In India, Orkut was one of the first, big social networking websites, owned by Google and named after the employee who created it. In 2008, it was one of the most visited websites in the country until its closing was announced in 2014. Not that this stopped Indians from virtual socializing – the country accounted for the highest number of Facebook users at close to 300 million in 2018.
As data packs get cheaper and internet more accessible, a young digital population especially in rural areas tend to take easily to YouTube. Smartphones are increasingly becoming the primary screen for Indian customers, which means, the smartphone and its applications become the principal source of news for about 35 percent of the country’s internet users, a majority of whom use one or more social networks.
The entry of WhatsApp into India’s digital market boosted app usage, with a doubling in rural areas in recent years. Data shows that the reach of the messaging service extends wider than just the rich folk, while 18-25-year-olds used it the most daily.
Why is this important? In 2017 and 2018, fake news shared via the app led to several episodes of violence and killings between castes and religions, interfering with public policies. Most of these have occurred in the rural or interior parts of the country, raising concern for news credibility. A sizeable number of respondents trusted the app and/or Facebook as their news source in a survey conducted in these years. Even with measures being taken in an attempt to curb these problems, a looming election year cannot afford this scale of misinformation on social media.
The government’s recent proposal to intervene has sparked debates on free speech, forcing companies to self-censor their content. WhatsApp set up its office in India recently, partially to increase accountability in fighting fake news after being written to twice by the IT ministry. The company has also been running campaigns to educate its users, buying full-page ads in newspapers elaborating on safety measures. Despite being the medium to connect people from all over the second largest country and farther, bringing them together to one virtual space, social media has presented challenges that threaten electoral processes and democracy itself, not just in India but all over the world.