Why WhatsApp is the new BBC


Cable TV came to India in late 1991 and early 1992. Before that large parts of the country could view only one television channel and that was the government owned Doordarshan.

Doordarshan continued to remain a force to reckon with as long as it had monopoly on news broadcasting. The irony was that most people who took their news seriously, would believe something only when they had heard it on BBC radio.

In fact, even those who did not take their news seriously but wanted to push their point of view, would claim to have heard some piece of news originally on the BBC. The point being that just saying that you had heard it originally on the BBC, even if you had not, gave the whole point of view that you were trying to push, a lot more credibility.

The rise of cable TV essentially ensured that people largely stopped watching Doordarshan, at least in urban areas. The other thing that happened was that people stopped tuning into short wave radio as well to listen to the BBC radio service.

Dear Reader, you must be wondering why am I writing about this, nearly two decades later? Is it a burst of nostalgia? Perhaps. But more importantly I am just trying to make a comparison. In the 1990s, people used to believe the BBC, which had inherently more credibility than anything else, now they believe whatever has been sent to them on WhatsApp.

I have had people arguing with me on the merits and demerits of demonetisation on the basis of long WhatsApp forwards that they have received. It’s like the 1990s when people wanting to push their point of view, they simply said that they had heard it on the BBC. Now, they say they have seen and read it on WhatsApp.

When I tell them that WhatsApp forwards can be motivated and essentially made up by those wanting to push a particular point of view, I get brushed aside. That’s the credibility that WhatsApp has these days, among many people.

As Roland Barthes writes in an essay titled The World of Wrestling which is a part of a collection of essays titled Mythologies: “The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so: it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and consequences: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees.”

Hence, people see the WhatsApp messages, read them and believe them. They don’t question them in most cases. In fact, psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman conducted a very interesting experiment to show that people tend to go with what they see and end up being majorly wrong in the process.

As Michael Lewis writes in The Undoing Project—A Friendship that Changed the World: “A bunch of high school students [were given] five seconds to guess the answer to a math question.” There were two groups. The first group was asked to estimate the product of 8×7×6×5×4 ×3 ×2 ×1. The second group was asked to estimate the product of 1×2×3×4×5×6×7×8.

Both the groups were essentially asked the same question, with only the order of digits being reversed. As Lewis writes: “Five seconds wasn’t long enough to actually do the math: The kids had to guess. The two groups answers should have been at least roughly the same, but they weren’t even roughly.”

The actual answer to the question is 40,320. The median answer for the first group was 2,250 and for the second group was 512. The first group’s answer was more than four times, the second group’s. As Lewis writes: “The reason the kids in the first group guessed a higher number for the first sequence was that they had used 8 as a starting point, while the kids in the second group had used 1.”

Hence, depending on what they saw, the kids came up with what they thought the right answer was. Kahneman calls this what you see is all there is and that explains why people believe what they see and read on WhatsApp so much.

The column originally appeared in Bangalore Mirror on January 18, 2017.

About vivekkaul
Vivek Kaul is a writer who has worked at senior positions with the Daily News and Analysis(DNA) and The Economic Times, in the past. He is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. Easy Money: The Greatest Ponzi Scheme Ever and How It Is Set to Destroy the Global Financial System , the latest book in the trilogy has just been published. The first two books in the trilogy were published in November 2013 and July 2014 respectively. Both the books were bestsellers on Amazon.com and Amazon.in. Currently he works as an economic commentator and writes regular columns for www.firstpost.com. He is also the India editor of The Daily Reckoning newsletter published by www.equitymaster.com. His writing has appeared across various other publications in India. These include The Times of India, Business Standard,Business Today, Business World, The Hindu, The Hindu Business Line, Indian Management, The Asian Age, Deccan Chronicle, Forbes India, Mutual Fund Insight, The Free Press Journal, Quartz.com, DailyO.in, Business World, Huffington Post and Wealth Insight. In the past he has also been a regular columnist for www.rediff.com. He has lectured at IIM Bangalore, IIM Indore, TA PAI Institute of Management and the Alliance University (Bangalore). He has also taught a course titled Indian Economy to the PGPMX batch of IIM Indore. His areas of interest are the intersection between politics and economics, the international financial crisis, personal finance, marketing and branding, and anything to do with cinema and music. He can be reached at vivek.kaul@gmail.com

One Response to Why WhatsApp is the new BBC

  1. carlos501b says:

    I agree 100%. Unbelievable to me that ANYONE let alone countless people swear by the invincibility of WhatsApp. To me, it proves what I have for long suspected. That the younger people of today (most below 35) are degenerate mentally.

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