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In India election, a $14 software tool helps overcome WhatsApp controls

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Source: Reuters

WhatsApp clones and software tools that cost as little as $14 are helping Indian digital marketers and political activists bypass anti-spam restrictions set up by the world’s most popular messaging app, Reuters has found.

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Rohitash Repswal, a digital marketer, checks a WhatsApp message that he sent using a software tool that appears to automate the process of sending messages to WhatsApp users, inside his office in New Delhi, May 8, 2019.

The activities highlight the challenges WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook Inc, faces in preventing abuse in India, its biggest market with more than 200 million users.

With fervent campaigning in India’s staggered general election, which concludes on May 19, the demand for such tools has surged, according to digital companies and sources in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its main rival, the Congress party.

After false messages on WhatsApp last year sparked mob lynchings in India, the company restricted forwarding of a message to only five users. The software tools appear to overcome those restrictions, allowing users to reach thousands of people at once.

Divya Spandana, the social media chief of the Congress, and the BJP’s IT head, Amit Malviya, did not respond to requests for comment.

Rohitash Repswal, who owns a digital marketing business in a cramped, residential neighbourhood of New Delhi, said he ran a 1,000 rupee ($14) piece of software round-the-clock in recent months to send up to 100,000 WhatsApp messages a day for two BJP members.

“Whatever WhatsApp does, there’s a workaround,” Repswal said during an interview at his small, two-bedroom house.

Reuters found WhatsApp was misused in at least three ways in India for political campaigning: free clone apps available online were used by some BJP and Congress workers to manually forward messages on a mass basis; software tools which allow users to automate delivery of WhatsApp messages; and some firms offering political workers the chance to go onto a website and send bulk WhatsApp messages from anonymous numbers.

At least three software tools were available on Amazon.com’s India website. When purchased by a Reuters reporter, they arrived as compact discs tucked inside thin cardboard casings, with no company branding.

WhatsApp declined a Reuters request to allow testing such tools for reporting this story.

“We are continuing to step up our enforcement against imposter WhatsApp services and take legal action by sending cease and desist letters to hundreds of bulk messaging service providers to help curb abuse,” a spokeswoman said. “We do not want them to operate on our platform and we work to ban them”.

WHATSAPP CLONES

Modified versions of popular apps have become common as technically-savvy hobbyists have long reverse-engineered them. Tools purporting to bypass WhatsApp restrictions are advertised in videos and online forums aimed at users in Indonesia and Nigeria, both of which held major elections this year.

For Indian politicians, WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter are key campaigning tools to target the country’s near 900 million voters.

Two Congress sources and one BJP source told Reuters their workers used clone apps such as “GBWhatsApp” and “JTWhatsApp”, which allowed them to cut through WhatsApp’s restrictions.

Both apps have a green-colour interface that closely resembles WhatsApp and can be downloaded for free from dozens of technology blogs. They are not available on Google’s official app store but work on Android phones.

WhatsApp describes such apps as “unofficial” and says its users can face bans, which means the company can block the account associated with a particular mobile number if it detects unusual activity. Some Congress workers said they did not care.

“WhatsApp occasionally bans some of these numbers, but the volunteers would use new (mobile) sim cards to sign up,” said a Congress member with direct knowledge of the activities.

In Mumbai, a person in the social media team of a senior BJP candidate said no restrictions on JTWhatsApp meant his team could easily send forwards to up to 6,000 people a day, as well as video files containing political content which would be far bigger in size than allowed on the official WhatsApp service.

Reuters was not able to ascertain the overall scale of such activities and found no evidence that BJP and Congress leaders officially ordered workers to campaign this way.

“BUSINESS SENDER”

In New Delhi, digital marketer Repswal said he would typically charge 150,000 rupees ($2,161) for a month’s service for creating digital content, providing a database of mobile numbers and then sending 300,000 WhatsApp messages.

He uses a piece of software named “Business Sender” which he said he also sells for 1,000 rupees ($14).

A person can add many mobile numbers in a field and compose messages with pictures. Using a so-called “Group Contacts Grabber” feature, the user can also extract a list of mobile numbers from a particular WhatsApp group with a click of a button.

Repswal didn’t name the two BJP members he worked for, but in a demonstration for Reuters, added dozens of mobile numbers in the software, typed a test message saying “your vote is your right” and hit “send”. Then, his WhatsApp web version started delivering the messages almost robotically, one after the other.

Business Sender was “not supported or endorsed” by WhatsApp and was developed by “Tiger Vikram Mysore INDIA”, its system properties said.

A member of the software support team at Business Sender, Rajesh K., declined to identify the developer by his real name, but said the tool was designed in Lebanon about four months ago and takes advantage of what he called a “loophole” in WhatsApp’s system.

“This is not rocket science or fabricated software,” said Rajesh. “There are hundreds of such software available.”

In April, when a Reuters reporter responded to a text message with an “Election Special” offer of sending 100,000 “bulk WhatsApp” messages for 7,999 rupees ($115), he was invited to an office in a dusty industrial area of Noida in northern Uttar Pradesh state.

“How many messages you want to send, tell us: 10,000, 1 million, 2 million,” a representative asked, while showing a black-coloured, password-protected website they use for sending bulk WhatsApp messages.


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24 Hours Across Africa

Building collapses leave dozens trapped in India.

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Sudden collapse of An old four- storey building in India’s financial capital of Mumbai on Tuesday has leave more than two dozen people trapped,with at least four confirmed dead, a fire department official said.

Image result for Four dead and dozen trapped in India.

It was the second such collapse around Mumbai in less than ten days. Torrential rains that lash the city during the monsoon often destabilize older or badly constructed structures and this has led to multiple collapses over the years.

“We don’t know exactly how many, but with the input provided by neighbors, we estimate more than 30 could be trapped,” said the official, adding that rescue operations were hampered by narrow lanes in the area.

Devendra Fadnavis, chief minister of Maharashtra state in western India, said that based on initial information around 15 families were living in the building which he said dated back 100 years.

He said the focus was on rescue efforts, but that the government would open an investigation. Police said at least seven injured people had been taken to hospital.

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Woman Marries 300-Year-Old ‘Jack Sparrow’-Type Ghost Pirate

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Amanda Large Teague was meditating the first time she says she met the ghost of a 300-year-old Haitian pirate.

She thought he was rude to interrupt her solitude, so she told him to leave. Then he showed up again.

The third time he visited, Teague, of Belfast, said she decided to talk with him.
After she communicated with the ghost for several months, Teague said, she became convinced that he was Jack Teague, who she later claimed had inspired the character of Captain Jack Sparrow in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies. (Experts challenge these assertions.)


Teague’s beliefs, which fall under the umbrella of New Age spirituality, test the boundaries of what types of faith people in Western cultures are willing to accept.

Though experts say Teague’s story is an outlier and not representative of most New Age spirituality, the range of beliefs – which includes reincarnation and astrology – is more common among Americans than it may seem.


Teague told The Washington Post that she started exploring spirituality after her 3-month-old son, Thomas, died of sudden infant death syndrome in 2010. She considered herself agnostic until then but afterward felt compelled to figure out her beliefs.

Her journey of spiritual discovery led her, she said, to marry Jack in July 2016 on a boat on the Atlantic Ocean in a ceremony officiated by a self-described shaman. She then added “Teague” to her last name.

Since Teague, 46, went public in January 2018 with her marriage to Jack – and later, their separation – international news outlets have expressed bewilderment at her choice of spouse: “Wife of ghost pirate bares her soul over break-up,” blared Scottish newspaper the National.

“Love is dead: Woman divorces 300-year-old pirate ghost husband,” pronounced Orlando television station WKMG. In May, the Daily Mirror publicized the de-possession Teague said she had needed to get rid of Jack.
Teague told The Post that she knows people call her crazy.

She’s aware some speculate that she’s schizophrenic. But, she said, people around the world put their faith in seemingly unlikely stories every day.
“If you believe in God or angels, if you believe in anything that’s not of this earthly realm, then you believe in spirit,” Teague said.

“So why would you find what happened to me beyond the realm of possibility?”
Teague researched several religions in the wake of her son’s death, but none seemed right – except Wicca, a subset of paganism that teaches oneness with the divine, of which all living beings are a part.

She said she felt as if her son became a shell of himself after he died, and Wicca’s teaching that people’s spirits leave their bodies when they die jibed with that feeling.


Teague now identifies generally as pagan, although she still feels drawn to some elements of Wicca.

She said she and Jack had a two-part wedding: the ceremony performed by self-described Celtic shaman Patrick Eamon Carberry, who she said was a legal wedding officiant in Northern Ireland, and a pagan ceremony that drew from Wiccan tradition several months later.


Wicca has exploded in popularity in the United States in recent decades. Surveys by Trinity College in Connecticut found that 340,000 people identified as Wiccan in 2008, compared with 8,000 people in 1990, Quartz reported.

Although the Pew Research Center estimates that Wiccans and pagans make up just 0.3 percent of the country, 60 percent of U.S. adults – including people who practice traditional faiths and those who are religiously unaffiliated – accept at least one belief that would be considered New Age.


In New Age spiritualities, communicating with people who have died is common.

Pegi Eyers, author of “Ancient Spirit Rising: Reclaiming Your Roots & Restoring Earth Community,” told The Post that New Age practitioners frequently consider themselves to have relationships with spirits.

Teague’s situation, though, is less common. Eyers said she could not be sure whether Teague genuinely believed she had married the ghost of a Haitian pirate.


“She’s hanging out with the guy all the time, and they decide to get married, and he’s dead, and she’s living,” Eyers said. “This is a new one.”


Teague’s trauma of losing her young son may have caused her to go into a dissociative, trance-like state that can facilitate dreamlike experiences, said T.M. Luhrmann, an anthropology professor at Stanford University who studies the supernatural.

Instead of becoming memories, Luhrmann said, the experiences someone has while in trance can remain alive and enable the person to repeatedly return to them.


People also can develop ways to perceive that an invisible being is talking back to them, Luhrmann said. She said Christians, for example, may consider their spontaneous thoughts to be God speaking, and children often have invisible friends.

Teague, Luhrmann said, may have developed a relationship with Jack because she is psychiatrically peculiar or because she wanted to write a book. (She did.) Whatever the reason, Luhrmann said marrying a ghost is uncommon in Western cultures.


“It has a certain place within paganism. It’s not so different from ‘invisible others’ in general,” Luhrmann said. “It’s not so different than what kids do. But in the end, she’s clearly a little unusual.”


To supplement her job as a publicist and entertainment manager, Teague said that in 2015, she started to impersonate Jack Sparrow by donning black dreadlocks, a mustache and a red bandanna – like Johnny Depp’s version of the buccaneer – and adding “Sparrow” to her name. (She later removed it.)

After she met her future spirit husband in 2015, Newsweek reported that Teague said the pair would go to Dublin for romantic getaways, argue and have sex, like any other couple.


David Head, a history professor at the University of Central Florida who studies pirates, told The Post that he could find no reference to a real pirate named Jack Teague.

In the 1700s, Head said, Haiti was a French colony called Saint-Domingue – and “Teague” is a generically Irish name. Sparrow’s father in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, however, is named Edward Teague.


Teague said when she and Jack married in international waters, a medium spoke for Jack to give his consent to the marriage, and the officiant filed the legal paperwork with Northern Ireland.

Winifred McConnell, a registrar in Belfast, told The Post that a wedding on the Atlantic Ocean could not have been registered in Belfast because marriages must be registered in the district where they took place.

Teague said she and Jack also had a pagan “handfasting” wedding ceremony in which two witches – practitioners of Wicca – wrapped cords around the couple’s joined hands to symbolize the binding of the pair.


Most of Teague’s friends at the time were part of the same spiritual circles as she was, so she said they immediately supported her relationship with Jack, as did her four living children from a previous marriage.

Teague’s parents had more questions about their daughter’s relationship. Her mother eventually came to the shamanic wedding, but not to the handfasting. Her father, Teague said, came to neither.

Teague memorialized her relationship in a 2017 book titled “A Life You Will Remember.” In that version of the story, she encounters Jack Sparrow sleeping in Belfast’s Victoria Square, transported from the past.


Paganism is non-credal and does not require adherents to conform to certain beliefs, said Holli Emore, executive director of the online Cherry Hill Seminary, which teaches about pagan and nature-based spiritualities.

Pagans are bound primarily by a belief in interconnectedness and the sense that all life is a part of what is holy, Emore said.

She said Teague’s Pagan outlook may have opened her to the belief that spirits exist and that she can have relationships with them.


“I try not to look down on what might be a meaningful experience for somebody else,” Emore said, “but I can’t say I understand it.”


Two weeks after she married Jack, Teague said, she encountered serious health problems and became convinced that her husband was causing her ailments. Teague said she asked Jack to leave, but he told her he would kill her if she tried to escape him.

She cut ties with Jack anyway and in December went through a “soul extraction,” similar to an exorcism, performed by a self-described shaman. Eventually, Teague said, Jack left, and her health dramatically improved.


In shamanic practice, “soul extractions,” or de-possession, can take various forms.

Mary Rooker, a shamanic practitioner in Takoma Park, Maryland, said a shaman might grab a ghost and force him to cross over out of the earthly realm. The shaman might also try to convince the ghost to leave, Rooker said.


Now, Teague said, she wants to warn people to be careful about dabbling in New Age spiritualities. She said she was lured into it while she grieved for her son and did not expect to feel she had lost control over her own life.


“I would really say to people who are thinking about getting into this: Be really, really, really careful,” Teague said. “And if somebody is not telling you about the dangerous side of it, run a mile.”


Rooker said the experiences that Teague may have imagined are, in a way, very real. It’s important to ask why she might have conceptualized that story and not some other one, Rooker said.


“Does she somehow have the pirate’s memories or those of one of his lovers then?” Rooker wrote in an email. “Is it all a metaphor somehow for some trauma she experienced? Lots of possibilities exist.”

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