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WhatsApp needs to do more to curb fake news and rumours, say experts

HT asked policy and tech experts to read the letter sent by WhatsApp to the government on measures listed to prevent the spread of false information in India, and whether the messaging service was doing enough. Here’s what they said:

india Updated: Jul 06, 2018 12:19 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
New Delhi, Hindustan Times
WhatsApp,Fake news,Rumours
Fake videos and rumours of child-lifting circulated via WhatsApp have triggered lynchings in at least eight states.(Bloomberg file photo)

Instant messaging service WhatsApp has listed measures to prevent the spread of false information in India even as the government underlined the need for the Facebook-owned firm to do more while calling its response “prompt”.

The measures were listed in a letter written in response to a government missive expressing “deep disapproval” about WhatsApp’s inability to prevent the spread of “irresponsible and explosive material”.

Fake videos and rumours of child-lifting circulated via WhatsApp have triggered lynchings in at least eight states.

Hindustan Times asked policy and tech experts to read the letter sent by WhatsApp to the government on Wednesday. They were asked —Is Facebook-owned WhatsApp doing enough to curb the spread of misinformation on its platform?

Here is what they said:

Ananth Padmanabhan, fellow, Centre for Policy Research

Technology can never be perfectly regulated using legal instruments and coercion. It requires a combination of instruments including behavioural norms and technology features. To the extent technology features can be used to address the issue of misinformation, WhatsApp appears to be on the right track.

Reliance on deep learning tools is no different from how PayPal successfully addressed fraudulent transfers using pattern analysis. Digital literacy, addressed towards better behavioural norms, is again a long-term goal. A major gap in this letter (sent by WhatsApp to government) though is on the issue of suspending user accounts based on assessment of their behaviour. Any such policy needs careful thought as free speech concerns are implicated.

Apar Gupta, lawyer

No (they are not enough), misinformation and propaganda cannot be stopped at the platform level within WhatsApp without compromising privacy. It is important to consider this as it’s an instant messaging platform and not a social media network with public posts. It seems as if the government is putting the onus of maintaining law and order on WhatsApp. We’re noticing the failings of modern public broadcasting, which is inadequately funded and has witnessed political interference.

Sunil Abraham, founder, Centre for Internet and Society

The steps that WhatsApp has enlisted are not enough in terms of scale to address this problem in India. If it took partnerships with 24 media firms in Brazil, which has a population of slightly over 200 million and 97% of the population speaks in one language, then in India given the number of languages and the size of our population it will take at least a 1,000 such partnerships to bring about any meaningful change here.

Pratik Sinha, co-founder, Alt News

Ideally, WhatsApp should have taken these steps a while back. Since this is an election year, we see a lot of platforms checking boxes and making changes to their privacy policies. WhatsApp is a global company but it must understand each country they are present in on a case to case basis and implement changes accordingly. India is low on digital literacy and has a history of mob justice.

The company needs to use tools that can detect the source of origin of the original video or photograph. They have not laid enough emphasis on decision-making. Content going viral and the subsequent surge in traffic is good for business. WhatsApp needs to do more to help people find out whether a message is true or false thereby eliminating a large majority of misinformation.Having said that, the government is shirking its responsibility by throwing WhatsApp under the bus. Yes, encryption makes it difficult for law enforcement agencies to find the bad actors but lynching is not a new issue. The government has not taken steps to run awareness programs to tackle the problem.

First Published: Jul 06, 2018 12:18 IST