The announcement blew up and led to a global exodus of disgruntled users to the next best thing out there, Signal, which is currently topping the app store download charts. Signal is a free app that allows end-to-end encrypted messaging system—meaning it is privacy-respecting.
This is when the WhatsApp forward turned up. This is what it looked like:
By early this week, the message had gone viral, and even led to Indian news portals putting out fake news alerts against it. While there are rumours galore about WhatsApp’s privacy change after the policy update—which WhatsApp is busy clarifying since—this fake WhatsApp forward stood out.
For one, it was obviously fake because Signal is an American non-profit founded by Moxie Marlinspike and Brian Acton. Secondly, this message originated from Reddit, which is home to social experiments and digital activism. And thirdly, like all kinds of misinformation on WhatsApp, this went viral too within days.
VICE World News tracked down the creator of this fake post, who goes by the Reddit handle i_Killed_Reddit, for an interview to talk about the viral forward, why they appealed to nationalistic sentiments of Indian WhatsApp users, and what the virality taught them about forwarding fake news and privacy. i_Killed_Reddit requested anonymity for the interview.
VICE World News: Hey, i_Killed_Reddit. What made you create that fake WhatsApp forward?
How did this all come together? What were your key inspirations for this piece of work?
There is a community on Reddit called r/IndiaSocial in which one of our active users was alarmed about the ongoing WhatsApp privacy nightmare. They made a post asking users if they’re planning to migrate to Signal. I made a comment there about how we should make a satire WhatsApp forward instead, by adding generic patriotic tadka (Hindi for sizzle) into the recipe usually followed by WhatsApp forwards. We used viral-worthy keywords like “gold medals”, a rags-to-riches storyline, “Indian creator”, “NASA & UNESCO acclamation”, etc. Another Redditor recommended adding “Sanskrit”.
I literally created the draft in two minutes. I sprinkled it with generic emojis of flowers, namaste and Indian flag to make it more WhatsApp forward-material. Then, to make it more enticing, I added a fake promotion where, if the message is forwarded 10 times, the recipient of the message can win INR500 shopping voucher.
Finally, to scare the “unkills” who have a habit of sending “Good Morning” messages, I added that WhatsApp servers can’t handle the load of “Good Morning” messages, so they will be shut down. It was always meant to be a satire in a wholesome way, which, in a way, is indirectly protecting the “unkills” from giving away their personal data.
Did you expect this message to go viral?
Of course, I did. It was full-on viral material. Although, I didn't expect it to blow up so quickly, but expected it to happen more gradually and organically.
What kind of response did you get?
Most of the Redditors were enthusiastic that this will definitely work in moving lots of users to Signal. Some were pessimistic, and some felt it’s morally wrong but a necessary evil. Most millennials and zoomers understood the sarcasm and even applauded it.
The post was eventually removed for “misinformation” on Reddit, which ironically thrived on WhatsApp. Do you think your work served its purpose?
Yes, the post was removed on r/India after a few hours, citing misinformation and due to a few user reports. They also felt that the purpose had been achieved, as the forward had already gone viral on Facebook, Twitter and, ironically, WhatsApp. r/India has, however, reinstated the post as we speak, and has flared it as “Satire”.
What do you personally think of WhatsApp?
I was one of the early adopters of WhatsApp in around 2011-2012, and had pushed my friends and family to join it. I even paid $0.99 a year, and would have preferred if it stayed that way and continued to respect our privacy. It surely was a revolutionary messaging platform and helped connect a lot of people. But currently, people need to understand how important privacy is, and that we need to have control of it in our own hands and not in the hands of corporations. It was a good run, but it's time to move on.
Do you have any personal reasons for choosing Signal?
I’ve been hearing about Signal for almost three years, but had no contacts in there so it was kind of useless. I love that the platform is open source and frowns upon invasion of user privacy. I would love to keep using Signal as more people start using it and until the platform is true to their core values. When that changes and they start to get greedy (I hope not), we move on to something better in the future.
Would you call your WhatsApp forward work subversive, or activism of sorts?
I would call this subtle sarcasm that mocks the everyday consumption of disinformation without any balance and checks. It was kind of fighting fire with fire. Also, I am no activist. I’m just a regular person without any ulterior motives.
Do you think tech companies are doing enough to crack down on misinformation in the South Asian region, as compared to how proactive and accountable they are in, say, the U.S.?
Most tech companies belong to the U.S. and they always care about what is portrayed about them in the western media. They forget that most of South Asia is one of their fastest-growing user bases, and they need to take moderation and curation of regional stuff more seriously. They should invest in people and technology that understand the regional slangs/casteism/bigotry/hate-spreading done on a daily basis.
WhatsApp did counter the fake news by throttling the number of forwards per day. But once the outrage in India died, they and other social media platforms went silent again. This can’t happen for too long, or there will be severe consequences. A simple message created in two minutes by me went viral. Just imagine the corporations and organisations whose job is to create such kind of sensational, harmful messages, and spreading them on a daily basis.
Would you do this again?
I definitely would, but only for a good cause that will not harm anyone or spread any kind of hate.
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.