Gone are the days when political debates charged up the atmosphere on Indian streets, around corner teashops or at the barber. WhatsApp has become one of the most influential tools of political campaigning across South Asia, as others have said, but running an information business via this tool for profit while pushing a political agenda is a recent phenomenon.

This is happening in Chhattisgarh, the mineral-rich tribal state in the upper east, which is a hotbed of Maoist violence and is witnessing a two-phase election that ended today (November 20). Results are set to be announced on December 11.

A few journalists in Jagdalpur, a city in the tribal district of Bastar in Chhattisgarh, are utilizing the kerfuffle around the election to sell their insights in exchange of money on WhatsApp groups they set up for the very same purpose.

In an attempt to exploit the popularity of this free one-to-one messaging service, they have floated personal news channels through WhatsApp groups and seek a membership fee from all participants.

The groups have titles similar to a news channel or daily paper. Group administrators initially add people and let them have free access to the information being shared in the group, before proposing that they become members. If a person refuses to pay up, they are removed from the group.

Jagdalpur Today (Siasat) [Politics]’ is one such group providing local political developments to its members, who are mostly from the city, along with a few from adjoining rural areas.

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The WhatsApp group Jagdalpur Today Politics which demands a membership fee. Photo: Rishi Bhatnagar

Jaiprakash Singh, 34, who runs a paan shop (betel leaf with areca nut or tobacco), paid 1,500 rupees or US$21 to continue being a part of the group. Singh says although the fee is not legal, he paid to get updates about political developments in the run-up to elections in the state.

“Frequent updates do help in understanding the political mood, but many times one cannot be sure enough to trust these messages. Many updates shared on the group have been away from the picture on the ground,” Singh said.

Other popular WhatsApp groups that seek paid members include Chunavi Chaupal (Election Square), Siyasi Gupshup (Political Gossip), Chunav Ka Vishleshan (Election Explained), Kiski Banegi Sarkar? (Who Will Form Government?) and Kiski Hogi Satta? (Who Will Claim Power?).

Brimming with political updates, these groups keep shifting their winning pick between Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the two major parties, in an attempt to keep the excitement and following going.

The number of members in the Jagadalpur Today (Politics) group has come down to 125 members from 190 after administrator Vikas Duggad started charging people for membership in October. With 125 members paying Rs 1,500 each, Duggad would have made Rs 1,87,500 ($2,627) from his group. A trader who owns a cloth store in the city, Duggad managed a local TV channel for about two years before starting to work as a freelance journalist.

The administrators of other groups charge fees between Rs 1,500 and 3,000 ($42).

Parties approached with ‘package’

The driving force behind this business is the fact that for most Indians living in non-urban areas, participating in large WhatsApp groups constitutes most of their online communication, and being politically informed is the basis of social interactions.

Administrators running these groups have also approached party candidates to offer them paid services in exchange for circulating favorable information.

According to the BJP’s district president, Baiduram Kashyap, these groups are illegal, so they haven’t paid any money to people running them. Kashyap says the administrator of ‘Jagadalpur Today (Politics)’ WhatsApp group met him and offered a “package” to circulate content in favor of the BJP during the election. But Kashyap said he declined the offer.

Congress leader from Bastar, Rajesh Tiwari, says he doesn’t believe any political group has paid outsiders like these groups to push content. Tiwari admitted the idea about generating news favorable to the party initially excited him but said the price quoted – Rs 25,000 ($350) to 30,000 ($420) – turned him against the deal. “Since WhatsApp is offering its services free of cost, these people are proposing such ideas only to make some money. We can ourselves turn messages related to our party viral if we want,” he explained.

Amit Pandey, the Janata Congress Chhattisgarh (JCC) candidate from Jagdalpur, was also against “paid news”. “No party should fall for paid news, as it spoils the image of the party and the candidate. It also affects the faith of people in their candidates,” he said, adding that party members also try to spread viral messages, but never pay for it.

Credibility taking a hit

With the first phase of voting in Chhattisgarh over on November 12, several reports circulated via these groups turned out to be rumors and some analyses had fallen flat.

One rumor was a report that Bastar monarch Kamalchandra Bhanj Deo, who is also chairperson of Chhattisgarh Youth Commission, would run on the BJP ticket in Jagdalpur. But a day later when the BJP announced its list of candidates, Santosh Bafna, a two-time MP from Jagdalpur, was awarded the ticket.

Members were also misled by claims that Jagdalpur Mayor Jatin Jaiswal would be a candidate for Congress in an assembly seat. But Congress gave its Jagdalpur ticket to Rekhchand Jain.

Another rumor circulating on the Jagdalpur Today group suggested that Pandey, the JCC candidate from Jagdalpur, would win the ballot by a huge margin.

But this sort of speculative reporting that has turned out to be fake has left many members in groups disappointed.

Raidhar Netam, who runs a grocery store in Aasna village near Jagdalpur, says he cannot continue spending money on such groups. “How will we benefit from inaccurate news about politicians? I will have to look after my business no matter who comes to power,” he says.

With the first phase of polling over in Chhattisgarh, the popularity and authenticity of these groups is declining, as most of their reporting did not match developments on the ground.

Rajendra Bajpayee, a senior journalist who has worked 35 years in Bastar region, said one should not draw their conclusions from information circulated on social media and WhatsApp groups. “If people want to analyze the elections, they should refer to facts and figures, so that only truthful information is shared with people and their faith in the source of news grows,” Bajpayee says.

He cautioned people not to forward any WhatsApp information without verifying it, saying that years ago news was passed around as “breaking” and people fell for it. “Big media houses with established newspapers and TV news channels that invest effort in understanding and explaining the political developments are the only trustworthy source. Viral messages should be verified before believing them,” he said.

Bastar district collector Ayyaz Fakir Bhai Tamboli says although there were no specific guidelines regarding the forming of WhatsApp groups, permission was needed if groups are used for election campaigning. He said even people wanting to send bulk SMS messages had to register with the district administration first.

“A report will be sent to the Election Commission and action taken if these instructions are not followed. All the guidelines set for election campaigning must be followed,” he warned.