Indian government on Tuesday night officially warned WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, after viral and fake messages on the platform led to lynching of over two dozen people in the country in last few months.
In the latest incident, five people were lynched by a mob in Maharashtra on Sunday after rumours spread through WhatsApp that they were child abductors.
Although, lynching of people is a more of a law and order problem even if WhatsApp has made it easier to spread fake or malicious information, Indian government in its statement noted that WhatsApp and Facebook will have to find a solution to this problem. “The government has conveyed (to Facebook) in no uncertain terms that WhatsApp must take immediate action to end this menace and ensure that their platform is not used for such malafide activities,” noted a statement issued by Ministry of Electronic and IT.
With lynchings taking place in the country almost every week, mostly by a mob gathered to stop “child abductors”, the government is under pressure to act. The government on Tuesday said WhatsApp must take responsibility of policing its platform.
“While the Law and order machinery is taking steps to apprehend the culprits, the abuse of platform like WhatsApp for repeated circulation of such provocative content are equally a matter of deep concern,” an IT ministry spokesperson said. “Deep disapproval of such developments has been conveyed to the senior management of the WhatsApp and they have been advised that necessary remedial measures should be taken to prevent proliferation of these fake and at times motivated and sensational messages.”
It added that WhatsApp must come with a technology solution to curb fake news. “It has also been pointed out that such platform cannot evade accountability and responsibility specially when good technological inventions are abused by some miscreants,” said the government.
It will interesting to see the response of WhatsApp and Facebook to the India government directive. The problem for WhatsApp is that it can do little, especially immediately. In a bid to keep the chat app simple to use, and hence particularly more accessible to first-time internet users, who are also more prone to believe fake information, WhatsApp has not built any proper mechanism through which it can stop fake information from spreading. It has also not built enough safeguards within the app that can help WhatsApp or law enforcement agencies find the people spread fake information.
In response to the fake news problem, WhatsApp has so far said that it can do little because the end-to-end-encryption in the chat app doesn’t allow it to look into the content of message. That means it can’t screen the messages for fake or malicious content, or do a keyword based filtering, something that Facebook or Twitter can do. The chat app also doesn’t have any proper mechanism to report fake messages, or to trace the origins of a malicious message.
Although in the recent weeks, it is seemingly making some effort. Just this week it rolled out a new feature that allows group admins to restrict WhatsApp messaging in a group. Once the feature is turned on, only group administrators can send messages in a group, effectively turning WhatsApp into a one-way chat app and reducing the probability of fake messages going viral. At the same time, WhatsApp is also reportedly testing a feature that will tag forwarded messages as “forwarded” so that people take those messages with skepticism.
However, given the nature of the chat app, these measures that WhatsApp is taking are likely to be too late, too little to curb its misuse. In India, WhatsApp has over 200 million users and nowadays the chat is not only used for personal conversations but also for group chats, business chats, for sharing photos and videos and in limited cases even for payments through its integration with India’s United Payment Interface.
News credit : Indiatoday