Earlier in March, the Election Commission (EC) put out a list of guidelines for what political parties could say and do online while campaigning for the elections, especially on WhatsApp.
Apparently, some individuals felt they were somehow above the rules — both of the EC and WhatsApp’s operating guidelines.
According to a Reuters report, digital marketers and political agents in India have been using clone apps and software workarounds to bypass WhatsApp’s anti-spam restrictions.
Even before the EC’s code of conduct, WhatsApp had implemented restrictions on how many people a message could be forwarded to. This was thanks to recent incidents where fake news articles and hoax scares were passed around on the app, resulting in multiple instances of mob violence.
India is WhatsApp’s biggest market, with over 200 million monthly active users and growing, and before the elections began the company had to take cognizance of the issue. Their solution was to limit the forwarding feature to a maximum of five recipients, which also comes in handy when trying to prevent underhanded propaganda and campaigning during the elections currently on.
Reuters indicates these precautions have spiked the demand for workarounds, as mentioned by both digital companies and sources within the BJP and Congress. One source mentioned, Rohitash Repswal, runs a digital marketing business out of New Delhi. He claimed he was running a piece of software that let him bypass the forwarding restriction and send up to 100,000 WhatsApp messages a day for two political party members. “Whatever WhatsApp does, there’s a workaround,” he said.
That software, called ‘Business Sender’, cost him just Rs 1,000.
Reuters also found other ways the BJP and Congress were misusing WhatsApp for campaigning. They were using WhatsApp clones available online to mass forward messages, software tools to automate WhatsApp deliveries, and were even using online services that let them send bulk WhatsApp from various anonymous numbers.
All three of those are against WhatsApp’s code of conduct, and the last two are even illegal under Indian laws.
Reuters indicate some of these software tools were even available on Amazon India. When bought, they arrived as CDs tucked into cardboard casings, with no company branding that could be traced back.
Two of the clone apps being used were identified as “GBWhatsApp” and “JTWhatsApp”. Two Congress workers and one from the BJP in fact confirmed that party workers were using them, according to the original report.
“WhatsApp occasionally bans some of these numbers, but the volunteers would use new (mobile) SIM cards to sign up,” one Congress member with direct knowledge of this said.
In response to the original report, WhatsApp didn’t have a very convincing response. “We are continuing to step up our enforcement against imposter WhatsApp services and take legal action by sending cease and desist letters to hundreds of bulk messaging service providers to help curb abuse,” a spokeswoman said. “We do not want them to operate on our platform and we work to ban them”.