The narrative structure of a WhatsApp forward

Abstract Mar 24, 2020

With a global pandemic on full swing and lockdown on many cities of the nation, I, like most citizens, have locked myself behind the doors of my house.

With so much time on my hand, thanks to quarantine, I started reading numerous WhatsApp forwards to entertain myself. These messages contained a trove of erroneous information but were so hilarious I overlooked them.

Soon, I started noticing similarities in these messages. So, I decided to find out what ingredients these messages use and are there any underlying structure for these messages.

After reading, analysing, and breaking down a lot of such messages, here’s what I found:

These messages contain:

  1. Appeal to the reader’s pride in national and cultural heritage:

A very important reason these forwards work is the emotional appeal in them. The messages implore the readers by using words like ‘Countrywide efforts’, ‘mentioned in Puranas/Vedas’, ‘Proud to be an Indian’,  etc.

2. Claims supported by a prestigious scientific organisation, astrological events, or philosophical reasoning:

Your mentions of NASA, UNESCO, WHO, etc. come here. But these are not alone. Mentions of astrological events like Amavasya, Poornima, the position of planets and stars, etc. also find their way in such messages.

It is a very simple trick to make an unsuspecting reader trust the information in the message.

3. Use of first-person plural pronouns:

Plenty of these messages are written in first-person plural pronouns. It is an easy trick to allow the reader to connect with the emotions behind the message because of the first-person pronouns and plural ‘we’ or ‘us’ gives the reader a sense of belonging. The reader feels that they are not alone and are a part of a group.

4. The germinal idea:

The most important thing in the message is the ‘germinal idea’. It is the information the message has to spread. The idea is worded simply and can be summed up easily.

5. Lastly, emojis of the Indian Flag, Namaste, Aum, etc. also crop up in these messages from time to time.

The narrative structure:

Now that I knew the ingredients these messages employ, I moved on to understand the way they appeared in the message. Was there a formula to structure the above-mentioned ingredients into a cohesive message? I decided to use the popular ‘Rule of 3’ to understand the structure.

The message is, usually, divided into three parts ‘The Hook’, ‘The Butter’, and ‘The Noose’.

Part 1 - The Hook:

The reader may have a very small attention span, and so the message has to hook them early on. This is usually done with an interesting statement to communicate the germinal idea, but sometimes the names of scientific institutions like NASA, UNESCO, etc. can act as the hook too.

Not everyone will read the complete text message and therefore the germinal idea has to appear as early as possible.

Part 2 - The Butter:

Although, the reader is hooked and the germinal idea is communicated, but the chances that the reader is completely sold on the idea is very low.

Therefore, The Butter provides the message with a credulity. This is done by mentioning the names of various institutions, person, equipment, or astrological events.

This part of the message is worded to sound like facts but are usually false.

Part 3 - The Noose:

The reader may have bought the facts mentioned in Part 2, but the message needs their blind faith. So, the message now ties a noose around the readers by appealing to their emotions.

This can be done by using one's pride in nation, culture, history, or religion. This part plays a fairly important role because emotions are powerful enough override to logical decisions.

Sprinkle in a few emojis and the ‘Fake WhatsApp Forward™’ is now complete. ‌‌

– Saaransh Mishra

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