Fake news in India: WhatsApp launches ways to counter spread

The Facebook-owned messaging app is starting an awareness campaign in India on how to spot fake news and rumours. The first step in this regard is placing advertisements in English and Hindi dailies. Later this week, it aims to publish similar advertisements in regional dailies across India.
The company launched another feature for beta users which will highlight suspicious links shared on the platform in red. The use of this feature is still being tested and may make it to the stable build soon.

Forwarded messages will be demarcated clearly in order to help users understand that the message is not original.

WhatsApp has also launched an 'Admins Only' feature which only allows admins to post in a group.

WhatsApp has over 1.5 billion users across 180 countries. India is its biggest market with almost 200 million users. WhatsApp is widely popular as it's free, available on multiple devices and also has reached places where there's low connectivity.

According to SFLC.in's Internet shutdowns tracker, India had 70 Internet shutdowns in 2017, and in the first six months of 2018, there were 65. The cases of Internet blackouts and shutdowns in India are on the rise over the last few years. Most of these orders are given under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which authorises state governments to take action to curb unlawful assemblies or to prevent apprehended mob violence. The recent cases of mob attacking and killing some people have yet again triggered the need of censoring news on WhatsApp.
In India, a country with over a billion phone subscribers with access to cheap mobile data, false news messages and videos can instantly go viral, creating mass hysteria and stirring up communal tensions.
Group texts, where fake news spreads most easily, are still a minority: 90% of messages are between two people. But it's the group messages that allow fake news to spread easily as users are part of many groups.
Another major drawback of using WhatsApp is traceability of content. Everything on the platform is encrypted end-to-end at the device level - all data is stored on the device and not on servers. So, WhatsApp does not know what is being discussed.
> A mass text circulating on WhatsApp in some parts of Madhya Pradesh instigated a mob of 50-60 villagers to savagely beat up two innocent men last week.
> A WhatsApp text warning of 400 child traffickers arriving in Bengaluru led a frenzied mob to lynch a 26-year-old migrant construction worker.
> Fake messages about child abducters also led to the lynching of two men in eastern India earlier this month.

The Ministry of Information Technology and Electronics on Tuesday had raised concerns about the violent fallout of the fake messages on social media platforms.
Replying to government's concern, WhatsApp has said that curbing the spread of false messages through its platform is a challenge that requires a partnership between the tech firm, civil society and the government.
The company has said that it is trying to learn more about the way misinformation spreads by looking into various data sets it has access to.
Last week, Facebook-owned WhatsApp added a feature that will let only administrators to send messages to a group. The feature provides an option which allows only the administrator to write or post in the group. The rest of the members can read the posts but cannot comment or reply.
Besides, all users can block anyone from messaging you with just one tap. 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.

WhatsApp has also announced a new project to work with leading academic experts in India to learn more about the spread of misinformation, which will help inform additional product improvements going forward.
Many countries have banned WhatsApp from time to time to contain spread of fake news. WhatsApp was discontinued in 12 of 65 countries - Turkey, Zimbabwe, Azerbaijan, Qatar, UAE, Bangladesh, China, Morocco, Egypt, China, Saudi Arabia - in 2016 and 2017 over fake news.
Uganda has introduced a social media tax to check online gossip, among other objectives.
According to Harvard University's journalism initiative Nieman Foundation, private groups in Mexico have set up a fact-checking initiative, that tries to intervene in the spread of fake news.
Source: Agency reports