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Pulitzer Center Update May 17, 2024

Holding Tech Accountable in a Crucial Election Year

Author:
English

WhatsApp has become a battlefield for contemporary Indian elections.

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People sit on shaded stone steps lined by adorned columns, a cityscape in the background.
People sit on the steps at Seri Manch, a cultural space, in the center of Mandi, India, in May 2024. Image by Rest of World. 

How propaganda in WhatsApp is impacting elections in India 

For people like me with family around the world, WhatsApp is a convenient messaging platform to stay in touch with loved ones, share photos and audio messages, and make video calls. But in a year when half of the world’s population is participating in elections, we can also see there is a darker side to WhatsApp: The platform has become a powerful channel to distribute political misinformation, conspiracy theories, and hate speech. 

Nowhere is this as evident as in India, where 1 billion people are eligible to vote in its ongoing elections, the largest in history. In her investigation for Rest of World, Pulitzer Center AI Accountability Fellow Srishti Jaswal reveals the scope and sophistication of India’s ruling party’s use of the app to campaign free from public scrutiny. Unlike some social media platforms, conversations in WhatsApp groups are usually unmoderated and hidden from public view. 

“One party is owning WhatsApp: the BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi,” writes Jaswal. The party reportedly operates about 5 million WhatsApp groups using thousands of volunteers to spread propaganda messages—targeting voters surgically by gender, caste, religion, tribe, and age. “Distribution matters more than narrative,” a political consultant who previously worked with the BJP told Rest of World. 

Through her Pulitzer Center fellowship, Jaswal teamed up with Princeton’s Digital Witness Lab, a research group that builds tools to investigate social media platforms, to report on how the BJP’s election machine works in Mandi, a town in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh. The analysis of thousands of messages shared in BJP’s WhatsApp groups shows the circulation of fake news, conspiracy theories, and hate speech alongside more traditional political messaging. The most inflammatory messages, including anti-Muslim ones, are often spread through third-party groups that, while not official, are still run by BJP volunteers. 

Through our grants and fellowships, the Pulitzer Center is committed to supporting investigations that reveal how tech is misused to influence—and possibly upend—voting in a crucial election year in the U.S. and around the world. Our partners also share their methodologies openly so other journalists can benefit. If WhatsApp plays a big role in your country’s election this year, Digital Witness Lab would love to hear from you

Best,

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IMPACT 

The Impact of Civil Forfeiture in Massachusetts, a Pulitzer Center-supported investigation by WBUR and ProPublica, found in 2021 that the barriers to reclaiming seized money and property in Worcester County could violate due process rights. 

On May 9, 2024, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor cited the investigation in her dissenting opinion in the case Culley v. Marshall. The court held that in civil forfeiture cases involving personal property, the due process clause requires a timely forfeiture hearing but does not require a separate preliminary hearing. 

In her dissent, Sotomayor cites WBUR’s finding that in Worcester County, there were over 500 cases where law enforcement held property for a decade or more before officials began forfeiture proceedings. The same statistic was used in an effort by lawmakers in Massachusetts to reform civil forfeiture processes in 2021.


This message first appeared in the May 17, 2024, edition of the Pulitzer Center's weekly newsletter. Subscribe today.

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