India asks WhatsApp

India asks WhatsApp
New Delhi wants the Facebook-owned instant messaging app to weed out “fake news” in India. WhatsApp is an instant messaging service owned by Facebook. WhatsApp enjoys unparalleled daily usership, ease of access and an easy-to-use interface which has made it the most popular messaging app online. Its...

New Delhi wants the Facebook-owned instant messaging app to weed out “fake news” in India.

Background

WhatsApp is an instant messaging service owned by Facebook. WhatsApp enjoys unparalleled daily usership, ease of access and an easy-to-use interface which has made it the most popular messaging app online. It's simple one-touch-to-forward function enables a person to send large tracts of text, multimedia and voice note to multiple recipients instantly.

India is one of the largest user bases for WhatsApp, with many small-scale organisations adapting the WhatsApp model to conduct their daily business over the app. It has been generally remarked that Indian WhatsApp users have a characteristic trait of forwarding large volumes of messages to their contacts, akin to the chain-email phenomenon of the early 2000s. While this may result in pleasant “Good Morning” messages, it is also a fertile conduit for rumours, or more accurately, “fake news”.

Analysis

India has told WhatsApp, the private messaging service, to establish a formal presence in the country, including a local grievance office, as the government seeks to tackle the use of the app to spread “fake news”.

In a meeting in New Delhi on Tuesday, Chris Daniels, chief executive of WhatsApp, was told by Ravi Shankar Prasad, India’s information technology minister, that the government was deeply concerned about the way the platform was being misused to spread baseless rumours and incite violence. 

“We must find solutions to these challenges, which are downright criminal and a violation of criminal laws,” Mr Prasad said after the meeting. 

Mr Prasad said WhatsApp had been ordered to immediately appoint a local grievance officer to deal with complaints and set up a proper corporate entity in India that could be held accountable.

“We do not appreciate a scenario where any problem will have to be answered in America,” Mr Prasad said. “No. That is not acceptable.” 

The menace of “fake news” is no endemic only to the United States, and there have been human casualties as a result of people using WhatsApp to spread fake news.

In recent months, rural India has seen a series of mob lynchings by crowds of angry villagers incited by inflammatory WhatsApp rumours warning families about child abductors lurking in their communities. 

Among the casualties of this violence was a UK-educated, Hyderabad-based IT professional killed in Karnataka, and two friends — a musician and an engineer — killed in the tea-growing state of Assam. In both cases, crowds were mobilised by WhatsApp alerts claiming that the innocent passersby were child kidnappers. 

Mr Prasad said Mr Daniels had assured him that Facebook-owned WhatsApp would comply with these requests, cooperate with law enforcement and set up a public awareness campaign to prevent misuse of the platform. “You must have proper compliance with Indian laws,” he said.

Indians are the world’s biggest users of WhatsApp, forwarding more messages, photos and videos than those elsewhere. The company is also eager to roll out its payments services in India, where it has already been running pilots for several months with nearly 1m users. 

But the company is under growing pressure from New Delhi to find ways to clamp down on fake news and incendiary rumours circulating through its systems. 

In order to restrict the reach of a particular message, WhatsApp announced in July that it would limit message forwarding in India so that users in the country could not forward messages to more than five groups at once.

As India is slowing, but steadily, gaining access to the Internet, it is becoming easier for radical elements to fool the larger audience using half-baked truths and ginned up stories.

Assessment

Our assessment is that the Indian government is trying to hit two targets with one stone. India is gearing up for a volatile election year ahead before the May 2019 polls, therefore it is prudent of the Indian government to shut down any malicious news or rumours, irrespective of what they insinuate or who they target. We also feel that there is a genuine concern regarding the recent lynchings in rural India, which were caused by baseless, inflammatory WhatsApp messages.

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