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WhatsApp groups are a hazard and need to be recalled

The encryption of messages prevents law-enforcement officials and even WhatsApp itself from viewing what is being said

analysis Updated: Jul 13, 2018 12:09 IST
Facebook claims that because WhatsApp messages are encrypted, it has no control over their content. It is blaming the design of its product for the carnage it is causing. Facebook made similar excuses when the United Nations accused it of having “a determining role” in the genocide against Rohingya refugees in Myanmar — except that there was no encryption involved, just lax policy enforcement. (Bloomberg)

Defects in the design of WhatsApp have led to as many as two dozen people losing their lives. With its communications end-to-end encrypted, there is no way for anybody to moderate posts; so WhatsApp has become an uncontrolled platform for spreading fake news and hatred. If left unchecked, it will undermine India’s democracy itself.

A responsible legislature holds manufacturers liable for harms arising from defective products. The Consumer Protection Bill 2018, which the Lok Sabha is about to consider, increases the penalties and includes defects in product design. Broadening this to include online platforms may be the key to reining in Facebook. It needs to face stiff fines and criminal liability, otherwise it will have insufficient incentive to clean up its act.

Facebook claims that because WhatsApp messages are encrypted, it has no control over their content. It is blaming the design of its product for the carnage it is causing. Facebook made similar excuses when the United Nations accused it of having “a determining role” in the genocide against Rohingya refugees in Myanmar — except that there was no encryption involved, just lax policy enforcement.

The real issue is that Facebook’s business model relies on people using its platforms for practically all of their communications and news consumption. It wants to know each consumer better than their friends or family, so that it can enable marketers, governments, and businesses to send them targeted messages. This is how it makes its money. And, as we saw from revelations that emerged from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it readily turned a blind eye to the misuse of its platform as long as it got paid.

As Mark Zuckerberg’s former mentor, Roger McNamee, points out in his foreword to my new book, Your Happiness Was Hacked: Why Tech Is Winning the Battle to Control Your Brain—and How to Fight Back, Facebook is combining propaganda techniques initially developed by the UK government in World War I with addiction strategies perfected by the gambling industry to cause us to keep coming back to it for more and more.

These addiction techniques have their roots in the work of psychologist BF Skinner, who, in the 1930s, put rats into boxes and taught them to push levers to receive a food pellet. They pushed the levers only when hungry, though. To get the rats to press the lever more consistently, he gave them a pellet only some of the time, a concept now known as intermittent variable rewards. Casinos use this technique to keep us pouring money into slot machines; Facebook and WhatsApp use it to keep us checking messages and news feeds. We are the rats in the box.

We are never sure whether someone has shared, “liked”, or responded to our messages, so we return to our devices all the time. This induces release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter related to feelings of satisfaction. The good effect is very short term, though, and is often followed by longer-lasting feelings of frustration and regret at having wasted time and allowed another to hijack our brains and our attention — like having a hangover after we have had too much alcohol — and our health and mental state suffer as a result.

When Facebook added news feeds to its primary social-media platform, its intentions were to become the sole source of our information. It began by curating news stories to suit our interests and presenting them in a feed that we would see on occasion. Then it required us to see this newsfeed before we could see anything else. Once we were hooked, Facebook started monetising the newsfeed by selling targeted ads.

It was bad enough that, after its acquisition by Facebook, WhatsApp started providing Facebook with all kinds of information about its users so that Facebook could track and target them. But, in order to make WhatsApp as addictive as Facebook’s social-media platform, Facebook added chat and news features — something that it was not designed to accommodate. WhatsApp started off as a private, secure messaging platform; it wasn’t designed to be a news source or public forum.

WhatsApp’s group-messaging feature is particularly problematic because users can remain anonymous, identified only by a mobile number. A motivated user can create or join unlimited numbers of groups; and, when messages are forwarded, other than the word “forwarded”, there is no indication of the accuracy of the message or its true source. Messages’ encryption prevents law-enforcement officials and even WhatsApp itself from viewing what is being said. No consideration was given in the design of the product to the supervision and moderation necessary in public fora.

Facebook should be held liable for the deaths that WhatsApp has already caused, and should be required to take its group chat product off the market until its design flaws are fixed. It isn’t that WhatsApp can’t be fixed; there just isn’t enough motivation for the company to divert from developing new marketing products the attention it needs to fix it.

Rest assured: the technology industry always finds a way of solving problems when profits are at stake.

Vivek Wadhwa is a Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School and Carnegie Mellon University at Silicon Valley. His forthcoming book, Your Happiness Was Hacked, explains how you how you can live a more balanced technology life

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jul 13, 2018 12:09 IST