For Pankaj Jain of SMHoaxslayer, the journey of quashing rumours, that began in 2015, has taken an ugly turn. Now, he has to dismantle fake news which can lead to lynching, riots and deaths.
A series of lynchings across the country recently led to the death of 27 people. The mob that killed them was triggered by a morphed video about child trafficking on WhatsApp. The incident pushed the government to address the situation and the IT ministry asked the platform to prevent the circulation of false messages and provocative content. This resulted in a host of measures by the instant messaging platform aimed at curbing fake content. On Tuesday, WhatsApp announced that it has added a new feature, 'forward', that would identify forwarded texts being sent on its platform. The instant messaging platform also rolled out advertisements in newspapers to educate the masses about fake news. But is this enough to curtail the spread of false messages, rumours in the country?
"This is not enough," says Jain of SMHoaxslayer. According to him, newspaper advertisements and the new feature put the onus on people to find out whether a news or message is fake but people don't really bother.
Jency Jacob, Managing Editor of fact-checking website Boom Live, seconds him and says that while a more discerning audience will probably be a bit more careful now when they forward these messages, a large number of people in semi-urban and rural areas don't have the ability to spot a false message.
India is the biggest market for WhatsApp and it hit 200 million monthly active users in the country earlier in February, growing from 160 million in November 2017. The growth came on the back of affordable data prices and rise in smartphone ownership in the country. However, now it seems the platform has bitten more than it can chew.
This is not the first incident of its kind but so far social media, Google have been mostly held responsible for propagating fake news and content. The role of these platforms in swaying the US presidential elections in 2016 brought the issue to the fore. But with the recent incident, WhatsApp is now in the spotlight and its parent company Facebook is in trouble again.
Despite presence of dedicated fact-checking platforms such as SMHoaxslayer, Boom, Altnews and initiatives from technology platforms, the spread of fake news has not been checked so far.
What are some initiatives which can be taken to keep them in check? According to Pratik Sinha, Founder of Altnews, a fact-checking website, this is not entirely the responsibility of WhatsApp. He thinks that government should introduce programmes to educate citizens about the issue. "The primary responsibility lies with the government. This is something that has to get to the population that belongs to the lower economic strata. Everybody forwards fake news but that section of the population is acting on it. So it is more urgent to reach them," he says. Jacob calls for various stakeholders, including government, media and technology platforms, to reach out to the people and spread digital literacy.
However, the task to curtail spread of fake news and messages on WhatsApp is not going to be an easy one, given the massive 200 million users it has in India and the stress it puts on privacy, which is the platform's USP.