WhatsApp terms India trip productive, says top challenge remains fake news
Senior executives from instant messaging service WhatsApp, owned by Facebook Inc., described their week-long trip to India as “productive” and said their “top challenge” continues to be fake news as the company searches for an India head in this time of crisis.
“As you know different members from WhatsApp have been here in India for several days. We wanted to meet the government face-to-face to discuss the exchange of letters. The top focus in our meetings was fake news. We also talked about (WhatsApp) payments. This is just the beginning. Our goals for users in India are aligned with the government, including aspects like financial inclusion and digital literacy,” a Whatsapp executive who was in India this week, said on condition of anonymity.
The executive’s reference is to the letters sent to WhatsApp by India’s ministry of electronics and information technology (MeitY). WhatsApp in India has come under scrutiny after forwarded messages on the platform allegedly incited mob fury, triggering multiple cases of lynching across the country, where there are more than 230 million monthly active users of the platform.
A decision on WhatsApp’s payments services is still pending approval by the government. The WhatsApp team also met officials from the Election Commission (EC), the executive said, but added they had not met with any political parties.
The executive said WhatsApp was scrambling to find an India head. To be sure, parent Facebook has not had a country head since October last year.
Earlier this month, WhatsApp announced plans to limit the use of forwarded messages to five individuals or groups in a bid to curb the spread of misinformation and fake news in India, one of its largest markets. The number is significantly lower than the limit of 20 for users elsewhere.
In addition, WhatsApp launched a new label to identify forwarded messages. It also plans to create a system for preventing the spread of fake news and provocative texts in consultation with academic experts and law-enforcement agents. “We have been working on these changes for the last two years. We could have a done a better job of testing these sooner,” added the executive.
The limit on forwarding messages will go live by next week.
The company’s representatives also met with organisations such as the Digital Empowerment Foundation and the Cyber Peace Foundation to conduct digital literacy workshops with a WhatsApp specific curriculum. This is essentially an elaborate version of the full-page ads WhatsApp published in key newspapers in the country to help users identify fake news in 10 ways.
Osama Manzar, founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation, confirmed the meeting with WhatsApp. “We had a pre-workshop meeting with WhatsApp. It was a demo/ model workshop in Jaitpur with about 40-50 people. The workshop was attended by school and college students, working women and housewives...” he added.
According to Rahul Matthan, partner at law firm Trilegal, and author of Privacy 3.0: Unlocking Our Data-Driven Future, it is difficult to solve the fake news problem on Whatsapp. “The core issue is the news that is labelled as forwarded is unlikely to change someone’s belief that it’s fake news. Fact checking a platform like WhatsApp is harder compared to social media...,” he added.