How WhatsApp ‘Truths’ Thrive on Middle-Class Anxieties

Security and responsibility are persistent themes in the ‘junk’ information that spreads rapidly on middle class WhatsApp groups with large memberships. The ‘affordances’ of social media enables ‘emotional targetting’ of messages that claim to be about ‘true’ incidents. 

As schools reopen after vacation in monsoon-drenched Mumbai, middle-class mums, armed with smart phones, deep dive into demands of competitive education. School groups on the messaging platform WhatsApp buzz with class notes, work sheets, test questions, directions to uniform shops, rate-charts for tuition, and children’s achievements. Ever so often, the rhythm of this industrious hive is broken by messages with dire warnings: toxic food, contaminated packaged juice, terrorists, drugs in the play ground, surveillance by authorities, loitering strangers, fake police, false gas meter men, corrupt, sold-out press, political parties sympathetic to enemy countries, military police drills in the city, and sundry other threatening “forwards.”  

In a relatively free week in July, a message forwarded in a school group with 257 participants described a child’s death. The bi-lingual message (in Marathi and English) was accompanied by a garlanded image of a boy captioned “heartfelt condolences.” The cause of death for the 10-year-old boy was a “heart attack” that was induced by the pressures of school, and parents. The message entreated mothers to not rush their sleepy and hungry children into inhuman routines. The first question asked by harried school mums, torn between duty and guilt was whether the post was “authentic,” to which the only response they received was that it was a valuable idea, regardless of whether or not it was true. One of the mums posted the report of a similar sounding incident from a news website, not noticing that it was from two years ago and had different details. The message had churned the otherwise self-assured group into a boil of anxiety. Mothering roles, and performances are significant for middle-class Indian women shaped by a “pro-natalist culture” (Nandy 2017, Reissman 2000:113, Donner 2006). Failing to live up to good-mothering standards is a permanent preoccupation. 

Philip Glassner (2015) argues that scary stories are most effective in obtaining a response from people because they evoke a visceral reaction, and create a  wish to take action to protect oneself, and one’s community. [1]  The perceived existential threats that led to a series of violent incidents in India between 2017 and 2019, have been attributed to false stories spread on WhatsApp.[2] Created in 2009, WhatsApp, the messaging platform owned by Facebook, has an estimated 1.5 billion users.[3] In 2017, 200 million users were from India. According to some estimates, this number has doubled.[4] The rise in usage has been explained by cheaper smart phones and cheap data. Its end-to-end encryption allows senders and receivers to view media and read messages that are stored at the device level. 

A brilliant and affordable social communication platform-used by just about everyone, WhatsApp has gathered an unseemly reputation: spread of misinformation (see Ingram 2018)[5], inciting mob-violence and influencing elections.[6]  A recent study found that ideologically extreme, and factually incorrect information proliferated during critical public moments.[7]  A 2018 study has concluded that Twitter users preferred sharing falsehoods due to novelty, curiosity, prestige and other reasons.[8]   The 21st century post-truth world is characterised by competing convictions, and elite manipulation of ‘truth markets’ through “emotional message targeting” (Harsin 2018). 

This article examines the spread of rumours and misinformation on WhatsApp groups in Mumbai. It will discuss how security, and responsibility are constant themes in the ‘junk’ information on WhatsApp school groups. The article argues that the “affordances” of social media, speed, replicability and affordability (Boyd 2011) enables “emotional targeting” of messages that claim to be “truthful” or significant. Besides instrumental aims (selling products, or influencing voting), these messages achieve the insidious purpose of blurring the line between fact and falsehood in ways that erodes trust in formal institutions. Based on the analysis of selected WhatsApp stories, this article demonstrates that the promise of web 2.0 as progressive, transformative and democratic appears to have been captured by post-truth “viral content” that promote anxiety, insecurity and xenophobia. 

People tend to believe in stories that support their pre-existing beliefs. Their “known fears and hopes” are used to spread rumours through networks where it will thrive (Sunstein 2010). This is reminiscent of Jacques Ellul’s argument (1973:56) that propaganda is nothing more than “cleverly presented truth” that “lingers in collective consciousness.” Rumours help people in attributing responsibility for misfortunes, produce judgements, and create consensual “truths” (Stewart and Strathern 2004:Loc2293). These insights from rumour scholarship highlight the subversive potential of misinformation flowing through WhatsApp.[9]  

Two recent stories that circulated as message-forwards will be discussed in this article. Based on Wardle’s (2016), typology of “fake news” the WhatsApp stories described in this article are, "fake information" and "manipulated content." These stories can also be described as “dread” rumours (Sunstein 2010). Other relevant terms that will be used are misinformation and disinformation. Following Ross and Rivers (2018), misinformation refers to the “inadvertent sharing of false information,” and disinformation constitutes “malicious, purposeful creation and dissemination of untrue information.” 

An Attempted Kidnapping

A message posted on a school group on 8 August 2019, came with the title, “scary incident,” naming a neighbourhood familiar to the school group. It asked people to be “aware and careful” and to “spread the word” after listening carefully to the “audio clip” that accompanied the message. In the audio-clip, a youthful woman’s voice speaks in Hindi and English in an even tone, as follows [10]

‘I was standing there to pick up Liana, when a van came. There were two ‘ladies’ and one driver in the van. They had festoons, balloons and caps: ‘decoration items’ that you need for birthday parties. They asked me the address of a school and they showed me a paper as well. I didn’t see the paper because I knew the address they were asking for. I started guiding them, "you know you have to go straight and take the fourth left." Before I complete my sentence, one lady pulled me inside. She held my hand and she just pulled me inside. Then the other lady jumped out and started pushing me from the back. And the one who was pushing me, I hit her hard twice with my elbow….The one who was pulling me inside, I bit her. When I bit her, she just left me….I started struggling with the lady, who was pushing me. Then I scratched her…And she left me I don’t know what happened to her. Maybe she saw, that I had escaped from the hands of the other one, so she alone won’t be able to manage. She just left me. I fell down on the road. And these people left with the van…..I was in a blank situation. I didn’t want my daughter to come to know about it. Within 2-3 minutes, I saw the bus. It was very isolated. Though our area, near Bablu sandwich, ‘you all must be knowing’…I live in the lane in front of ‘Bablu Sandwich’. And it is not that isolated.  But ya, day before yesterday, compared to other days, it was isolated, it was also raining, there was no-body out there. Unfortunately Bablu Sandwich was closed. There is a medical there and a doctor’s dispensary. Everything was closed, noon-time…that day it was very lonely. So anyways, by the grace of god I am fine. And I have a little muscle pull, am a little hurt…..But I am safe now. And everybody please take care. If you keep talking on your phone when you are standing at the stop, I don’t know how you can take care of yourself but it’s a request.  Don’t tell anybody address! Let people go to hell. Pretend you are deaf and dumb, literally! 

(Transcribed and translated from Audio Clip forwarded on a WhatsApp school group on 08 August 2019)

In general, non-school related messages receive little response from the busy mums. The above message created a brief online flutter. A few rapid messages were exchanged, asking where this incident had taken place. It is not clear why the first sender assumed that the incident had taken place in her neighbourhood, and stated this in the message. There was much speculation about the location of the Bablu Sandwich shop, that became Babu Sandwich shop after a few exchanges. Some mums speculated about “Love Lane.” One parent suggested that they knew about a “Babu/Bablu Sandwich” and a “Lovelane” in Byculla, in South Mumbai. These conversations were attempts to establish the authenticity or relevance of the message. A group member said that the message had come to her from her mother who lived in Malad, West Mumbai. Some messages were punctuated with grinning emojis. 

Some school mums became less hassled as they realised it was not in their neighbourhood. Others tried to establish authenticity since it came from other groups of trust, such as family. Based on my offline conversations with school mums, an important metric of trust to filter out the “rubbish” one receives on social media, was the origin of messages. If a forward came in a family group, then it had a better chance of getting attention, and being circulated. Observers have described this as a “close network of peers.” But how difficult or easy is it for non-experts to track the source or the authenticity of incidents described in such messages? 

Unlike text messages, audio and video clips are particularly hard to trace online. Using a simple Google search based on key words in the message took me to a housing society conversation on Facebook from Western Mumbai, dated 6 August 2019, that had received the same audio-clip and message.[11] The conversation, here on a public-Facebook page followed similar themes. Some members were scared. Most initially tried to locate the place where the incident had taken place, thereby indicting many sandwich shops named Babu or Bablu in various Mumbai suburbs. Eventually a member of the group posted a message saying that there was no Bablu sandwich shop in their area and no such incident could have taken place there. People were requested to “not spread panic in the society.” This message received 127 angry, 17 funny and 50 likes in Facebook reaction terms. 56 members responded with their own comments. 

During this Facebook exchange, I found that someone had posted a screen-shot of a newspaper article as evidence that the audio clip was a viral hoax. The news article in Hindi, described how a young woman, who was an aspiring actor, in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, had been arrested for spreading rumours about her own abduction by circulating a “fake” audio clip. While most members were relieved that the message was a “viral hoax”, some (like in the school group) wrote that irrespective of the “truth,” it conveyed a warning that should be taken seriously since such incidents were common, and people should stay “safe, vigilant and alert”. Many were relieved, since the message had scared them. A few disregarded the news article, and continued to speculate about the location of the incident.  

The news article referred above was published in Dainik Bhaskar on 3 August 2019.[12]  The title of the article was, “A case registered by Indore police on the person accused of spreading rumours about her own abduction on WhatsApp” (translated from Hindi). Child abduction is the subject of the most common rumours on WhatsApp, and other social media platforms, directly attributed to mob violence towards suspected perpetrators leading to several deaths.[13]  Traditional news media and fact checking websites have reported extensively on this phenomenon. Some details, about how this particular story had spread, is provided in the article, including the location of the much-discussed ‘Bablu Sandwich.’ The article states that the arrested woman had created the “viral audio” and posted it first, in a school WhatsApp group that she was a part of. The police took note of the “viral audio,” and began an investigation that included checking the CCTV footage in the area. They were unable to find proof of this event either from the footage, or from witnesses in the area. On being questioned by the police, the author of the message had admitted that she had made the audio and posted it on the WhatsApp group as a joke. The irate Indore police had requested people to verify the authenticity of information before spreading it. 

What is interesting, for the purpose of this article, is that the described WhatsApp hoax was spread at a time when the Madhya Pradesh administration was dealing with several incidents of violence based on WhatsApp-child-abduction rumours. In July 2019, two women suspected of child abduction were beaten to death by angry mobs in MP. The abduction story described above relates to a completely false incident, but it is a story that some networks are ready to believe. It is not only that rumours work effectively through suggestions, and thrive on prevalent fears, but also on how social media platforms aid the circulation of sensational claims, that are shared more eagerly than corrected information. It requires effort and motivation to convince others in a shared network about the truth or falsehood of a piece of information. 

While such “viral hoax” type stories have a short life span, they are quickly succeeded by similar stories. What is most alarming about this story is how it was created in an environment that was already vitiated by violence.[14]  The story drew upon this fear-filled culture, to be believed, and thus to thrive and also contribute towards maintaining and amplifying this narrative across many networks, neighbourhood, cities. Kidnapping stories about gangs run by women, may threaten any woman whose appearance is deemed strange or who is seen with a child or near schools, bus stops, or parks. 

Three weeks from the viral hoax audio (on 25 August 2019), a series of images were forwarded on the same school WhatsApp group. One showed a dishevelled and upset middle-aged woman, with another woman holding a uniformed child’s hand in the background. A second image showed the open boot of a van, inside which sat three small children. The third showed a police van in the background, and the same woman in foreground (her image was circled). The text in the forwarded message tied the images (in Marathi) as follows: the woman had been found acting suspiciously near a known suburban school (Sahkar Vidya Prasarak Mandal - Sahyadri) in Greater Mumbai, a group of women had caught her, and found suspicious things in her bag like “a spray, chocolates and biscuit packet.” The message speculated that maybe she was part of a “team of child abductors.” It ends with the missive: “Take care of your children yourself.” [15]  No one refuted this story. There was nothing related to the named school or the suburb in news media.

How to Protect Yourself in Case of Fire 

On May 25, 2019, a message circulated in a housing society is WhatsApp group with the heading “Public Message” that ended with the missive: “Save life by sharing this post.” The text of the message was as follows:

‘Many years ago there was a big fire at a five –star hotel (J P Hotel) in upscale Vasant Vihar. So many people died. But the Japanese and the American guests at the hotel survived. Why? Because they put wet towels under their doors so that no smoke enters their rooms. They put wet handkerchiefs on their faces and lay on the floor, as the smoke moved up. Most deaths are caused by smoke inhalation, not fire. Most Indians in the building jumped out of their windows and many died. The critical difference has to do with training. General public should be made aware of what to do and how to behave in case of fire. Be alert, be vigilant. Do share with family and friends.’ (WhatsApp message on 25 May 2019)

While the first story described in the previous section refers to a recent personal experience, this message based its argument on an incident that had taken place at an indeterminate time, at a location (Vasant Vihar) that could be in any city in India. Beyond, these factual ambiguities, one of the most interesting things about the message was its timing.  

On May 24, 2019, a major fire at a coaching centre in the city of Surat, Gujarat, had led to the death of 20 people.  Among those who had died in the fire were children aged between 14 and 17. According to several news media sites: “Videos posted by witnesses on social media showed several students jumping out of windows on the top floor of the four-storey building to escape the blaze.”[16]   Sixteen people died from burns, and three from injuries as they jumped out of the window. A preliminary investigation found poor-quality roofing material, and the absence of a functional fire escape.[17]  Outraged citizens had taken to social media, posting disturbing videos of children jumping to death from the burning building. On Twitter, angry people directed questions at the Chief Minister about a range of failures from fire safety, illegal construction, permissions for building constructions. They demanded that the responsible, corrupt officials and building owners be held guilty, and legal action be taken against them.[18]    

Children going to coaching classes are an integral part of daily lives of urban middle-class households. Their level of identification with such incidents, and the consequent emotional reaction would be high. The WhatsApp forward about “the fire story” from “many years ago” provided an alternative interpretation of responsibility in case of fires that shifted accountability towards the affected individuals. Based on the story, it can be believed that the individuals who succumb to hazards may have contributed to their own vulnerability by not acting appropriately. 

A disturbing image that connected the Surat fire with the WhatsApp hotel-fire story was that of “people jumping out of windows.” It is dangerous to suggest that wet towels and a presence of mind can replace safety protocols, building codes, risk reduction measures and accountability failures. The WhatsApp story also makes an emotional connection by suggesting a cultural (and perhaps a racial) superiority of the American and Japanese survivors against the Indian victims, which evokes  familiar themes of civilizational competitiveness. How did the Americans survive, and why did the Indians die? A long-standing middle class preoccupation has been how the well-ordered West cannot be replicated in Indian cities. 

Did the WhatsApp forward refer to an incident that had really taken place? Searching for the source of the message, led to some disturbing connections. A post with the same content as the 25 May WhatsApp-hotel-fire story was shared on Facebook on December 31, 2017. [19]  What could have motivated the 2017 Facebook post? On 29 December 2017, a fire at a roof top restaurant in Mumbai, the “Kamala Mills fire” led to the death of 14 people.[20] The Facebook message appears in an article on an online news site: “Its not just Mumbai, most of New Delhi’s urban chic places are deadly fire-traps.” [21]  

On January 2, 2018, a popular Indian writer posted the same content (as a 2017 post and the 2019 WhatsApp story) on Facebook under #KamalaMills #Fire. The message received 28 approving comments and 396 shares.[22]   This message was posted on January 2, 2018, a day after the owners of the Kamala Mills restaurant were arrested for culpable homicide and the municipal authority took steps to demolish illegal constructions operating as restaurants, pubs and food joints.[23]  Clearly, the hotel-fire story is a social media staple that appears periodically with the intent to shape public opinion following terrible fire events.  

A dogged search for the "incident" referred to in the WhatsApp story led to an interesting find. The closest match was a 1986 fire disaster at the Sidharth Continental Hotel, in Vasant Vihar, Delhi, in which 37 people had lost their lives.[24]  Twenty three of the 37, who died in the fire, were foreign tourists and the incident received international media coverage.[25]  Among the casualties were nationals from Britain, Japan, USA, Iraq, West Germany, Argentina and the Soviet Union.[26]  Survivors later claimed that the hotel lacked emergency evacuation facilities.[27] A Delhi Court acquitted the senior management officials who had been charged with criminal negligence for lack of evidence in 2005. [28]  Another fire disaster took place in 2008, when a fire broke out at the Grand Hotel in Vasant Kunj, Delhi. In this case all 225 guests had been safely evacuated.[29]  

It would be impossible to establish that the WhatsApp story was based on either of the two incidents described above. The hotel-fire story is simply "manipulated" content, with a misleading title "public message," whose purpose and motivations are suspicious because of the time at which it is being shared. The point of citing the Delhi incidents above is to, firstly, highlight the difficulty of proving or disapproving some types of content that claim to be true. Secondly, provide a contrast between the tone and emphases of the real-life fire incidents (1986-Delhi and 2019-Surat) as reported in traditional news, and the interpretations offered by WhatsApp stories. Drawing insight from reflections about 21st century "post-truth," what is taking place here is the use of social media for “strategic attention and emotion management” in a context characterised by crumbling trust in public truth claims and authority (Harsin 2018). 

Combating Misinformation

Drawing insight from two groups of scholarship, the anthropology of rumour and new media, this article analyses two recent stories on middle class WhatsApp groups (school-mums and housing societies) in Mumbai. The article finds that, WhatsApp rumours and gossip enable a “projection of guilt” without any need for accuracy or verifiability (see Stewart and Strathern 2004). However, for these stories to have extreme consequences, such as mob violence, they would require an encouraging ideological environment. Fearful contexts activate rumours, and ambiguous stories that would otherwise remain in the shadows of ambiguity become evidence to justify violent (retributive) action. In the above case, the abduction-hoax-audio, and the fire-disaster-spin, both found an audience among groups that would be naturally concerned about such issues, but their susceptibility to such messages would be heightened in the immediate aftermath of real crisis. The effect of a constant flood of such stories, artfully placed, would be to maintain a permanent state of ‘liquid fear’ that ‘haunts us for no visible rhyme or reason’ (Bauman 2006). 

Social media platforms like WhatsApp have been blamed for unleashing the “dark forces” of the Internet. WhatsApp itself has avoided accepting total responsibility and particularly resisted demands for creating “traceability of messages” by compromising its end-to-end encryption. A powerful, convenient and affordable medium for information exchange that is used by millions for exchanging legitimate information; school homework, government departmental functions, social events, business, gets transformed. As peers engage in WhatsApp communication, reasonably secure in the knowledge of each other, through online and offline interactions, they form a “filter bubble” (Pariser 2011) that receive, believe and lend legitimacy to misinformation and disinformation. A possible technological solution to check the rapid spread of misinformation could be for WhatsApp to reduce the ease with which information can be sent to hundreds of people in an instant. Maybe it is time for WhatsApp to try a pilot that disallows forwarding any content from one person to a group. 

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