Political party workers’ digital marketers in India are using WhatsApp clones such as GBWhatsApp and JTWhatsApp, and software tools that cost less than Rs 1,000 to bypass WhatsApp’s anti-spam measures, according to a Reuters investigation. The software appear to overcome restrictions WhatsApp placed last year to reduce velocity and control spread of misinformation. Demand for such tools has surged during election season, the report said, citing digital companies and sources in the BJP and the Congress.
According to the report, WhatsApp is being misused for political campaigning in at least the following three ways:
- Some BJP and Congress workers used free clone apps available online to manually forward messages in bulk
- Some used software tools that send WhatsApp messages automatically, these were available on Amazon.in
- Some firms were offering political workers the chance to go to a website and send bulk WhatsApp messages from anonymous numbers.
WhatsApp appears to have begun cracking down on clone apps earlier this year. In March, it updated the FAQ section of its website to help users with banned accounts migrate their data from unsupported apps to the official app. WhatsApp says that user phone numbers associated with GBWhatsApp, JTWhatsApp and other “unofficial” apps are first temporarily banned. If they don’t switch to the official app, the account associated with that phone number is banned permanently. But working around it this easy – all one needs is a new SIM card and they’re back on the platform.
India’s social media election
This is not the first time political parties and their workers have been found to be bypassing WhatsApp’s restrictions to get their message out. In April, Huffington Post reported that the BJP was using Sarv Webs Pvt Ltd, a company based in Jaipur, to send its messages in bulk to WhatsApp users. HuffPost established the link through a combination of the campaign expenditure statements that the BJP submitted to the Election Commission of India; a Sarv employee who confirmed that the company was still working with the BJP; screenshots shared by an anonymous source; and Sarv’s own website, where the company said it works with the BJP for “improving information flow to mass scale”.
The BJP and Congress have spent crores to reach India’s 900 million voters, and have hundreds of full-time social media workers and tens of thousands of volunteers who circulate the parties’ messages on WhatsApp and other platforms, per New Indian Express. Congress social media head Divya Spandana said the party has 3 lakh WhatsApp groups and can send messages to up to 200 lakh people a day.