WhatsApp has over 2 billion users around the world, and India alone accounts for a quarter of that userbase, touting over 500 million active accounts. Meta tried a lot of ways to monetize the service in the country, and its recent push to get businesses on the platform has proven to be a winner — at least for Meta. For users, not so much.
I've been getting an increasing number of spam messages on WhatsApp over the last two months, and it is now at a point where it is continually frustrating. What makes it worse is that all of these messages are from businesses that should not have been able to contact me in the first place.
It started innocuously enough with my bank; it started touting all the services available on WhatsApp, positioning the platform as an alternative to calling customer service. That was fine, but immediately after that I started getting marketing messages from the bank's insurance and home loans divisions, and they were sent from a different account, so I had to individually block those numbers.
The trickle turned into a deluge in December and January, and I started getting marketing texts from a cavalcade of brands, including Myntra, Borosil, Eureka Forbes, P&G, M&S, Domino's, Tanishq, and Cult Fit. Now, I bought something from each of these brands in the last 12 months, and while I didn't sign up to receive messages, it's increasingly clear that WhatsApp is becoming an extension of SMS.
I get similarly inundated with SMS spam on a daily basis — I average four spam messages — but I don't see any of it thanks to SMS Organizer. But that isn't the case with WhatsApp as these messages show up alongside chats from my friends and family, so I have to manually blacklist businesses. Meta outlined its stance on how businesses can contact customers in a statement to TechCrunch last year, in which it clearly states that these messages are meant to be opt-in:
"Messaging is the new way to get business done, better than an e-mail or phone call. Our rule is that people always need to request to receive updates before a business can message them, and we empower people with easy ways to block a business or report a problem at any time."
"We constantly work with businesses to ensure messages are helpful and expected, and we have limits on the number of messages they can send per day. Getting this right is important for us as well as the businesses and most importantly the people we serve."
It's clear that brands are flouting this guideline, because with all of the brands I listed above, there wasn't a single instance where I came across a check box that asked if I wanted to be contacted over WhatsApp.
Did something change on WhatsApp in India? Over the last few days I’ve gone from having almost no spam to 50% of all messages I receive are spam from various business accounts.October 19, 2022
Just when I thought which brand was missing on my @WhatsApp chats while trying to spam me without my giving them explicit approval to target here, here comes @ChaiPoint_cares pic.twitter.com/1Aq5vXb5pAOctober 10, 2022
What is particularly infuriating is that I've started receiving spam messages from brands I've never interacted with. The most egregious is EaseMyTrip. I haven't used the service to date, and the few times I booked flights using an aggregator, it was via MakeMyTrip.
But EaseMyTrip somehow got my number, and it started sending a wave of messages about ongoing deals on its platform starting in December. And when I blocked the number, it started back up again using a different number. I now have three instances of EaseMyTrip in my blocked contacts list, and none of these is registered as a business.
In a similar vein, I got messages from Croma, CakeZone, Beardo, Olx Autos, Angel One, Neemli Naturals, Intermiles, Dohful, IndusInd Bank, and Ekam in the last 30 days. I didn't buy anything or interact with any of these services previously, and in the case of Angel One, I didn't know that it was a brokerage firm until it started sending me messages.
While I started seeing an increase in spam over the last two months, it's not a new phenomenon, and Rest of World did a good job chronicling the issue. WhatsApp is still an intrinsic part of India's digital ecosystem, but with the push toward business messaging, Meta has turned the service into a hellhole of spam in the country.
Google faced a similar issue when RCS was enabled in India, with Messages sending out a wave of spam to users. Thankfully, Google acted soon enough and disabled businesses from using RCS to send out ads, and I don't see Meta doing something similar in WhatsApp.
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Harish Jonnalagadda is a Senior Editor overseeing Asia at Android Central. He leads the site's coverage of Chinese phone brands, contributing to reviews, features, and buying guides. He also writes about storage servers, audio products, and the semiconductor industry. Contact him on Twitter at @chunkynerd.