India wants WhatsApp to get a grip on fake news

Watch out.
Watch out.
Image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic
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WhatsApp has been pulled up by the Indian government over a spate of killings across the country sparked by rumours spread on the world’s largest messaging app.

On July 03, India’s information technology ministry said that a large number of “irresponsible and explosive messages filled with rumours and provocation” are being circulated on the Facebook-owned social media platform, leading to the lynching of innocent people in states like Assam, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tripura, and West Bengal.

“Deep disapproval of such developments has been conveyed to the senior management of the (sic) WhatsApp and they have been advised that necessary remedial measures should be taken,” a statement from the ministry said. ”It has also been pointed out that such (a) platform cannot evade accountability and responsibility specially when good technological inventions are abused by some miscreants.”

India has witnessed a series of mob-lynching incidents over the last couple of years. In recent weeks, they have taken a turn for the worse. Since May, at least 16 cases of lynching have been reported. Many of these killings were sparked by paranoia over child kidnappers, fueled by rumours spread on social media. Other reasons include provocative messages circulated online.

“It has been noticed that SMS, WhatsApp and social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are being widely used for transmission of fake images and videos as well as text messages which have potential to incite violence in the state at a larger rate,” AK Shukla, the Tripura state police chief, told India Today.

WhatsApp is the most popular messaging app in India today, with over 200 million active users. To its credit, the app has given thousands of small businesses a digital presence, helping them reach more customers.

However, given its wide reach, the app has also been used extensively over the years to spread fake news.

WhatsApp, meanwhile, has begun to take evasive action. On July 03, it said it had commissioned a set of global awards for researches studying the spread of misinformation.

“Through this new project, we look forward to working with leading academic experts in India to learn more about how online platforms are used to spread misinformation,” a company statement said. “This local research will help us build upon recent changes we have made within WhatsApp and support broad education to help people spot false news and hoaxes.”

The WhatsApp Research Awards will fund independent research proposals to understand safety problems and to see what the company can do about them.