, the group starts buzzing with ‘yes, I am here.”
Some names have been changed on request.