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Is WhatsApp the biggest influencer in India elections?

The campaign, with a planned completion this year, aims to connect rural areas with high-speed Internet networks.

On July 1, 2015, roughly a year into his tenure as India's Prime Minister, Narendra Modi unveiled the Digital India campaign with the motto 'Power to Empower'. The campaign, with a planned completion this year, aims to connect rural areas with high-speed Internet networks and improve digital literacy. Digital India has definitely helped increase the number of people online in the world's largest democracy. At 900 million, the country has the world's largest electorate - 70 million more than in the previous elections in 2014. A bulk of India's voters - both rural and urban - are online and accessible via the smartphone, which has become a more powerful tool in election campaigns than any other platform or device in history.

According to the Hong Kong-based Counterpoint Research, India is now home to 430 million smartphone users, and this base is growing rapidly, set to cross the 700-million mark by 2020. India is also the biggest WhatsApp market in the world, with more than 200 million users in 2017 (unofficial estimates suggest that number has grown to 300 million). Either way, that is a large bunch of voters accessible via one 'dark social' app. Almost four years since the launch of Digital India, the country's political parties are eyeing social media - in particular, WhatsApp - as a tool for election campaigns and canvassing.

It is also one that is most prone to spreading fake news and misinformation, as became evident during the spate of mass lynchings in 2018. While Facebook's role in tilting the tide in the 2016 US elections is now well documented and debated, the fact that WhatsApp messages and groups remain encrypted and therefore beyond scrutiny make it a much more potent tool - rather weapon - in the Indian political battleground. The origin of clandestine messages can be hard to track, with 87,000 WhatsApp groups reportedly set up to influence the electorate in the India polls set to begin on April 11. Whichever party leverages the size and scope of WhatsApp better, then, stands to come to power, ironically turning the Digital India motto on its head to 'Empowered to Power'.

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