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Facing govt ire over lynchings, WhatsApp says it alone can't stop rumours

At least 3 people have died recently after being beaten up by crowds because of false messages regarding child abductors being spread through WhatsApp

Mayank Jain & Kiran Rathee  |  New Delhi 


In the wake of the recent lynchings in the country, the government has told WhatsApp that it cannot evade accountability and responsibility when people are killed.

But the instant messaging platform informed the Centre that it will not be able to solve the fake news problem alone.

IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said that WhatsApp cannot just say that it was merely a creator of the platform, adding that finding a technological solution to identify mass circulation of messages on a particular issue in a particular area cannot be rocket science.

“Use, abuse, and misuse of your platform, particularly which leads to killing of innocents is not acceptable,” the minister said. On its part, WhatsApp has sought collective action from the government and the civil society to curb the spread of hoax messages.

ALSO READ: WhatsApp says 'horrified' by lynchings, will act to stop deadly rumours

“We believe that false news, misinformation, and the spread of hoaxes are issues best tackled collectively — by the government, civil society and tech companies working together,” the company wrote in a letter to electronics and IT ministry. Business Standard has also seen the copy of the letter.

WhatsApp is among the world’s biggest messaging platforms with more than 200 million active users in India. However, the company has been facing flak recently because of the rising menace of fake news and incendiary messages being spread on the app through large groups.

ALSO READ: Lynching deaths: Govt warns WhatsApp over fake news triggering violence

“India is emerging as a big digital power. WhatsApp has seen the biggest spread in India, along with Facebook and Twitter. While we welcome WhatsApp completely, it must remain accountable and answerable,” Prasad said.

About a dozen people have recently been beaten up by crowds because of false messages on child abductors being spread through WhatsApp. Of them, at least three have died. The government took a strong view of this and wrote to the California-based company about its “deep disapproval” of the app and called for “immediate action” to contain the flow of misinformation through “appropriate technology”. In its response, however, WhatsApp has written that it remains committed to keeping users safe and its strategy is two-pronged to achieve its goal. Firstly, the company will provide people with information to stay safe and secondly, it will prevent the misuse of the messaging platform, the letter stated.

ALSO READ: Data processing and storage tussle cloud WhatsApp Payments launch in India

“On Tuesday, we announced a new project to work with leading academic experts in India to learn more about the spread of misinformation, which will help in additional product improvements as well as help our efforts to block bad actors,” the company wrote.

Prasad also asked WhatsApp will work in a coordinated manner with the IT ministry, home ministry and the police. “In any state, area, day, or on a particular subject, there is a movement of large volumes of messages on WhatsApp. It is not rocket science that it cannot be discovered by application of tech,” Prasad said.

WhatsApp added that it has introduced a couple of recent changes in the way chat works on the app such as the ability to block an unwanted user and report activities. Similarly, the app also introduced a feature which allows group admins to decide who gets to send messages in a group. Additionally, a new feature, which will mark each forwarded message with a special label is also in the works. This will tell users that the information is likely to be untrustworthy.


“This could serve as an important signal for recipients to think twice before forwarding messages because it lets users know if the content they received was written by the person they know or a potential rumour from someone else,” the company wrote.

The company’s letter, however, also points out that WhatsApp remains largely a private medium to converse in India as 25 per cent of the people are not present in any groups. At the same time, most groups have less than 10 people and 90 per cent of messages are sent from one person to another, privately. The company also made it clear that because of its end-to-end encryption, it can’t actually see the content of the messages and block them on the basis of that. But, it uses technology to gauge the spread of the message.

“Since we cannot see the content of messages being sent, we block messages based on user reports and by the manner in which they are sent. We use machine learning to identify accounts sending a high volume of messages (faster than any human could) and we are constantly working to improve our ability to stop unwanted messages,” it wrote in the letter.

  • 200 million Number of WhatsApp users in India
  • 90% Messages exchanged privately between two individuals on WhatsApp
  • 25% People who are not in any group on WhatsApp
  • Less than 10 Strength of most groups on WhatsApp
  • 12 People beaten up by crowds in response to fake news recently
  • 3 Persons dead in lynchings against fake child abduction news spread through WhatsApp

First Published: Thu, July 05 2018. 00:20 IST