Art + Photo Essay

Dissecting Tejas Pande’s WhatsApp-Free University

The fastest-growing institution of knowledge dissemination in the country is the Great Indian Whatsapp University. Boasting a repertoire of cutting-edge journalism and seminal works in Global Affairs, Public Policy, Law, STEM, Literature, Medicine and more – Whatsapp University alumni are placed in the best of jobs all over the country, ranging from politics to corporate gigs to homemaking. If WU is not your alma mater, you would at least know two people from your immediate family who are alumni. And thank God that you do; let’s be honest, how else would you have found out that UNESCO has so graciously declared the Indian national anthem as the best in the world?

Jokes aside, with increasing mobile penetration and cheaper access to mobile internet, the percentage of active WhatsApp users is rising steeply. While urban India takes the lead, rural India is catching up fast. According to statistics, from 2017 to 2018, the number of WhatsApp users has doubled in rural India. WhatsApp is one such platform that has transcended class boundaries and is being increasingly used by middle and lower-income communities as well. This surge in usage has motivated the circulation of fake news, misinformation, disinformation, politically motivated vitriolic messages on an unprecedented scale. A large number of active users tend to forward messages without factual verification, thereby multiplying their reach relentlessly and eventually helping them go viral. Case in point: India during Diwali aerial shot that gets circulated every damn time.

The entire Whatsapp University ecosystem gestures towards a larger problem of the stark lack of digital literacy within Indian communities, regardless of class status. The solution, contrary to what you might imagine, might be quite simple – artist Tejas Pande has executed something no one else has even thought of.

Meeting Tejas

Tejas Pande is a queer artist who works as a communications specialist at Azim Premji University. Prior to that, he has worked as an information designer-policy researcher at various think tanks. He loves cities big and small, information in all forms, and wonders if his Instagram Reels game will ever be strong.

As part of Pro Helvetia’s open call entitled ‘Now On’ Tejas created his brainchild ‘WhatsApp-Free University.’ The open call invited creative responses to overcome the current pandemic and its impact on the core work of promoting arts and international arts exchange. Of the 100 applications received, eight were chosen for the ‘Now On’ grant, where artists and organizations came up with new mediums and innovative formats to continue artistic creation, research, development, presentation, and collaboration. Out of the eight, the ‘WhatsApp-Free University’ is remarkable in more ways than one.

Through short video forwards, Pande’s interactive project encouraged engagement with one’s cognitive biases with respect to social media use. By analysing and producing content for WhatsApp groups in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities in Maharashtra, Pande invited members of the group and beyond to reflect on their own biases.

Born and raised in Aurangabad, Pande is fascinated by the  information cultures of Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities in India – his home city being no exception. He continues to say, “These forwarded messages have a lot of content created by individuals known and unknown to us. And, the volume of messages exchanged is truly overwhelming that spans a wide range of topics.

To me, such information cultures are synonymous with anonymous authorship, no clear ownership of information, high levels of trust amongst readers, and use of interpersonal relationships to create strong dissemination networks. They become ripe for building relationships, peer-to-peer learning, and rampant spread of misinformation/disinformation at the same time. But, what we lack at the moment is an impulse within us that makes us want to fact-check. Our lives are governed by innate cognitive biases and filter bubbles (societal and algorithmic) that impede our ability to reflect critically in dense information environments.

This Herculean responsibility of bringing critical thinking to our social media use is what prompted me to set up WhatsApp-Free University.”

According to Pande, given the toxic, and often overtly misogynistic, nature of social media interactions, it was necessary for him to create content that attempted to subvert it using queer tactics like camp and humour.

“Each video needed to understand and address how WhatsApp use is perceived amongst the audience through personal conversations and discussions in popular press/personal networks. Key ideas were converted into a video script to suit the rhythms and tongue-in-cheek qualities of popular Bollywood songs used as a soundtrack for each video. I pantomimed to support the text (any opportunity to flail my body around in sexy clothes is welcome, to be honest). Since the audience for the videos predominantly spoke and read Marathi, the primary language for video text was Marathi, with English subtitles running at the bottom of the screen. All videos were filmed inside my apartment.”

He goes on to say that conversations with his mother and a few other people have enriched his understanding of the kind of WhatsApp groups they are on, the content in circulation, the group dynamics and so on. “Albeit a very small sample, it began to offer some insights into the nature of interactions between people of a certain demographic.”

Misinformation/disinformation discourses are aplenty in urban circles, especially within younger internet users. Pande remarks that there is a lot of focus on educating young audiences on issues like privacy, access, security and verifiability but parental generations are ignored as they’re consumed by the currents of WhatsApp.

“While I did not exactly have an exclusive demographic in mind, I did want to focus on middle-aged smartphone-first internet women users (mostly) living in urban Maharashtra. In addition to guaranteed access to WhatsApp group members through my mother, I understood Marathi well enough to pick up on linguistic nuances, signals, and implicit biases in the messages shared on WhatsApp. I wanted to create a series of videos explaining how technology, information, and the self are interacting with one another to create dense and dynamic information cultures across locations and social groups. I focused on immediately relatable experiences of WhatsApp use based on feedback provided by audience members. Care was taken to make sure that videos maintained tonal neutrality. Each video used behavioural traits to create an interconnected narrative about the creation, consumption, or dissemination of information within social groups. To this effect, ‘biases, intent, trust, relationships, and free will’ were addressed through four videos.”

On being asked what motivated the creative vision of his project, he said, “Once I decided what my ‘intervention’ was to be (WhatsApp-Free University videos), I thought about its reception amongst my target demographic. How would I want to structure the tone of the videos so that people engaging with them did not feel attacked in any manner? I needed to make sure that the content of the videos remained accessible to those who did not usually reflect on the consequences of information sharing and its veracity.

To make them approachable, I created videos that would make a viewer feel entertained and curious while being offered an argument about various aspects of information sharing on WhatsApp (‘I love this song! Is he seducing a pillow? What about my relationships with people?’). Otherwise, one runs the risk of coming across as very preachy. Or worse, boring. In my kitty of skills as a performer, I had a few tools to work with: an animated face, a moving body, and an undying love of camp aesthetics. It was a source of joy and a guiding principle, be it music, choreography, or pantomime.”

WhatsApp University students never take a break. In fact, the latest trends reflect that they work extra hard on public holidays and in times of emergency. The pandemic and consequent nationwide lockdown had also unleashed thousands of COVID-19 cures, dubious claims, and unverified, unscientific ‘facts’ that either contributed to creating panic, a false sense of assurance or jingoism.

Here is what Tejas had to say about the same: “A lot of well-meaning people share a lot of unhelpful and inaccurate information. Communities across India struggled to believe official channels of communication. This problem was compounded by their longstanding lack of trust, widespread suffering, police’s heavy-handedness and administration’s apathetic and/or oppressive policies to contain the virus. In such times, there was little that fact-checking services could do to keep up with the levels of shared information. The ripple effect of this can be seen in the way standard Covid protocols (such as wearing masks, maintaining physical distance, washing hands, getting tested, etc.) have been rejected in favour of immune fortification alone. We owe the severity of the current second wave ravaging India, in small part, to squeezing lemon in nostrils, drinking Giloy or Malegaon kadha, or vigorously practising pranayama every day while avoiding testing, vaccination, and diligence in following protocols without giving in to emotional fatigue.”

So far, Pande’s project has engaged with audiences from Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities in an unprecedented way and he has found success in his methods. But according to him, WhatsApp-Free University’s journey has just begun.

“The University’s focus, as ever, will continue to be creating ways of engagement that increase digital literacy and critical thinking for WhatsApp users. We understand that WhatsApp operates on a peer-peer learning model, wherein people learn from one another. Any meaningful change will need to rely on this network of learners. We just want to make the process a little easier.

One of the things I learned was the importance of creating relevant content useful for us in regional languages that can be disseminated quickly and just how much it is missing in circulation. So, we would be working on translating more content from English to Marathi.”

The ultimate test of every project, be it personal or bureaucratic, is in the result it produces. For this particular one, it was to see if participants alter their WhatsApp lifestyle.

“Amongst all the responses that the videos got from participants, what stood out for me the most was people’s desire to exercise agency in an attempt to fix the problem. So, they believed that regulating individual-level use was the only solution. Manipulated/incorrect information is more a systemic issue rather than an individual one. Even if we shun WhatsApp, we will always end up engaging with people who might have believed manipulated/incorrect information because they received it on WhatsApp. And, if we believe what they believe because we trust them, that WhatsApp forward has achieved its purpose.”

In the whirlwind of discourses about digital culture and literacy that dominate intellectual circles on social media and elsewhere, there is little attention being paid to addressing other niches of the digital ecosystem. We can only hope to see artists, creators and researchers like Tejas Pande to proliferate to bring a revolution in how digital spaces are accessed by persons across the nation.

Find Tejas Pande on Instagram.

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