Is Whatsapp doing enough to curtail Fake News in India?

These days the topic of fake news is being discussed a lot in India. Unfortunately, people are believing false news which resulted in the lynching in India (see this & this)

Many articles have been written on the topic of Whatsapp and fake news in India,

  1. WhatsApp ‘horrified’ over India lynchings
  2. WhatsApp rolls out Indian ads against fake news
  3. WhatsApp rolls out feature to highlight forward messages
  4. Now you can forward messages only to 5 friends on WhatsApp
  5. WhatsApp Rolls Out ‘Suspicious Link’ Label In Bid To Crack Down On Spam
Forward Label in Whatsapp

Forward Label in Whatsapp

There are many messaging apps being used in India – Whatsapp, Telegram, Hike, Signal, Facebook Messenger. Whatsapp is the king of all these messenger apps in India. Whatsapp caught on mainly due to its simplicity, very smooth to use, users see very less friction to use it.

The business use cases of Whatsapp in India is very interesting – matrimonial brokers, interior decorators, wedding event organizers, priests, they use Whatsapp to conduct their entire business.

Recently I wrote on two topics, a false narrative is more dangerous than fake news and how social media was fueling the reach of fake news (and disinformation).

With General Elections in India to be held in 2019, we can expect fake news to be on the rise. Other countries are facing the same problem during election time.

Whatsapp Ads about Fake News in Newspapers Not Enough

Whatsapp carried full-page ads in English and few regional language newspapers. Basically, they relied on offline media to talk about an online product. I didn’t see any online campaigns from Whatsapp to educate users about fake news.

And do people really understand what was being said in the print ad (image)?

Whatsapp Tells User ToMe Reads It As..
Understand when a message is forwarded90+% of users just forward a message. They want to be the first one to forward.
Question message that upsets youYes, I question it and I want more people to know why I am upset. Hence I forward the message!
Check information that seems unbelievableNow only if we were that intelligent.
Look out for messages that look different. Fake news usually have spelling mistakesSeriously?
Check photos in messages carefully. Look online for where the image came fromOn a mobile I need to save the image. Upload the image to Google or Do you expect all your users to do that?
Check links (URLs)People cannot detect suspicious links. (Whatsapp is adding the feature of warning the user of suspicious links, a good start)
Use other sources. Check if other websites have the same news.Instead, I would check 'fact checking sites' such as to see if they have flagged this story. But again, I am a techie and internet savvy, majority are not. So they won't bother to check the veracity. So they will just Forward, damage done.
Be thoughtful of what you share. If you are not sure, don't share.Yes, this is a useful tip.
Fake news goes viral. If the same message is seen on many groups it need not be true.Yes, this is a useful tip.

And why can’t Whatsapp send an educating message, warning message about fake news to its user base periodically? And if they do, let it not be in English and Hindi only, there are other Indian languages too.

Blaming Admin of Whatsapp Group Not Fair

Blaming an Admin of Whatsapp group for the posting of an offensive message or fake news is not right. Reason: What can an Admin really do after such a message was posted? Nothing (more on that later).

At times you become the Admin of the group unknowingly and it can get you into trouble.

In my college Whatsapp group, they made all members as Admins, so we ALL go behind bars together. First, we were classmates, later we may be cellmates.

Blaming Whatsapp alone is not correct. The users play a big role in spreading fake news.  We can expect to see a lot more of this as General Elections 2019 is not too far off. Bring in tough laws which will deter many to participate in sharing the unconfirmed news.

The government has to set up special courts to handle digital related cases and fast-track the hearing and judgments. Currently, important cases are being heard after a delayed period.

Media is writing about lynching but selectively. Unfortunately the religion of the victim is the deciding factor for the amount of coverage. A victim is a victim, a murderer is a murderer, they have nothing to do with religion.

New Features Needed in Whatsapp

  • Allow Group Admin to delete messages posted by members, this is the only way an Admin can take some useful action when he/she sees an offensive or fake message.
  • Introduce moderated groups, this will allow Admins to review messages before they get shared on the group.
  • Whatsapp must have a way to identify who originated the forwarded message.
  • Gmail, Twitter allow the user/reader to mark a message as Spam. Provide the same feature in Whatsapp.
  • The Forward label is of no use. It doesn’t prevent anyone from forwarding a message. Even if we assume the “Forward” label is doing its job, can everyone in India read that label in English?
  • Adding friction to forwarding by limiting it to 5 at a time is fine but most forwards happen on Groups. By sharing that ‘forward’ in one group the damage is already done. People tend to forward to groups more than to individuals. To lessen the burden of forwarding to people individually we create Groups, isn’t it?
  • If Whatsapp goes pay will it help curb fake news? Mischief makers can afford to pay to use Whatsapp but it will not prevent them from seeing and forwarding fake news.

Whatsapp should identify trending messages, even at the cost of privacy

  • Use algorithms to fight algorithms. The role of Facebook needs to be bigger as Whatsapp is owned by Facebook.
  • An AI solution needed to run a content cross-check for the news story against a dynamic database of stories. This may require a tie-up with fact-checking sites in India. Facebook has tied up with Boomlive for the very same purpose.

Twitter can identify tweets that are going viral, this is easy for them to do as tweets are public (even if your account is private, Twitter’s engine can see your messages). The same logic can be applied to Facebook. However, this is not the case with Whatsapp, the message is encrypted and even Whatsapp cannot view your message, this is the main reason why Whatsapp got popular.

Whatsapp needs to have a way to identify hate messages, viral messages (text, video, image) to save lives. Their algorithms must be trained to handle multiple Indian languages, else it will not be that effective. This comes at the cost of privacy. If there are tight internal controls within the Whatsapp organization, we can & should trade privacy for lives.

Whatsapp and its users have to do a lot more to curtail Fake News.

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