From 11th April to 19th May, 900 million Indian citizens will elect parliamentary representatives in every state.

Social media will play a major role, shaping public discourse and influencing voters in the so-called “WhatsApp elections”. Now, authorities are seeking to address digital platforms’ murky but significant impact on the political process.

For instance, candidates must submit the details of their social media accounts and channels. And the Electoral Commission needs to pre-approve all political advertising—including online ads.

But what constitutes political advertising?

In January, TIME reported that the incumbent Hindu nationalist party had engaged 900,000 volunteers to create individual WhatsApp groups for India’s 927,533 polling booths.

These groups spread information about prime minister Narendra Modi’s campaign and his government’s achievements. Meanwhile, opposition party the National Congress recruited 138,000 of its own WhatsApp “assistants”.

Using hyperlocal content to amplify centrally-determined ideological fault lines could simply be considered smart politics. And stories which embitter caste and faith divisions are a reliable way of eliciting public fervour.

However, even if “bulk SMSes/Voice messages on phone” qualify as advertisements—WhatsApp’s encryption anonymises senders, making it impossible to trace a message to its source.

Where does the organic dissemination of political messages end, and intentional propaganda begin?

And how can either be regulated if they occur on encrypted platforms?


The rise in spending on digital advertising in India since 2005, in units of 100,000 rupees. Source: MediaNama/GroupM


Credit for this article's header image goes to Getty.