India has a massive population of 1.37 billion. It has over 30 languages, and 1600 dialects and KPMG predicts that Indian language Internet users will grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 18% to 536 million that is nearly 75% of the Internet base by 2021.
These studies and figures are the creators of a magnetic pool that has continued to attract several vernacular social media companies to India.
These vernacular apps, catering to the large and diverse country, has witnessed exponential growth.
Sharechat recently raised a $100 Mn, and it’s worth now stands at $460 Mn. Moreover, the startup has DAU (Daily Active Users) of 8 mn users. With only 50 employees, the company covers 14 regional languages. Roposo with $21 Mn funding says it has 11 Mn signed-up users. The popular local language social app Helo, which was launched by China’s Toutiao, has over 10 Mn installs. China-based TikTok has currently over 500 Mn active users. Indian audience is getting hooked to these social networking platforms.
However, under the addiction of these apps, Indian users, yet again, have ignored the red flag. By installing these apps, they aren’t just getting the benefits of the app but subconsciously signing up for online abuse, fake news, misinforming campaigns, hoaxes, and more.
Experts have raised various concerns about the rapid rise of vernacular apps. Some of them are explained below.
The spread of fake news:
“Terrorist Zakir Naik said he would return to India when the Congress government is in power. So Congress supports terrorists?” read the top ‘trending’ post under ‘news’ in the Hindi section of ShareChat, a homegrown vernacular social network, on November 9, 2018.
Another politically motivated ‘fake news‘ surfaced on ShareChat Hindi which apparently shared “result of an RTI inquiry”. The result showed that then Madhya Pradesh chief minister and senior BJP leader Shivraj Singh Chouhan, a “true Hindu”, had a chicken dish, worth Rs 3 lakh while travelling abroad.
While in the real world there is no evidence of either Zakir Nair, a controversial Islamic preacher, making such comment or Mr Chouhan breaching hardcore Hindu norms lavishly.
ShareChat has 50 million registered users, and Helo at least have 5 million registered users, and these regional language social media platforms are hatching fake news.
Recent time has also seen cases of mob-lynching and assaults, driven by ‘fake news’ circulated on social media apps. Content shared through regional language apps make them easier to consume.
The rise of explicit, obscene content in regional language apps is another primary concern in India. An app called ‘Hot Bigo’ that has managed to garner 10,000 plus downloads shows inappropriate pictures of Asian girls on its thumbnail.
Another such app called ‘Vigo Video’ has also amassed millions of downloads. The app allows its users to “follow and interact with other video makers, send private messages, shoot clips with background music and share videos on social media.”
Recently, China-based TikTok came under fire for disseminating inappropriate content on its platform.
In April, the Madras High Court had asked the Central government to ban TikTok. The High Court argued that the content circulated on the app might spoil the future of young India and exploit the tender minds of children. The court said that it was the government’s responsibility to supervise such apps and stop the broadcast of inappropriate content.
Studies have shown that minors can easily get hooked to such short-video making apps. They not only get addicted but also make children vulnerable to the consumption of dangerous and sexually explicit content. Many believe it is easy to trap children in the net of cybercrimes with the help of these apps.
Biased political campaigning:
Russian election meddling, Cambridge Analytica scandal, are some of the recent examples of using social media platforms to polarise the voters. The ShareChat Hindi shared a fake news clip quotes senior Congress leader and former president of India Pranab Mukherjee as saying that UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi hates Hindus. The post was not only politically charged but also had the potential to create communal tensions among people. A section of the app in another post quoted Mukherjee as saying that 134-year-old party (Congress) will face a shameful defeat in 2019 Lok Sabha polls as it is seen as an anti-national party. Mukherjee never made any of those remarks. Moreover, the soldiers of the fake-news army went on to paint renowned Russian writer Leo Tolstoy as communal. The Kannada section of the app quoted Leo as saying that Hindi and Hindutva will rule the world one day.
The list of using these apps to gain political advantages doesn’t stop here. A recent post of Helo Hindi cited BBC as saying that a survey declared Congress as the fourth most corrupt party in the world. Another post misquoted Congress leader and deputy CM of Rajasthan Sachin Pilot as saying that India should have invested the money in clearing the debt of Pakistan than using it to build Statue of Unity.
These platforms often use users data to understand the political inclination and then to disseminate data to alter or influence the choice of the voters. Regional language apps make it easy to manipulate the voters and hence poses a threat to democracy.
It is worth mentioning that many political leaders and workers are active on ShareChat, India’s fastest growing local social network. The app shelters account of BJP President and Union Minister Amit Shah’s account and former president of Congress Rahul Gandhi.
Breach of law:
These apps which have gained millions of users in India are not following the standard norms, which could amount to litigation, Inc42 has learned. Since vernacular language can be easily penetrated deep into rural India, the implications of which can be mammoth.
“It is not directly a violation; however, it amounts to litigation. There is a contract that needs to be signed with the user to access and use the app, and the contract has to be in a language that a user can understand. Because until and unless, a contract’s terms and conditions are known to both parties, it cannot be considered that this is a contract which has been understood and then signed. So, it is important to get those contracts in their local language,” Rashmi Deshpande, a legal expert told Inc42.
The shortcomings have posed a threat to these apps. With consumer becoming smart and aware of its functioning, the popular local language apps have started to follow the big American company’s model of earning trust.
After Facebook came under the scrutiny of media, it promptly released a bundle of guidelines, stating the measures taken to tackle the spread of fake news and curb political propaganda.
Following footsteps of giants, Social media app Helo collaborated with Alt News– a fact-checking news portal– to create a safe environment to exchange news and ideas.
By February 2019, given the approaching general election, ShareChat had removed close to half a million posts and took down nearly 55,000 accounts from its platform for spreading fake news and hate speeches. Accounts posting intentional misinformation campaigns were toppled.
The rise in the popularity of vernacular apps should be well-balanced with the awareness of its pros and cons. The user should be well-versed of what he agrees to while ticking the terms and conditions of the checkbox.