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Group Think

How WhatsApp has changed news in small-town India

By DISHA MULLICK AND MEERA DEVI | 1 December 2017

ANWAR RAZA CAN TALK animatedly for hours about his reporting adventures, local gossip, and the corrupt state of politics and the media in Uttar Pradesh. Even as he holds forth, his phone is likely to beep every few minutes and he is likely to interrupt himself regularly to field or make calls. His job demands it. Raza is a 27-year-old journalist based in the district of Banda, a place where the pace of life might be slow but news certainly breaks fast. He cannot afford to switch off his phone or keep it aside for too long, because Raza is part of a growing breed of journalists who conduct much of their trade on their phones. WhatsApp serves as a vital medium for exchanging text and visuals, keeping tabs on the local pulse through direct communication with a range of people and creating distinct communities for curated news stories.

Raza is a stringer, and, like most stringers, is not affiliated to a single media house or publication. He works for more than ten news channels, pitching, reporting and filing stories for them. He is often the conduit between local informants and editors in these news channels. Having been in the trade for over five years, he has built up a large network of sources, ranging from ordinary residents in different villages to top bureaucrats, local police and administrative officials. He has also cultivated his own team of informers and photographers, whom he contacts to get most things done.

Work on a typical story begins when Raza gets a tip from one of his informers, which he forwards to potential editors. Once he gets a nod of interest, he returns to the informer to gather more context and information. If needed, he may send one of his informers to get a quick bite from a source such as a local government official. For a video story, all these elements are sent to the news agency, which then stitches together all the components. When the news is published or released on channels, Raza sends a screen grab, and a link, if available, to his various WhatsApp groups. Occasionally, when he is asked to do a “phono”—a report from the ground delivered on the phone, during a news broadcast—his name appears on screen. He is meant to be paid per story, but more often than not, the remuneration comes late, and sometimes it doesn’t come at all. Like many local journalists in small-town India, Raza, too, makes a large part of his income by soliciting advertisements for various channels. Stringers are under as much pressure to bring in paid content as they are to bring news.

Raza’s reliance on his phone and WhatsApp to break or cover stories indicates how local media has been transformed by digital technology. News reporting in small towns has traditionally made use of ad hoc communication networks, rather than relying on a single reporter who news agencies commission to travel to field sites and collect information and quotes from witnesses and sources. Platforms such as WhatsApp have further enabled this method, making it easier to use a dispersed network of ground sources, informants and desk editors to coordinate and build a narrative at greater speed and reduced costs to local news agencies. Now an individual like Raza is an important node in this chain of communication.

Officials from political parties and groups, and local administrators, in Eastern Uttar Pradesh, where Raza is based, as in other parts of the country, are increasingly aware of the wide reach of digital technology, and its potential for controlling the narrative of daily news. Groups such as the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a right-wing Hindu organisation, are using WhatsApp in Banda not simply to strengthen the flow of communication within their organisation, but also to spread a narrative that furthers their long-term ideological aims. Politicians and district administrators regularly use the platform to promote their work and influence media coverage. This can lead to fraught relationships when reporters do not grant this coverage, or choose to challenge or be critical of the official line. With journalism, activism, administration and ordinary life now deeply linked to information spreading through phones, there is little doubt that digital technology has changed the very fabric of life in Banda, as it has all across small-town India.

We met Raza on 12 September at the Nawab Tank—a man-made pond that is one of Banda’s most scenic and popular meeting spots. Our conversation flowed from the sharing of trade secrets, to discussing opinions on the shifting terrains we negotiate as journalists, to Raza’s own life and work. He was in his element—flanked by us, his captive audience of women, and a rookie photographer he was in the process of training. He reeled off his stories, with animated gestures and startlingly accurate impersonations of Banda’s famous public personalities.

Raza, to borrow the title of a well-known WhatsApp group, is one of “Banda’s Kings”—he has a swagger to him, and is always keen to show how he uses his networks of power and influence. “The informer sends me the visual on my personal WhatsApp, and asks me, ‘Will this run?’” he said. “I think about it, and send it on a group I’ve made with all my bosses at all the channels I work for.” Next, he gets the version of the same story from official authorities, but not necessarily by intervening himself. “I ask the informer whether the superintendent of police has reached,” he said. “I tell the informer to tell her that Ranu bhai has said to give a byte on this incident. If I need to talk to the officer, I will.” As he went on to conjure up dramatic scenes and murky episodes of blackmail and confrontations at crowded marketplaces, police stations and press conferences, he was interrupted by a call. “Yes, yes, I’m coming,” he said. “How many people are there? Can you send me a visual? Ten seconds, and no camera shake. Can you get me a bite from one of your officials? Can you bring it to Nawab Tank? I’ll run the story.” He turned to us to explain what we had overheard, forgetting, momentarily, that we were his peers in this world: “See, this is how it works.”

ACCORDING TO RECENT data from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the country has over 1,186 million mobile subscribers. The number of people with access to the internet in India is over 430 million, a third of which are rural subscribers—with 94 percent connecting through mobile devices. Uttar Pradesh has the highest number of mobile connections, at 170 million, and of this, the Uttar Pradesh East circle, in which Banda falls, has the lion’s share. About 50 percent of these are rural subscribers and 13.8 million of Uttar Pradesh East circle’s rural subscribers are on the internet.

WhatsApp is the most downloaded application, followed by Facebook Messenger. In July 2017, WhatsApp announced that it had 1.3 billion active users a month, 200 million of whom are in India. About 34 percent of time spent by Indian users on the internet is on social messaging. The average Indian spends seven times more time on their mobile phone than on watching television, and 14 times more than on reading print material.

What does this mean for the ways in which media is consumed? Social media and messaging provide closed and public forums for accessing a wide range of reportage and opinions easily and quickly, which takes on heightened significance in areas where mainstream media may have challenges of penetration—either due to the cost of distribution or weak infrastructure.

In the period leading up to the assembly election of 2017—which saw the Bharatiya Janata Party come to power in the state with a sweeping majority, and the ascension of the Hindu hardliner Yogi Adityanath to the post of chief minister—it was difficult to ignore the influence of social media in the small towns of Uttar Pradesh. As the heat and intensity of election campaigns rose, the price of mobile data plunged, and we were hard-pressed to find a young man in Banda who did not own a phone.

A survey conducted by Khabar Lahariya—a women-run rural digital news network which we are part of—found that among mobile phone users in two districts of Uttar Pradesh, at least 58 percent had access to the internet. The majority of these users were on WhatsApp and received news and information through various groups on the application. We interviewed 20 journalists and activists in Uttar Pradesh and most of them were part of an average of 20 groups, both personal and related to their work. These numbers tend to vary from day to day, with shifting social and political alignments. Several WhatsApp groups that were sharing election news during the assembly election have now become platforms for carefully curated news distribution. Some of these groups are meticulously structured so that their members can communicate and mobilise around ideological issues. In all of these networks, the sharing of news keeps groups active and engaged. Even the groups with only ordinary citizens were filled with a sense that they had a part to play in the political machine. All they had to do was share a message, even if only with a group of friends.

Yet, this is where the pitfalls of the medium, when it comes to sharing news, show themselves: it can transfer unverified information through networks of closed, trusted groups. This was the key element which shifted the balance of information in rural India. From being a cheap and liberating way of communicating within private networks, WhatsApp has also become an important source for news and, subsequently, a unique influencer of life and politics in small-town Uttar Pradesh—where afwah, or rumour, is almost always more newsworthy than news.

AFTER ASSUMING office in May 2017, Adityanath moved to intensify cow-protection drives, cracking down on illegal slaughterhouses and cattle trade. This prompted meat shops to close out of fear and harassment from vigilante mobs, and forced farmers to free animals that were no longer of use to them. The Uttar Pradesh government was also quick to constitute “anti-Romeo squads,” ostensibly to curb the harassment of women, but acting more as a tool for the moral policing of young couples. Adityanath had long been an openly communal face before coming to power and had previously used women’s vulnerable social positions to polarise the environment. He made an incendiary speech in 2007 where he declared, “If they take one Hindu girl, we will take 100 of their Muslim girls.”

In this tense atmosphere, stories about abduction cases—which when investigated usually turned out to be young couples from different castes and religions eloping consensually—proliferated on social media as cautionary tales about Muslim men stealing away Hindu women. Our own reporting showed that most of these news stories are exaggerated or sensationalised for voyeuristic value, and focussed excessively on the idea of safeguarding the “honour” of women.

The government, however, is adept at controlling news about the negative aspects of its administration, either by suppressing it or by putting a spin on it—whether this has to do with cows, abductions or local protests.

On 23 October 2017, Adityanath visited Chitrakoot, a district near Banda. His visit elicited fierce anger from voters in Kol Gadiha and Banadi, villages where he was expected, where promised “schemes” and plans, such as Swachh Bharat or the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana for affordable housing, were being hastily implemented just before his arrival. While media groups in Uttar Pradesh were abuzz with news of the visit, most publications and channels did not air the voters’ angry questions. They also did not cover the large protests that had taken place sporadically over the last six months, during which demonstrators repeatedly raised the slogan, “Kamal ka phool, sabse bada bhool”—“the biggest mistake, the lotus flower,” referring to the BJP party symbol.

Although it was not surprising that this discontent had not been featured by more mainstream news, it was striking that the narrative was also tightly controlled on WhatsApp groups. On the hundreds of news groups that run from Banda district alone, there were hardly any posts that critiqued the MLAs or MPs in power. There was next to no news of the protests by teachers, health workers and farmers in these groups. According to Raza, this is because political figures have learned to use social media to shape the public discourse in their favour. “Every district has prepared 1,000 boys, under different names, the Bajrang Dal, the Hindu Yuva Vahini,” he said. These groups are instrumental in shaping the kind of information that is circulated in groups.

The Hindu Yuva Vahini is one of three extremist Hindu “cultural” organisations that Adityanath established in 2002. These operate as his feet on the ground, his youth militia.

Rakesh Rathore, the Banda co-in-charge of the Hindu Yuva Vahini—which was established in the district in 2014, three years before Adityanath came to power—is on around 30 WhatsApp groups. Most of these are administrative groups catering to the 5,300 male members in the district. “Our main activities are cleanliness,” he said. “Then the promotion of Hindutva ideology, the protection of cows, and social work.” He continued, “This year, because Modi-ji and Yogi-ji have special focus on cleanliness, in our district as well, it becomes our responsibility too to support them.”

Rathore spends between four and six hours a day on “sangathan”, or organisation, work which involves managing a layered structure, from the gram panchayat and ward, to the tehsil, mandal and district. Each layer has an identical 21-member committee which manages the work of the Hindu Yuva Vahini in their area. “We inform the main people and they inform the others,” Sachin Chaurasiya, the young district treasurer of Banda, told us, “It works like links in a chain.” WhatsApp becomes significant for this approach: it ensures that the thousands of members can be informed of a meeting or an incident within seconds and “the whole district or block can be mobilised.”

Apart from groups that are exclusively for organisation members, Rathore is on a few general groups formed by the sangathan, where “members from all castes and religions may join” to communicate “our mission to as many people as we can.” Most of these have seemingly innocuous names, such as Ek Nayi Soch (a new way of thinking), Hum Sab Ek Hain (we are all one), Yuva Samaj (youth society) and Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas (development for all).

Rathore does not entertain the suggestion that there are people who feel fear and insecurity at the building of what seems like a parallel state, its tentacles spread wide enough to trigger networks across villages at the touch of a button. “We’re not demanding a Hindu nation,” he said. “But Hindu daughters should also not be harassed by other communities. For the protection of our homes and families, our honour, it is important for our religion to consolidate.” Rathore sees Adityanath as a benevolent patriarch, “the head of a family” who puts “his children and wives’ needs before his own.” He added, “Because our leader is Yogi Adityanath, and is the face of Hindutva, he will never do something only for the good of one caste or community.”

When we met him at the BJP district office in Banda on 11 September, Mohit Gupta, a 23-year-old district coordinator of the BJP’s IT cell in Banda, expressed his discomfort with the content that the Hindu Yuva Vahini groups shared on WhatsApp. “I feel suffocated in those groups,” Gupta said. “Their posts are violent and too provocative. You feel like it is better to keep a distance.” Gupta told us that because of the charged communal nature of the posts, the IT cell often took care to vet the messages first, as often as they could, before sharing it on their own groups.

But this was not apparent in the build-up to the Uttar Pradesh elections, when political news on WhatsApp groups, including on the ones Gupta claimed to be vetting, circulated polarising content. For much of 2016, and earlier this year, messages on WhatsApp groups in Banda and the adjoining Mahoba and Chitrakoot districts warned journalists, administrators, businessmen and students of the consequences of Hindus not coming together. Among the lines that stood out were, “Kairana aur Bangladesh dekhne ke liye tayyar rahen”—be prepared to see Kairana and Bangladesh. (BJP minister Hukum Singh had released a list in June 2016 of Hindu families who allegedly fled Kairana, in Shamli district, for fear of harassment by criminal Muslims.) The names of these two places were repeatedly used by BJP leaders to conjure up the bogey of a Muslim minority allegedly driving Hindus out of the state, or the danger for Hindus in a Muslim-majority country. The BJP’s chain of information, from the state down to the booth level, was by far the most efficient we came across. “See, the best thing about WhatsApp is the saving of time,” Gupta said. “If I’m here and I need to send a message to Naraini it will take me two hours and hiring a car to do it. Now, people are on different platforms, WhatsApp, FB, Hike … 90 percent of people in Banda use social media.”

Gupta’s story is the kind that is at the heart of this phenomenon of social media and the control of news in the hinterland. He was a toothy young lad who found his feet after school, became active in student politics and began using social media to post about events and functions out of his own sense of initiative. This early experience with social media eventually secured him a position as an administrator of the BJP’s Facebook page for Banda, and gave him access to networks of power. “If I’m known or anyone today, it is because of social media,” Gupta said. “There used to be a lot of nepotism before. You had to be a politician’s son, or very rich to have a place in politics. I had none of this.”

WE WANTED TO MEET women in these organisational structures and understand the part they played in shaping news. Santosh Misra, the head of Matra Shakti, the women’s wing of the Hindu Yuva Vahini—who is known simply as “mummy” to the young boys of the organisation—was presiding over an event involving health workers when we met her in September. We wanted to ask her whether she shared Rakesh Rathore’s notion of the Hindu family, and whether the women cadre was as tightly organised as Rathore’s young men. As we talked, Misra was closely shadowed by her male colleague, who appeared to be monitoring our conversation. “I don’t use WhatsApp, some of my colleagues do,” she said. Smartphones, she suggested, are only used by young people, and not really by women at all.

The work of the women’s wing, which is still nascent, is to help the all-male Hindu Yuva Vahini enter and intervene in female spaces such as women’s hostels and girls’ schools, and to resolve sensitive local issues that involve young women. As such, most of its energies are currently channelled in organisation-building through traditional grassroots methods. “We prefer to involve women above 25, 30 years,” Misra said. “You know what the times are like? We can’t put young girls at risk by asking them to travel around.” Misra appeared to concur with Rathore’s belief that the protection of the Hindu religion was related to the protection of Hindu daughters. “You know, nowadays girls are being harassed routinely by young boys,” she said. In these situations, Matra Shakti attempts to be a crucial link in what the Hindu Yuva Vahini claims to be its internal redressal mechanism. In cases of alleged sexual harassment, this involves a “chain” of women and men arriving at the victim’s doorstep to resolve the issue “before it reached the police station.”

Women reporters are outliers in Banda’s media circuit. They are not likely to be invited to drink with the local administration, and are seldom part of freewheeling boys-club conversations and addas in town, which often open up leads and access to news stories. It is far more difficult for them to cultivate informants in the easy way Raza does.

Of course, women have always been the subject of news. In mainstream news groups, women regularly appear as the guilty parties in cases of elopement (where the partner is not a Muslim man), and as villains in cases of adultery. They also feature as exaggerated stars in local melodramas, such as the highly publicised “Bullet Rani” of Banda, who allegedly swooped into her lover’s wedding and kidnapped him at gunpoint. Khabar Lahariya’s own coverage of the same case revealed a far less sensational unfolding of events, without guns and abductions, in which the distraught groom-to-be quietly slipped away with the woman in her car. The revelation of this more sober account elicited no embarrassment or regret on the many WhatsApp groups in which journalists such as Raza—who himself has always claimed to shy away from grandiose, flashy reporting of the type he calls “NDTV-style journalism”—had done everything they could to make the story go viral. And if Raza is critical, as he claims to be, of the Hindu Yuva Vahini picking up hapless young “Romeos” under the guise of protecting women, or breaking into hotels on Valentine’s Day to take young couples by surprise, these do not count as worthy of “breaking” on his news groups.

As a measure against the skewed nature of the way women are reported or talked about, we have tried to manage our own closed group on WhatsApp, specifically for women. It has around 80 district-level members, including journalists, activists, teachers and government employees, in Uttar Pradesh and beyond. It was started with the specific aim of bringing women into the fold of the fast-changing patterns of communication in the region. Members share news, political sex scandals or sensationalist and violent accounts of crimes against women—both mirroring and attempting to critique what makes the mainstream news. Occasionally, the group tries to steer the discussion towards women’s social position, and how women are represented in local news.

But by and large, apart from the rare woman reporter in the district, the presence of women is negligible on WhatsApp groups. Sexist jokes are par for the course, with pornographic films and sexually provocative images routinely sent on these otherwise all-male groups. Responding to these may get you a coy “Sorry Madam, it must have gone by accident” but does little to stem the flow of sexist content.

Although these online groups replicate structures of power in the offline world, the medium itself offers women in these regions the potential for transgression, however fleeting, in a world where patriarchy is entrenched. Life and social norms on social media are far more fluid than they are offline. In small towns and rural areas, where public interactions between members of different genders, classes and castes are restricted, the online worlds of Facebook and WhatsApp are more permissive and more open to illicit communication. They have unlocked a whole new domain: a territory between public and private, which transforms social relations, and allows relationships and communication to which women would not otherwise have had access. Indeed, WhatsApp has opened up new possibilities, even if it is often accessed by women surreptitiously—when partners and children are asleep, or when brothers leave their phones lying around.

“THESE WHATSAPP journalists are giving journalism a bad name,” Raza said, without much irony. He was trying to distinguish himself from journalists who use the medium irresponsibly to mislead people. But, he said, his efforts to pursue what he considers sound journalism have often led to his eviction from WhatsApp groups. “The reporters who show reality, they are constantly watched, their stories are watched,” says Raza. “If you say something against the powers that be, then your truth will be made false, and you will be removed from their groups.” Raza’s chief antagonist in this regard is the current district magistrate, 34-year-old Mahendra Bahadur Singh, another “Banda King,” and someone who is equally savvy with WhatsApp.

On 10 September, a group of women went to Singh’s office to submit a petition and protest the lapse of due process in the investigation of their children, who had gone missing recently. Annoyed at the commotion, the district magistrate came out of the office to try and get the protesters to leave. One of Raza’s informers, who was present at the scene, sent him a picture of Singh talking to the women, with his hand raised threateningly. This photograph, along with Raza’s phono, made it to a local television channel. It also travelled quickly across WhatsApp groups, deeply upsetting Singh, who claimed that it misrepresented the situation. He threatened to report Raza to the local information department for not having covered the full story.

More immediately, Raza was removed from all of Singh’s WhatsApp groups, and thus blocked from accessing newsfeeds and updates sent by the district magistrate. By Raza’s account, he won his way back by directly messaging Singh, and arguing that it was his job to cover the district’s problems. “We had high expectations of you, as a local leader, that you’d understand this district and its problems and be able to solve them,” he said he told Singh. “Par aap toh latrine bathroom karne aayen hain”—you seem to be here only for the toilets. Raza was referring to Singh’s well-known tendency to send pictures of toilets to WhatsApp groups to showcase his involvement with the Swachh Bharat campaign. Indeed, in our experience, Singh uses his networks and enthusiasm for social media to build a closed narrative about the changing persona of his district, often repeating his favourite line—“Banda badal raha hai”—Banda is changing. Whatever Raza’s tactic, it seemed to have worked, because he was soon back on Singh’s group.

We met Singh in his office in Banda early one morning, when he was meeting people from across the district, receiving applications and providing counsel. “I post on everything, everything—schemes, information, press clippings,” he said. “Initiatives people take in their villages. If there is a Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana announced, I post clippings from Dainik Jagran, Amar Ujala, Hindustan, because there will be a man who will not read these papers, but will read on Facebook.”

When Singh first came to Banda in June 2017, he joined important and influential journalists’ WhatsApp groups that were created by his predecessors. In these he would aggressively post pictures of toilets of every shape and colour, village meetings and midday meals, but then disappear if he did not get the responses he desired. Now established, he creates carefully curated groups—the latest of which is the “VIP group,” comprising a changing set of journalists, important members of the administration, the BJP and Hindu Yuva Vahini—which he uses to build and strengthen a positive developmental narrative.

He is the administrator of around 40 WhatsApp groups, each of which cater to specific social and professional communities such as teachers, community health workers, media professionals and district government workers. Being on the district magistrate’s groups gives people access to important goings-on in the district. But rupture his narrative and you will be expelled from them, like Raza and several other combative journalists have been, at one time or another. “I’ve told the media that they should limit their posts to what the administration can take action on,” says Singh. “And what has no relevance for the administration should not be shared.” He added, “What we post can be sources for media stories, but we don’t want to be told general problems.”

BANDA SERVES AS A MICROCOSM of the wider story about how digital technology has changed the way news flows in rural India, and the crisis of credibility that this can precipitate. As politicians, administrators and journalists all attempt to set the terms of the debate, truth-telling becomes less important than managing perceptions. Platforms such as WhatsApp both empower and threaten the position of a stringer such as Raza, by vastly widening his reach while also spreading unverified viral information that could erode the public’s trust in journalism. His family used to scoff at him for his idealism—they said he had been bitten by the “insect of truth”—and now Raza fears they might deride him as besharam, a man without shame.

Although Raza has found some success in the competitive world of local journalism in the digital age—where journalistic and moral ethics are circumspect—he does not believe it can bring him much security. He is already contemplating his next step. Perhaps one that will allow him a more straightforward path to money and power than the shifting world of WhatsApp journalism. As a first move, he says with an exaggerated seriousness, he will return to his village in Hamirpur and go back to tilling the land and grazing his buffaloes. Then, when the time seems right, he might stand for a panchayat election. We asked him, playing along, whether he would miss the higher ideals of journalism, once he left it for the world of politics. “It’s not clean,” he said. “But it’s not like the media is.” Raza sees politics as a domain where influence and money can be pursued more openly, without needing to keep up a veneer of accountability. “If you have to bend to those in power,” he says, “you may as well do it with some position, some authority.” Nonetheless, it was clear to us that Raza did not intend to stray from his chosen profession. We asked whether he would miss journalism, glamour and high ideals and all, in his life as a farmer and village sarpanch, and he responded, a familiar glint in his eyes, “Maybe I will continue to work just for one big channel. Or start my own channel!”

Disha Mullick is the director of strategy at Khabar Lahariya, and reports and writes when
she can.

Meera Devi is the chief reporter at Khabar Lahariya, focussing on training and special investigations. She has worked as a reporter in Bundelkhand for over 12 years.

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