The Self-Righteous Battles of ‘WhatsApp Scholars’ and What I Learned from Them

“The deputy-trolls all played at once without waiting for turns, quarrelling all the while, and fighting for being noticed; and in a very short time the chief-troll was in a furious passion, and went stamping about, and shouting, ‘Off with his head!’ or ‘Off with her head!’ about once in a minute.”

– Adapted from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland

As a writer, one of the things that I find exciting is the comment section of an article. It resembles a violent video game full of trolls waiting for prey. This space was devised to engage with readers in a meaningful discussion but whoever thought of it did not know a thing about people. A large number of readers – trained by “real” knowledge on social media and messaging apps – are not looking for a conversation, but a good battle.

So this is what that space has become: a battleground where all-knowing “warriors” hurl disdain, abuses and threats with abandon, at writers, and their fellow readers they do not agree with. It is, really, a free country, so they actually go “off with his/her head” as frequently as they please.

I write on education-related themes: coaching classes, board examinations, school education and higher education – especially in the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). I also write about technology-related themes, particularly how technology interfaces with culture and politics. Specifically, these articles dwell on data, surveillance, fake news, social media and pseudoscience.

What I have learned from comment sections of various articles – that I have written and read – is that this section has voluminous amounts of “knowledge”, worth more than any encyclopedia. It is time to write and prescribe textbooks made out of this rapidly growing treasure trove of “knowledge”.

“WhatsApp scholars” are experts on everything. Not only has this destroyed respect for expertise, it has enabled beliefs that experts are mostly agents of conspiracies being executed on behalf of the “elites”. The most common barb is, “what do you know, we know”.

Here is an illustrative list of what I did not know: ancient aircraft indulged in interplanetary travel as a matter of routine, our 10,000 years old civilisation is the “best” amongst all human civilisations ever, biological evolution is humbug, Nehru died of sexually transmitted diseases, and drinking cow urine can save us from coronavirus. I also learned that no development happened in this country for the last 70 years, whatever has happened it has only been in the last six years. Indeed, regular experts had this loss of respect coming. What else did they think would happen after hundreds of years of their writing false science and history? The lesson is that one can never fool “the people”.

Also read: Black Squares: A Brief Takedown of Online Performative Activism

Two things are striking about this tale of competing expertise(s). First, “WhatsApp scholars” educate themselves through forwards containing sensational, mostly false material – or cleverly stated half truths – and this actually constitutes our wider “educational system”.

This “WhatsApp university” draws its “knowledge” copiously from demagogues and digital mobs that live on social media platforms, and other dark crevices of the internet. What is amazing is that many more people seem to prefer these sources, rather than science encyclopedias, reputed textbooks or trusted websites. Maybe this is because people like only those sources that tell them things they want to believe in and what their friends believe in. These “scholars” are also convinced that professional sources are repositories of false knowledge created with sophisticated cunning by the “elites” to mislead ordinary folks and keep them subjugated.

Two, what is striking is the tone of aggression in their expert comments. There is a self-confidence that is not dragged down by any doubt, even while they betray an appalling lack of any scientific awareness and critical assessment ability. Extreme simplicity is what defines their logic. Like, one reader argued that biological evolution is “just a theory” because it is often referred to as the “theory of evolution” – so it is unproven. It might therefore be applicable to the theory of relativity.

On the other hand, the rock-solid confidence that cow urine can cure COVID-19 disease – or even prevent it – stems from civilisational pride (“10,000 years”), not from any evidence. Though, of course, one can find enough fictional anecdotes and stories, floating on digital media, which then become evidence for the claim.

This logic is circular but is this not better than the convoluted “theories” that real scientists use?

Many battle-hardy readers are just keen to find a “solution”, quickly – they do not seem to care much for what is wrong, who is responsible and how it happened. Because why should they waste their time when they know that all of that analysis is just drivel promoted by the “elite”. Finally, it is the solution that matters and it should be the kind of final solution they like, else it is no solution at all.

I must confess that problems are simpler to catch and discuss, corresponding solutions are complex, often confounded by multiple layers, possibilities and the inevitable politics. Therefore, I often fail to provide solutions to simple-minded folks.

Consider this example: it is easy to identify that board examinations in India focus on regurgitation of classroom lectures and textbook material, their results suffer from unscientific moderation as well as grade inflation and do not actually correlate with student competence. But the solutions to tackle these problems relate to infrastructure, teachers, curriculum, pedagogy, resources, caste and class divides, and so on. That is a pretty vast set of things to explain about. So whatever is explained, it is always too little.

Then, one day, I realised that the final solution did not lie in this complexity; it was to be found in the profound simplicity of the “WhatsApp university” courses. These were free, all the studying was done using a great deal of discussions, and best of all, “classmates” were all like-minded friends. Who needed board examinations anyway!

Another example is that of fake news and how it is drowning out the distinction between truth and lies. The problem is easy to identify – it is all around us – as are its implications for rational thinking and political activities. But the solutions are complicated, involving the internet, social media, political polarisation, fake news factories of political outfits, lack of analytical and scientific thinking, and so on.

Complex, layered, multi-factor explanations and solutions do not find favour. Many readers think, just like US President Donald Trump does, that what I am calling fake is real. They argue that most of the curricular material for study, in their digital university, come from these very fake news factories. So what is the solution: just interchange the labels between fake and real news, and voila, the problem is solved.

Also read: The Rules of Online Engagement: It’s Time to Free the Internet

It looks like digital warriors are full of optimism. So anything disagreeable triggers the “full of negativity” remark. Many now believe that India is already a Vishwaguru, at least digitally. When I argued that online education is severely affected by the digital divide, in that poorer students will get excluded from the digital classroom, some readers got very cross and cursed  my ignorance. They said, “online education is the future” and that “technology will ensure education for all”. I learned then that the future is bright – everyone will have digital devices even though they could not afford chalk and slates but they wouldn’t need these anymore. A reader also revealed to me that I was a Luddite for the belief that technology does not have the solutions to everything.

Recently, I wrote that a COVID-19 vaccine must be tested sufficiently for safety and efficacy and not be released for public use in a hurried manner. It invited the charge of being a “prophet of doom”, and of putting out a “grim” writeup “full of negativity”. Some readers said “this (administering Covid vaccines) is like WAR” – some people may die but a much larger number will be saved.

This great and original idea somehow did not strike me. They probably wanted me to recommend that all vaccines – in any stage of development – should be administered immediately to all and sundry. If some healthy volunteers died, well their bad luck.

I have also wondered if all the scholarly stuff that I have read – about how vaccines are tested in large populations, and across long times, to check for efficacy – is just a conspiracy. It is said that non-efficacious vaccines provide a false shield. It makes people indulge in “normal” (risky) behaviour and can thus promote the sickness itself. But is that a bad thing? No, because we will acquire herd immunity by this out-of-the-box strategy, so then why the fuss. Along the way, even if too many people died, the survivors would have survived. Of course, the world is also overpopulated anyway, so this will solve another problem as well, for free. Double benefit, and win-win for all the living!

These scholars are also very angry people especially about things they disagree with. Rather obviously, most of their disagreements are with “anti-nationals”. Pointing out that a native Covid vaccine cannot be ready in a few weeks was considered anti-national. I earned the title of being a Chinese stooge even though I have no connection whatsoever with the Chinese.

The statement of a very obvious fact was taken as an assault on the “Indian-ness” of the vaccine, how we are not “proud of our achievements”, and spread “negativity about our country’s efforts”. Never mind that thousands of Indian scientists also spoke up to assert that such deadlines are ludicrous.

But then, come to think of it, if you don’t believe in the impossible, how will you make things happen? Remember the ad tagline, “Impossible is nothing!”

Anurag Mehra teaches engineering and policy at IIT Bombay. His policy focus is the interface between technology, culture and politics.