WhatsApp begins its difficult battle against fake news in India

WhatsApp begins its difficult battle against fake news in India
Credit: OpenClipart-Vectors / Pixabay

Following a recent string of lynchings across India, largely fueled by misinformation spread via WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging service is responding to the government’s demands to tackle the issue of fake news and rumors on its platform.

RS Prasad, the country’s current Union Minister for Law and Justice, and Electronics and Information Technology, called on WhatsApp to focus on security-related aspects of its service last week, as India is its largest market with more than 200 million users.

WhatsApp responded the same day, saying it wanted to work with the government to tackle the spread of fake news. One of its major initiatives kicked off today, in the form of an ad campaign in national newspapers in various languages, that lists a number of steps people can take to battle misinformation.

Here’s the English version:

WhatsApp's latest ad for newspapers in India describing ways to battle fake news
Credit: WhatsApp
WhatsApp’s latest ad for newspapers in India describing ways to battle fake news

The company previously announced a program to award researchers looking into the spread of misinformation among communities.

It’s also currently testing a feature that labels forwarded messages so that recipients can distinguish whether it’s already been doing the rounds, or if it was composed by the sender.

That seems to be different from the upcoming ‘Suspicious Link’ label, which has been spotted in a beta version of WhatsApp’s Android app by WABetaInfo, and labels messages that include links that may redirect you to different sites entirely.

That’s a start – but as I wrote last week, the government’s reaction to the spate of killings, i.e. blaming WhatsApp, reflects its myopic view of the systemic issues that led to these incidents, and its failure to assume at least partial responsibility for them.

WhatsApp can certainly look into technological solutions for quashing the spread of misinformation as best as it can with encrypted messages. That can help to some degree, and it’d do well to pore over learnings from its parent company, Facebook, in this regard. But ultimately, India’s political leaders need to engage communities to better understand what’s fueling their paranoia, their need to spread fake news without questioning its veracity, and their need to sidestep law enforcement agencies and resort to vigilantism.

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