When India last held a general election in 2009, the country had fewer than 50 million internet users – a mere four percent of the population at the time. But as voting begins today in India’s newest general election – a marathon that runs through to the counting of the votes on May 16 – things have changed. And that means, as the country now grows closer to a quarter of a billion web users, the way people access the news is evolving as well.
For this election, the BBC is reaching out to readers and the public via messaging apps. Trushar Barot, assistant editor of the UGC and Social Media Hub at BBC News, says in a blog post that the broadcaster realizes these services – like WhatsApp, WeChat, Line, Viber, Nimbuzz, and BBM – “aren’t just ‘chat’ apps but effectively mobile-first social media channels.”
Breaking news on WhatsApp and WeChat
That’s why, in a pilot program, the BBC has signed up for WhatsApp and WeChat to disseminate news in India. On WhatsApp, anyone can add +919650801273 to their contacts to get updates from the broadcaster. WeChat has long supported brand accounts, and so this new one can be found by searching for the ID ‘BBCNewsIndia’ in the ‘official accounts’ section. The new accounts operate in Hindi and English. This is how it looks inside WeChat:
— Trushar Barot (@Trushar) April 4, 2014
WhatsApp is not designed for this kind of thing, and it has limitations compared to the flexibility of WeChat and the way it handles brand accounts. But perhaps WhatsApp, now that it’s under the wing of Facebook, will add in this kind of functionality soon.
WhatsApp has over 40 million monthly active users in India, where it seems to be growing at the rate of about five million new active users per month. There are no India-specific numbers for WeChat, but the app is not as popular as WhatsApp in most countries, as its popularity lies mainly in China. But Tencent started promoting WeChat heavily in India in 2012, and the app claims to have over 100 million registered users outside of China – that’s out of its total base of 355 million active users.
(Hat-tip to BGR India for spotting this)