WhatsApp Is Changing the Way India Talks About Food

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It has been three years since India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, started Digital India, an initiative to increase internet connectivity across the country, especially in rural areas. WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, has become the medium of choice: It is free, requires only an internet connection, and often comes installed on new phones. As a result, India now has more users of the application — over 200 million, or one in six Indians — than any other country, a WhatsApp spokeswoman said.

But among Indians who produce, cook or care about food, the service has been a godsend. In a country where culinary traditions are often spoken but not written, WhatsApp has provided an open, democratic forum where Indians can share and codify their knowledge and skills, in new ways, and even profit from them.

“One of the problems with documenting Indian food is that the people who prepare it” — mainly homemakers, farmers and young cooks — “tend to be less empowered and less formally educated,” said Vikram Doctor, 51, a journalist in Mumbai. “They just don’t document. They are not comfortable using a computer or blogging, or people just don’t ask them.”

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In India, Facebook’s WhatsApp Plays Central Role in Elections

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Milling on a vast field with his college buddies, Mr. Bhat, 18, cheered for Mr. Modi and his Hindu-oriented Bharatiya Janata Party, which was trying to wrest control of Karnataka state from the more secular Indian National Congress in legislative elections.

Yet the most intense political campaigning was not taking place on the streets. Instead, the action was happening on WhatsApp, a messaging service owned by Facebook that has about 250 million users in India.

Mr. Bhat, a B.J.P. youth leader, said he used WhatsApp to stay in constant touch with the 60 voters he was assigned to track for the party. He sent them critiques of the state government, dark warnings about Hindus being murdered by Muslims — including a debunked B.J.P. claim that 23 activists were killed by jihadists — and jokes ridiculing Congress leaders. His own WhatsApp stream was full of election updates, pro-B.J.P. videos, and false news stories, including a fake poll purportedly commissioned by the BBC that predicted a sweeping B.J.P. win.

Ghana asks mosques to turn down the noise and use WhatsApp for call to prayer

Buses, stalls and vendors seen in Kaneshi market in Accra (picture-alliance/ZB/T. Schulze)

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“Why is it that time for prayer cannot be transmitted with text message or WhatsApp? So the imam would send WhatsApp messages to everybody,” said environment minister Kwabena Frimpong-Boateng.

“I think that will help to reduce the noise. This may be controversial but it’s something that we can think about,” he told DW.

The government says it is hopeful such a change could contribute to a reduction in excessive noise.

Muslims reject WhatsApp idea

For many Muslims living in the capital, the idea of a mobile call to prayer is more difficult to embrace.

Fadama community mosque imam, Sheik Usan Ahmed, calls Muslims to prayer five times at prescribed times throughout the day. Although he agrees that the level of noise could be reduced, relying on text and WhatsApp messages could also have economic implications, he told DW. “The imam is not paid monthly. Where would he get the money to be doing that? We try to practice what is possible. So the text message or any other message is not a problem. But I don’t think it is necessary,” Ahmed said.

Older Indians Drive Millennials Crazy On WhatsApp. This Is Why They’re Obsessed.

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WhatsApp is now an inextricable part of India’s culture. The app has more than 200 million users in the country, and it’s nearly as large as Facebook’s Indian user base itself. And while it’s widely used by millennials, it’s really older Indians —  people like my mother, her friends, and extended family  —  who’ve embraced it with striking passion and sincerity.

“To my parents, WhatsApp isn’t just an instant messenger,” said Devang Pathak, a 25-year-old writer from Mumbai. “It’s an entire social network. It’s where they catch up with family and friends, it’s where they get their news, and it’s where they watch a ton of videos. They use it so much it scares me.”

Digitally savvy millennials in India post Stories on Instagram, share memes on Facebook, watch videos on YouTube, keep up on Twitter, and chat with each other on Facebook Messenger. But older Indians have incorporated the most compelling features of these platforms right into WhatsApp. Vacation pictures don’t go on Facebook or Instagram, videos don’t go on YouTube, and jokes and wisecracks don’t go on Twitter. For older Indians, WhatsApp is the ultimate social network.

“Honestly, Facebook is a little complex for me,” said my mother. “And it’s not a place where I can reach everyone I care about at once like I can do in a WhatsApp group. And it’s also not, well, private.”

An aunt, who is in her late sixties and who began using WhatsApp about six months ago, is now a notorious serial forwarder. But she likes it for other reasons as well. “It’s my music player,” she said. “People I know send me so many music clips on WhatsApp and I don’t know how to play music on my phone.”

4 innovative ways India is using WhatsApp

A boy uses a mobile phone as he sits inside his father's snacks shop along a road in Kolkata, India, February 22, 2016. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTX27ZEW

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In recent years, the authorities have caught on to WhatsApp’s potential for engaging more directly with the Indian public, especially in some of the country’s megacities.

Increasing women’s safety

A WhatsApp safety group enables New Delhi women who travel by public transport to send photos and details of the vehicle to the police before boarding it. Set up as both a deterrent for sex crimes and to boost women’s confidence, the group can also be used to alert the police in emergencies.

Reporting offences…

Holding politicians to account…

Helping flood victims

WhatsApp, Crowds and Power in India

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The gifts of free usage and anonymity have made WhatsApp the most popular tool to spread both outlandish stories and politically motivated rumors. On an ordinary Indian morning, messages on the app can include the rumor of a popular mango drink being laced with H.I.V.-positive blood, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization’s rating of Narendra Modi as the best prime minister in the world or Julian Assange describing him as an incorruptible leader.

WhatsApp forwards are deftly tailored toward target audiences. Last year, the Indian middle class debated for weeks whether new 2000 rupee bills introduced by the Indian government after demonetization featured a chip that could be used to track the bills. There was no chip, but the rumor lived for a while.

Nationalist rage, often with sectarian overtones, dominates the world of India’s WhatsApp messages. One of the most popular WhatsApp hoaxes of this year featured the purported beheading of two Indian soldiers by Pakistani soldiers with a chain saw and a knife. India’s national song played in the background.

The Facebook smugglers selling the dream of Europe

Screenshot of Abdul Aziz's Facebook page

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Across the Mediterranean, people smugglers are advertising their services on Facebook, promising safe passage to migrants desperate to reach Europe. Their pages offer a glimpse into a smuggling network that spans three continents, generates hundreds of millions of dollars, and has become, in effect, an alternative asylum service for the EU.

“With the beginning of the new season we have a range of journeys on offer. Turkey Libya Italy, $3,800. Algeria Libya Italy, $2,500. Sudan Libya Italy, $2,500… The boats are all wood… If you have questions, contact me on Viber or WhatsApp.”