We recently told you about disturbing stories coming in from around the world relating to the spread of fake news over WhatsApp. Particularly nasty stories have been coming out of India, with people being lynched and beaten to death to due to fake reports of child snatching spread across the messaging platform. The Indian government has now responded to this fake news crisis and has asked the Facebook-owned company to take action.
In a statement made on July 3, India’s Ministry of Electronics & IT said:
“Instances of lynching of innocent people have been noticed recently because of large number of irresponsible and explosive messages filled with rumors and provocation are being circulated on WhatsApp… 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/sensational messages.”
Events like this are troubling, and it isn’t the first time that Facebook-owned messaging platforms have been used to spread fake news and incite violence. Messenger has been used to incite violence in Myanmarwith the UN pointing out that Facebook played a decisive role in the Rohingya crisis.
The Indian government’s statement on the current crisis engulfing WhatsApp makes it abundantly clear that it expects WhatsApp to act, saying:
“The Government has also conveyed 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.”
The statement, however, only talks about using “appropriate technologies,” to halt the spread of fake news, so it doesn’t offer a roadmap towards implementation. The problem is WhatsApp’s, and India expects it to act.
WhatsApp definitely needs to do more, but this is a very simple position for the Indian government to take. It is a position that ignores the cultural issues that are maybe contributing to the spread of fake news. After all, WhatsApp is available in countries around the world, but most of the violence caused by the spread of fake news is coming out of India.
This report from the BBC shows the extent of the problem facing WhatsApp and the Indian Government – Warning: contains disturbing scenes.
In response to the Indian statement, WhatsApp has said that the problem is beyond the control of the messaging service alone. The Wire reports that WhatsApp sent a letter to Ministry of Electronics & IT in India saying:
“Like the government of India, we’re horrified by these terrible acts of violence and wanted to respond quickly to the very important issues you have raised…”
But then adding that it is a problem:
“…that requires government, civil society and technology companies to work together.”
The messaging service cites a number of recent changes that should help stem the spread of fake news. These include forwarded message notifications, increased admin control over groups, and the funding of academic research on misinformation and fake news. These actions alone, however, will not solve this problem. Education is going to be the most significant tool available to the people trying to fix it.
The people using WhatsApp need to learn to recognize fake news stories before spreading them or, even worse, becoming involved in a mob that will act on them. WhatsApp has committed to efforts in this direction with fact-checking organizations like Boom Live already available on the messaging service but is also clear that it is a job for the Indian government to take up also.
The spread of fake news and resulting acts of misplaced violence is a serious and complicated problem that will not go away soon. The Indian government, WhatsApp, and individual community leaders will have to work together to help bring it to an end. A long and challenging education program lies ahead, but fortunately, everybody involved has the perfect weapon for teaching important lessons to people in rural parts of a country like India. WhatsApp alone isn’t to blame for the recent violence in India, but it is part of the problem. If used correctly, there is nothing to stop it from being part of the solution also.