The messenger service used by 200 million Indians has to walk the talk.
WhatsApp has responded to a notice from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (full text here). The notice had asked the company to explain what it was doing to prevent the spread of “irresponsible and explosive messages” on its platform.
Sadly, WhatsApp’s response is nothing but hot air.
The response begins and ends by emphasising that tackling the problem is not WhatsApp’s responsibility alone – the government and civil society have to step up too. Fair enough. But what has WhatsApp done so far?
Since May last year, 29 people have lost their lives to a single rumour – that of child kidnapping. In different parts of India, people have lynched ‘outsiders’ after having been warned on forwarded WhatsApp messages that such outsiders will try to kidnap children. In another incident, a WhatsApp rumour led to the lynching of two men thought to be robbers. So, the death count stands at 31.
In many incidents of social tension and violence, such as the recent clashes between Sikhs and Khasis in Meghalaya, WhatsApp rumours were responsible for sparking the problem.
And what is WhatsApp’s response to something so serious? The first point it makes is that the app has a block button.
It reads, “And if someone who is not in your address book sends you a message, WhatsApp automatically asks if you want to block or report that user. We’ve also recently made a number of changes to group chats to prevent the spread of unwanted information…”
But the problem is not ‘unwanted information’. People share fake news and misinformation believing it to be true, and more people believe it because they get it from people they know and trust.
There’s nothing new in WhatsApp’s response to the government. The company says it is testing a label that will clearly mark forwarded messages as forwarded, but we’ve already known this.
The elephant in the room is encryption, and the letter makes a spirited defence of it for reasons of privacy. But when WhatsApp rolled out end-to-end encryption last year, it should have known that law enforcement will become even tougher. End-to-end encryption doesn’t allow even the company to read messages. They are not stored on any server.
That is why other technology solutions, such as the forwarded label, should have been introduced long ago. Those are being tested only now.
Immediately after the ministry sent its notice, WhatsApp announced a competition to fund academic research on use of WhatsApp for the spread of misinformation. That is how late thecompany is on safety issues in its largest market: it is now commissioning research on misinformation.
Appropriating independent efforts
The issue of fake news and misinformation through social media has been on top of the mind for more than a year, in India as well as internationally. Under fire in the United States and globally for it, WhatsApp’s sister organisation Facebook has been trying to do something about it. For one, Facebook in India has tied up with fact-checking organisation BoomLive.
WhatsApp’s response to the ministry says “Boom Live is available on WhatsApp”, which means nothing. Everybody is available on WhatsApp. BoomLive is not a fact-checking partner of WhatsApp the way it is for Facebook. By trying to slyly suggest that it has a partnership with BoomLive when it does not, the company is only fooling itself.
The reply claims, “We regularly put out information that explains how to spot fake news and hoaxes”, but this writer hasn’t seen any evidence of that. The truth is that WhatsApp has been ignoring and neglecting safety issues in its largest market and no amount of platitudes can make up for that.
The company claims it is planning to step up educational campaigns. It also mentions how it has tied up with news organisations in Brazil and Mexico, and is now planning to do something similar in India.
After 31 lives have been lost, it is still planning.
Just like it is trying to appropriate BOOM Live’s work to pretend it has been doing something, the same is the case with its claims on local policing efforts. The response says the Hyderabad police has created a WhatsApp account on which anyone can send a message with the rumours doing the rounds and check if those are true. Great. But, what did WhatsApp do here?
It also mentions Telangana IPS officer Rema Rajeshwari’s efforts to spread awareness against fake news and rumours. She’s doing a great job, but what is WhatsApp doing to help efforts like hers? Nothing. “Soon, we will start an engagement programme with law enforcement officials around India,” the company says.
Across India, fake news and rumours spreading through WhatsApp have become a major headache for police. People are getting lynched to death every other day. A heated election season is upon us. WhatsApp’s response to the growing challenge is nothing but empty talk.