Gareth Nellis

2020 Hellman Fellow

Assistant Professor, Political Science
UC San Diego

Project title: WhatsApp with India? The Effects of Social Media on Political Preferences and Violent Majoritarianism

Project description: Recent years have seen a surge in right-wing nationalism, xenophobia, and the expression of anti-minority sentiment in democracies worldwide. Many commentators attribute the rise of regressive political movements to technological innovations—in particular, misinformation and partisan vitriol spread on social media. India, which with 900 million eligible voters is the world’s largest democracy, is currently ground zero for the dissemination of fake news. In a context of growing literacy, increasing incomes, and cheap data plans, smartphones have become ubiquitous. WhatsApp—a popular messaging app used by at least 400 million Indian citizens—is the primary vector for the transmission of inflammatory rumors and false reporting (akin to Facebook in the US). It is alleged to have transformed the way Indians vote and interact with religious and caste minorities. The app allows citizens to chat with friends and family in “echo chambers” where viral misinformation is rarely called out. Far-right majoritarian groups employ WhatsApp more than any other medium to broadcast emotive images and videos, framed to incite animosity and violence against the country’s Muslim community. Politicians level trumped-up charges against one another over the platform, restricting the space for programmatic debate.