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December 14, 2016

What splits us? A WhatsApp case study


December 14, 2016


Like many of you must have experienced with your friends and colleagues, some of my friends, old classmates, acquaintances and colleagues all continue to create groups using WhatsApp, the communication software application that we access and use through our cell phones. Even random people whom we do not necessarily know personally but who have gotten hold of our contact numbers somehow create such groups and add us to their lists.

For many of us, there are fewer personal and individual messages from people we know among the large number of messages and posts received on different collective WhatsApp groups. Some are thematic – based around political commentaries, current affair news, art and literature, music and performing arts, etc. But some really active groups are those of alumni of different batches, classes or educational institutions, or co-workers in a commercial or a non-profit organisation.

Seldom does anyone ask you if you wish to be added to the group in the first place. However, you have the choice to leave the group. But leaving the group at times upsets those who have added you on the list because there is a public announcement on the group that such and such person has left. Some might infer on their own that maybe you found some post upsetting and so they try to add you to the group again. In my case, once I left a group twice and was added back again twice, I decided not to leave the group but stay dormant.

The story I want to share today is about four WhatsApp groups I continue to be a member of; they were set up over the past couple of years. Now two of the four have split into six groups, one into two groups and one has been closed after remaining split into two for some time. I apologise to my friends who have administered and moderated these groups and also some of those who have been members and had no role to play in splitting the groups. But I can’t help being disturbed by what I observed happening in these groups – each with 50-100 members at least. Most of these members are educated, affluent middleclass Pakistanis belonging to different trades and professions. Their ages also vary from 30 to 60. So they are all adults.

The first group was formed by some classmates of mine from engineering university. These practising engineers spread across four continents, serving in local industries, government institutions or the armed forces decided to link up with each other after so many years and share personal news and information and some political comments or links to articles. When the honeymoon period was over – which happened very soon – the group split into two after a few members had bitterly argued with each other. Soon after, there was a third group formed by some members who wanted to keep themselves above board.

The second group was formed after I visited the US last year and met some of my classmates from school. Many of us met after decades. One of them, a close friend who was not present there, spoke to us on the phone from the Middle East, saw our pictures and soon we had a WhatsApp group of class fellows from school days. The group first split into two and then three.

The third group I was added to by a journalist friend started earlier this year. He wanted to discuss matters of mutual interest which were largely around current affairs, civil-military relations, political parties, governance and accountability and media responses to major political and social developments in the country and the region. It took a little more than a week for the group to split into two. I somehow retained membership of both groups as the new moderator decided to add me to her group as well.

The fourth group was established by a friend and former colleague who is a music enthusiast with interest in both Western and Indian-Pakistani classical music. I did not know most of the people on the group but my friend added me to her list since she remembered my interest in such music from the days we had worked together. This group took the longest to split – six months. But then either both groups deleted me or they were both closed down.

Some of you might be thinking how trivial and uninteresting this information is. Thousands of WhatsApp groups are formed and then they disappear with time. Some continue but only a few people are active while the majority only reads the posts or sometimes does not even care to follow what is happening in the group. So what’s the big deal? Perhaps none. But what makes it all relevant in my humble view is that there is only one reason that made all these groups of close friends or classmates or peers or co-workers split – within no time after being formed.

It was the nature of the content, although variegated but thematically falling in the same area, posted by some members in each of these groups. This content was either directly religious or sectarian in nature or something which was objected to by some members on the basis of their own religion or sect.

Soon after exchanging pleasantries or posting and sharing things that interest everyone, some people begin to preach and proselytise. Loads of material, ranging from basic things that were taught to us virtually in Class 3 to faith-based commentaries on life and society, world affairs and political developments, is endlessly shared. Content from well-known preachers of different sects and sub-sects is shared on these groups, content that others would thoroughly disagree with. Some of this material is highly objectionable even by universally-accepted ethical standards. Besides, since everyone has a sect or a sub-sect or a particular school of thought or a different interpretation of history, those who do not share that view are seriously offended.

Some members group together and express their anger, leading to bitter arguments. Some do not express their displeasure and either leave the group or decide to become dormant.

Some friends continue to post material that in their own view of the world is not divisive but is rather aimed at making their fellow workers or friends more pious and God-fearing. But since some of us these days have such little information about or sensitivity towards other people and their beliefs, we fail to understand the divisions created by us. Also, there are some who post such material with a calculated intent to provoke or insult others.

People who continue to post preaching material also object to and block posts from other members including jokes or pictures or opinions or articles which are open or critical and challenge their view of the faith or the world. Hence, the groups split, friends and colleagues separate, some get angry and some get hurt.

This small personal example of observing what happens in a few WhatsApp groups is reflective of what is happening in our society and how we are increasingly fragmented. If there had been any faith in the humanity that religions profess or a serious belief in any humane political ideology, people wouldn’t be attacking and burning down places of worship.

They wouldn’t be bombing schools and they wouldn’t be threatening those who are different from them. They would be nice and kind to other human beings, they would be inclusive and plural, and they would be fair in their dealings. We are troubled and the way out for us is like finding our way out of a maze – a maze of confusion, anger, bigotry and intolerance.


The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]