India’s general election, in which 900-million people will have the chance to vote by May, is the world’s biggest example of democracy. It is also a worrying experiment in the future of digital debate. WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging service on which Mark Zuckerberg has based his company’s future, has advertised to persuade Indians to stop using it to spread false rumours. India is not WhatsApp’s only trouble spot — it is also implicated in a fall in vaccination rates in New York City as worried parents pass on scientific misinformation about autism. Social media are going private as governments belatedly tackle the abuses that plague Facebook and other open platforms — election propaganda, hate speech and online bullying. Zuckerberg dubs it a shift from town square to “the digital equivalent of a living room”, although WhatsApp’s group limit of 256 people would fit in few living rooms. Hyperbole is the least of his problems, or of the private version of digital democracy he ...

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