WhatsApp in India has been in the news for all the wrong reasons from the past few months. Recently, the Indian government has asked the messaging service to crack down on the spread of fake news after a spate of deadly mob lynching attacks. But how helpful would this be? Let us find out.
What made the government to take a harsh stance towards the messaging service? According to the home department, at least 17 people across India have been killed so far in the last three months, while media outlets report a higher number of dead people.
The rumors of child kidnappings spread through the WhatsApp has been the reason behind these killings. The police are also finding it hard to make people believe in the authenticity of the messages.
One of the latest incidents that happened in the north-eastern state of Tripura, involved a local government official who was employed for reaching out to the villages with a loudspeaker. He was tasked with informing the village locals for not believing the rumors being spread on the social media messenger. But he became a victim of his job.
The Indian government has vowed to take action against the service and holds WhatsApp responsible and accountable for the content shared through its platform.
What made the situation worse?
This new wave of mob lynching is alarming and shows no sign of abating. According to India’s telecoms regulatory commission, there are more than one billion active connections in the country and millions of people are joining online services rapidly.
For these users, a smartphone is the first source of connecting to the Internet. Especially the people from the rural areas are inundated with information. They are mostly unable to distinguish between real and fake news. They usually tend to believe whatever is sent to them.
India is WhatsApp’s biggest market with an estimated 200 million users. It is also the single largest Internet-based service available to the people making it one of the most prevalent messaging service with tremendous reach. Due to this reach, messages are not only spread massively but also enables mobs to gather quickly.
Being primarily a private instant messaging app, people tend to believe the information they receive from their friends and family members through WhatsApp. That is why people do not find it necessary to double check the news before believing it.
This phenomenon is only going to go worse when more people in India join the Internet network through their mobile phones. Most of those people would be from the lower socio-economic paradigm with lower levels of literacy. These people consume music and video; the latter of which is the easiest way of spreading fake news. Videos with fake captions misrepresent events. Anyone can share an old video of a brutal killing and describing it as something recent. In a few minutes, it goes viral on other networks, including Facebook.
The other reason why this situation worsened is the end-to-end encryption provided by the WhatsApp. This means that the messages are not stored on WhatsApp servers. This means that the service itself is unable to monitor the content shared through it.
The government seems to be out of its depth while law and order officials are at loss over how to deal with the fake viral stories on the WhatsApp. They are unaware of how to engage with technology companies to solve this issue.
Is WhatsApp to blame?
Although WhatsApp is shocked at the recent incidents of mob lynching, it has declined to makes any changes to the way it encrypts messages. It calls the situation a challenge that requires government, and civil society in particular, to play their role alongside technology companies for controlling this.
WhatsApp wants to keep the nature of its messages still private, but it has outlined several steps to address this problem. This includes:
- Enabling the users to leave WhatsApp groups and block people spreading false information.
- Running long-term public safety ad campaigns.
- Collaborating with local NGOs to help dispel the rumors spread through it.
- Starting an engagement program with law enforcement officials.
- Labelling messages as “Forwarded” that has been shared from elsewhere.
- Limiting how frequently a message can be shared.
What needs to be done?
WhatsApp cannot solely be blamed for this. A better awareness of smartphone use among the general public is needed. For this, here are some of the steps that can be taken:
- If all messages are treated as private, they should not be allowed to copy-paste or forward in chat threads.
- An option of flagging the objectionable content should be introduced.
- A mandatory video about how the platform works should be introduced to the first-time users.
- Merely targeting a messenger would be wrong instead of targeting the disseminators of misinformation. This needs to be tackled at the source.
Lastly, monitor the smartphone use at the individual level. Parents, employers, and schools should not allow the misuse of smartphone and use monitoring solution like Xnspy to check the spread of any fake information.